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Dan Brown in Hell

The author of The Da Vinci Code has a new tale to tell.

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Inferno, by Dan Brown, Doubleday 463 pages, $29.95.

I once watched Oprah Winfrey try to explain what a meme is. When I say meme, I don't mean one of those captioned photos that people post on their Facebook feeds; I mean Richard Dawkins' notion of an idea that replicates itself and mutates the way a gene replicates itself and mutates. But Winfrey apparently misunderstood the concept and—in an inadvertent demonstration of memetic mutation—described memes as negative thoughts that get stuck in your head and hold you back from doing your best. In this way, millions of daytime-TV viewers got the impression that memes were something out of a self-help book.

Reading Dan Brown write about culture and science is like watching Oprah Winfrey explain memes. The plot of Inferno, the phenomenally popular novelist's new thriller, centers around transhumanism, a movement that celebrates the enhancement and accelerated evolution of the human mind and body. But Brown reduces transhumanism to just one of its interests—genetic engineering—and, bizarrely, has the two transhumanists who appear in the book be obsessed with the alleged threat of overpopulation.

Now, it is not impossible to imagine a transhumanist who also endorses severe population-control measures—stranger combinations have happened—but the transhumanist movement that exists in the real world tends to be skeptical about such anxieties. Brown, on the other hand, is full of 1970s-vintage population-growth hysteria, and his characters periodically pause to lecture one another about the ways unchecked breeding threatens the human race. (As in Brown's most famous book, The Da Vinci Code, the plot of Inferno consists largely of a long chase punctuated by infodumps.) My favorite of these lectures includes an actual chart depicting the various "negative indicators" that are "accelerating" with the world's population. If you squint at the small print, you'll see that these indicators include not just ozone depletion, species extinction, and other actual bad things, but "foreign investment" and, even more strangely, gross domestic product. Brown apparently has a strange idea of what a negative indicator is—or, more likely, he didn't bother to edit a chart that he found in an online PowerPoint presentation.

In the real world, there are plenty of secular scholars who don't buy the population-hawks' doomsday scenario. But Inferno gives the impression that the only people who oppose these fears are Brown's usual punching bags, the Catholic Church. It would be hard to make the Vatican the villain in this particular story—the tale's antagonist is driven by a desire to drastically reduce the number of people on the planet—but the population talk does allow the author to fire a little snark at his favorite target.

Otherwise, Catholicism's chief role in the text comes via the book's other touchstone, Dante's Divine Comedy. The hero's movements in this Inferno mirror the narrator's journey in the original Inferno, a set of parallels that you needn't be a Dante expert to spot since the author helpfully points them out as they happen.

You could fill a review nitpicking Brown's errors of science and history, but really, what would be the point? It'd be like those articles that spend all their space mocking Brown's clumsy sentences or his habit of constantly inserting brand names into his prose. Brown's been around long enough by now that we should know better than to enter his books expecting graceful language or a reliable guide to the world; we might as well move on to asking if there's anything his new effort gets right. And I have to say that there is. Beneath the Dante-for-dummies lectures and the formulaic plot there's a current of sheer strangeness here: elaborate deceptions; secret clues concealed in ancient objects; science-fiction elements that slowly move to center stage; a bizarre conspiracy that is almost Fantômas-like in its unnecessarily labyrinthine details; the fact that the author clearly sympathizes with the book's nominal villain, marching right up to the edge of endorsing his actions. And then there's the stray conspiracy theories that wander through the text, from a random cameo by the Council on Foreign Relations to the claim, in an author's note at the beginning of the book, that the powerful network known here as "The Consortium" is a real organization "with offices in seven countries," though its "name has been changed for reasons of security and privacy."

Throw in Brown's unembarrassed pulp-fiction clichés—there's even a masked supervillain with a video message for the world—and you've got the stuff of fever dreams; the fact that it's presented in the form of a processed-cheese thriller just makes it all the more enjoyably perverse. I can't in good conscience recommend this book, but there's something transfixing about it, like…well, like Oprah Winfrey explaining memes.

NEXT: Pussy Riot Member Banned From Her Own Parole Hearing, Begins Hunger Strike

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  1. “Reading Dan Brown write about culture and science is like watching Oprah Winfrey explain memes. The plot of Inferno, the phenomenally popular novelist’s new thriller, centers around transhumanism, a movement that celebrates the enhancement and accelerated evolution of the human mind and body. But Brown reduces transhumanism to just one of its interests?genetic engineering?and, bizarrely, has the two transhumanists who appear in the book be obsessed with the alleged threat of overpopulation.”

    This sounds hilarious!

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  2. The Consortium == The Bilderbergs? Anyone read the book so far?

