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.