Saturday 27 December 2014

Inferno by Dan Brown

Ever since he hit the international all-time best-seller list with The Da Vinci Code in 2003,  Dan Brown has enjoyed a string of successes. Two of his earlier works (Digital Fortress and Deception Point) are classified as techno-thrillers and loosely fall into the near-future SF category, but the four best sellers (the others being Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol and now Inferno) are all written to the same formula.

They are mystery thrillers which involve some mix of international conspiracies, ancient history and mythology (the two sometimes confused), codes and puzzles, archaeology, art, and religion and/or secret societies. The also all feature the character of Robert Langdon, who has his own Wiki entry in which he is described as "a Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology (a fictional field related to the study of historic symbols, which is not methodologically connected to the actual discipline of Semiotics)". Langdon is invariably thrown into danger as he is drawn in to investigating some mystery or curious event in his field, and battles to discover what is going on, inevitably with the assistance of an attractive but also strong and capable woman.

The stories are all fast-paced with the action concentrated into a 24-hour period, emphasised by the use of a large number of short chapters, each finishing on some point of tension or revelation which encourages the reader to keep turning the pages to discover what happens next. His plots are not really about right vs wrong, but good vs evil – and the more spectacularly and theatrically evil is the villain, the better. Their appeal lies in the combination of baroque, colourful fantasy against a real and generally well-researched background.

Inferno follows the same groove, but the focus of the plot this time (revealed early in the story) is on Malthusianism; the belief that if the human population kept growing unchecked the eventual result would be mass starvation. These ideas lost credibility as one agricultural revolution after another enabled food production to keep up with the explosive growth in world population, but many still believe that this cannot go on indefinitely because of natural constraints such as the area of fertile land (being reduced in many areas by soil exhaustion or erosion), the supply of fresh water, and what are predicted to be the mainly harmful effects for agriculture of climate change. Transhumanism – the use of science to enhance human capabilities – also makes an appearance.

The plot begins with Langdon waking in a hospital bed, with no recollection of the past two days. Much of the story concerns his efforts to find out what is going on as he is hunted by a diverse and colourful cast of characters but, even when he has straightened that out, there are major upsets, twists and turns in the story, right to the unexpected climax. In my view the author makes too much use of deliberate misdirection to fool the reader into believing one thing, only to produce a different perspective some time afterwards, and some of the events which are employed to achieve this effect are highly contrived and even less believable than the rest of the plot.

One of the attractions of Dan Brown's works is the emphasis on a sense of place, and his stories are packed with intriguing detail about cities, buildings and their history. Inferno is mainly set in Florence, and though I have visited the city I learned only when reading this story about the Vasaro Corridor, a high-level enclosed passage running for a kilometre through the city, built in the sixteenth century so that an unpopular ruler could travel in safety between two palaces. It is typical of the author to incorporate such elements into his stories; who doesn't love the idea of such passages and tunnels, especially if they actually exist?

Brown's writing style has (rightly in my view) been criticised as clumsy, with superficial characterisation and lots of infodumps but, while no-one would ever read him for stylishness, either I have got used to that or he has improved somewhat since I didn't find these issues quite so much of a problem in Inferno. In his Wiki entry Brown is quoted as saying "I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else." I think that's a fair self-assessment. I have to be in the right mood to read a Brown novel. Inferno sat in my reading pile for over a year, until I felt like some fast-paced, undemanding, and mildly informative escapism; but when I finally picked it up, I was not disappointed.

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