    1. I’m pretty sure that Jesse has identified “The Consortium” as the Council on Foreign Relations.

  3. It sounds almost as bad as reading The Wheel of Time series.

    1. Alot of people have tried to get me to read that, what was your issue with it? It was on my summer to read list.

      1. I’ve read the first and, unintentionally, the prequel (which I assumed was the first). They’re hacky, generic fantasy novels with some decent concepts (blatantly ripping off Frank Herbert) and underwhelming prose. Entertaining fluff, yes. Will I read the rest of the increasingly compendious series, no.

        Try Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind for some self-aware genre fun.

      2. They’re about 574 more books in the series then there should be. They rehash the same bullshit again and again and again, because God forbid you end the story at a good point instead of milking it way past its prime.

        1. This, and the author is basically a shitty writer who has an infantile understanding of the female gender. All the female characters are interchangeable, and all are unpleasant. The first 3rd of the book is rehash, and the story barely moves forward.

      3. Jordan introduced more and more side characters and side plots while hardly ever resolving any of these.

  4. I read Angels & Demons after it was reprinted in paperback following DVC’s success. My favorite part is when Langdon jumps out of a mile-high helicopter and uses a tarp as a parachute.

    It’s amazing that a single astroturfed controversy can transform a grade-D pulp fiction author into a bestseller overnight.

  5. ” The plot of Inferno, the phenomenally popular novelist’s new thriller, centers around transhumanism, a movement that celebrates the enhancement and accelerated evolution of the human mind and body.”

    kinda makes me want to read it, although as pointed out in the rest of the article he probably doesn’t do the concept justice. I’ve just started looking into transhumanism so i’m not familiar with all the various quirks, but I definitely like the idea of improving ourselves, even to the point where we might not technically be human anymore.

    “his characters periodically pause to lecture one another about the ways unchecked breeding threatens the human race”

    While I do think we are above the ideal point on the population laffer curve ( has anyone else used that analogy?) the way alot of people approach the topic comes off as melodramatic and annoying. Almost as annoying as people who claim that some loon with a funny name made a wrong prediction and so all concerns about population issues are invalid.

    1. I believe that the proliferation of human life is a good and valuable thing, I have confidence that free markets and technology can address population-related issues, I fail to freak out about doomsday predictions based on faulty premises, and I have yet to see convincing evidence that even if such problems are quite real that heavy handed government intervention is the solution. It seems that most of the folks publishing articles on overpopulation disagree with every one of my positions, so that’s when people like myself tend to throw Malthus back in the face of the over-population crowd.

      1. Good points, although I think that it’s possible and maybe likely that population could at some point grow faster than the technology needed to support it. You may very well be right that human ingenuity will always stay ahead of the curve, but I think the possibility that it might not at some point is too quickly dismissed on this thread.

        1. Population CANNOT outgrow technology. Population growth is so slow in comparison to even old fashioned remedies that the worst outcome is more fertilizer or fewer forests, a slightly diminished standard of living, and people recognizing the crowding and having fewer kids.

          It’s not like people keep breeding without any regard for consequences or that population growth happens over night. It takes years and years.

          Your attitude is like people screaming about running out of oil, as if oil will disappear overnight instead of gradually increasing in price and new tech finding new sources of oil or energy in general.

          1. “Your attitude is like people screaming about running out of oil,”

            not really, if you read my original post I specifically said I find the people who get hysterical about it annoying.

      2. I calculated once that if you put every living human being in Texas, we could each have a 700-square-foot apartment. The Earth is far from overpopulated.

        1. did you calculate the land needed to feed them? and subtract the land that isn’t useable? And leave enough space that if there is some sort of disaster, such as a drought, that were at low enough carrying capacity that we could weather it with out mass starvation? If we can do all that in texas then yea i’m with you.

        2. Malthusian bullshit is bullshit.

          The most densely populated city in the US is Union City, NJ (49,381 people per square mile). If the entire global population were forced to live at that density, we would all fit comfortably into New Mexico.

          The most densely populated city on Earth is Manila (111,576 people per square mile). If the entire global population were forced to live at that density, we would all fit comfortably into North Carolina.

          To address Zack’s concern, the remainder of the planet would be available for resource extraction.

        3. yeah, but they’d still be living in Texas!!!

    2. Odd analogy to use. Why not go for the whole class of extrema rather than focus on the Laffer curve?

      Anyway, the “population issue” is not the same worldwide. India could do with many, many fewer people. The US, probably more. Further, India isn’t dealing with their problem, whereas the US, if it were to have a problem one way or the other, would fix it.

      Saying that the world is overpopulated is useless. Saying that parts of the world are – that makes more sense. The US has completely solved its overpopulation issue and makes plenty of food for now and the foreseeable future.

      Many of the ways people propose dealing with the issue are for Americans to reproduce less. Uh, no; the third worlders won’t reproduce less, so you’ll have fewer people with the resources to address world population issues alive, and more people who are the cause of the problem in the first place.

      Malthus was wrong, btw. Sorry. Just was.

      1. While, I generally agree with what you said, the fact is that third worlders are reproducing less. The fertility rate is trending downward pretty much everywhere.

        I agree this is a complete non-issue.

      2. “Odd analogy to use. Why not go for the whole class of extrema rather than focus on the Laffer curve?”

        I was thinking along the lines of if you had one person there would be very little resource utilization and accumulation because you can’t do all the things that require specialization, but at say 1 trillion you would also not really have any resources available because there are too many people. If you could make a curve of number of people versus amount of utility each I think it would resemble the laffer curve.

        “Malthus was wrong, btw. Sorry. Just was.”

        of course as was erhlich, but that doesn’t mean excessive population isn’t or will not ever be an issue. They at one extreme of the viewpoint so as usual they get all the attention.

        1. I double dog dare you to describe any plausible scenario in which world population even hints at approaching 1 trillion.

          Basing your arguments on impossibilities is pointless.

          1. that really wasn’t the point, it was just some arbitrary number to replace the 100% in a normal laffer curve.

          2. Let’s see…. 6 billion people each have 4 kids. In 8 generations, there are over 1 trillion humans.

            1. The operative word being “plausible”.

            2. Only roughly half of them can actually birth a kid…add in all the infertile ones…all the dead…we are a long ways off.

              1. don’t forget to subtract the gay, the elderly and the terminally unattractive…

    3. While I do think we are above the ideal point on the population laffer curve ( has anyone else used that analogy?)

      Yes, it’s called the logistic function, and it’s been around for two centuries:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L…..ion_growth

      1. I figured it had, although that seems to focus more on carrying capacity where I’m more concerned with quality of life.

        1. One could argue that quality of life is just a subjective assessment of how close your local environment is to the limits of its carrying capacity.

  6. Winfrey […] described memes as negative thoughts that get stuck in your head and hold you back from doing your best.

    So she’s a secret Scientologist?

  7. “(As in Brown’s most famous book, The Da Vinci Code, the plot of Inferno consists largely of a long chase punctuated by infodumps.)”

    Sounds like as good a summary as any.

  8. It’d be like those articles that spend all their space mocking Brown’s clumsy sentences…

    Like this one?

  9. Is a meme sort of like a bad book that leads to a patently dumbass review?

  10. When I’ve written my fourth best-selling novel I’ll start to criticize Dan Brown.

    1. That’s like saying you can’t call Scary Movie V a load of crap until you’ve produced as many shitty comedies as the Wayans brothers.

      1. True, but he must be doing something right.

        1. Well Obama got elected twice. He must be doing something right and until someone here is elected POTUS twice we can’t criticize him.

        2. Yeah, he does a great job taking advantage of the fact most people are very poorly educated, so if you make up stuff in a sufficiently credible manner, they have no way of telling how ridiculous what you just said is.

        3. Sure, he’s doing something right; he’s supplying a product to satisfy the consumer demand of a segment of book buyers. A segment full of dumbasses.

          1. Dan Brown has the distinction of having written the single worst novel ever written. Digital Fortress was so bad that I had to finish it just on the principle that it had to cease getting worse and start getting better at some point. My supposition was wrong. It started off horrifically bad and got worse on every single page until the laugh-out-loud awful conclusion.

            Sadly, the whole Dan Brown incident has proven to me that 80-90% of everyone is hopelessly stupid. That’s the only plausible explanation for the Dan Brown phenomenon. You can throw twilight in there too – although twilight was a freaking classic next to Digital Fortress.

            On the upside this revelation prepared me for a world in which a president who fulfilled none of his promises, expanded the abuses of his predecessor, presided over the worst economy in several generations and failed to even bother presenting a budget for most of his term was nonetheless reelected fairly easily.

            1. Sadly, the whole Dan Brown incident has proven to me that 80-90% of everyone is hopelessly stupid. That’s the only plausible explanation for the Dan Brown phenomenon.

              I avoided Dan Brown for years, but last month I read “The DaVinci Code” for the first time. (Amazon gave me a free Kindle copy.) It was a silly, horribly written hash that I feel dumber for reading. People like this stuff? Once again, I’ve underestimated people’s ability to love dreck.

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  12. A lot of self-styled Libertarians don’t think we have a population problem. I wonder if they correlate with the ones who think it’s cool for other people to criminalize abortion before quickening.

    1. A lot of jackasses talk about a population problem as if there were a moral solution. It’s either kill off a few billion or sterilize a few billion right? I can never get a straight answer from overpopulationist doomsdayers.

      1. hmm, if there is a cheap and easily reversible sterilization method, you could just do that to everyone as part of their vaccinations, and then whenever they decide they want to have a kid they could have it reversed.

        I think this would have some pretty positive effects on civilization, even if we don’t have an overpopulation problem. It would at least reduce child abuse and crime by pretty significant amounts. And it would have less of the ethical qualms of child limit laws and other options.

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