“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321)

With this epigraph from Dante, Dan Brown begins his recently published novel, Inferno, which deliberately takes its name from one of the three parts of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. It is not merely one of those un-put-downable, on-the-edge-of-your-seat novelistic thrillers; it is also a clarion call to readers the world over to wake up to the largely unnoticed, but inexorably growing (pun intended) threat to humanity – overpopulation.

As with the earlier novels, The Lost Symbol, The Da Vinci Code, and Angels & Demons, the central character is again Robert Langdon, brilliant and charismatic Harvard art historian and symbologist, this time in the middle of developments that may lead to a 21st-century version of the 14th-century Black Death, or Bubonic Plague. That is, if the somewhat ambivalent villain of the narrative, a fanatical biochemist genius, achieves what appears to be his aim, namely to exterminate at least a third of the world’s population by means of a “virus” created by him.

One is led to believe that this “virus” is hidden in a location that Robert has the unenviable task of identifying by deciphering a series of clues which he, as master-symbologist, is best qualified to do. Only – the task is complicated by the fact that Robert Langdon finds himself, unexpectedly, in Florence, Italy, with a head wound apparently inflicted by a bullet from a would-be assassin’s pistol. In addition, he is suffering from amnesia and experiencing a series of recurring, disturbing visions straight from Dante’s “Inferno”.

Just as unexpectedly, he discovers a sympathetic helper in Dr Sienna Brooks, who attends to his wound at the Florence hospital where he regains consciousness. The scene is therefore set for a tense and potentially lethal series of events, with a mysterious team of highly trained soldiers hunting for Robert in and around some of Florence’s best known architectural masterpieces, where only the art historian’s intimate knowledge of these buildings enables him and Sienna to stay out of reach of the SRS team.

Along the way, Dante’s presence is always tangibly felt in some or other way, emphasising that the text of his “Inferno” is crucial in decoding the clues cleverly placed by their enigmatic adversary along the way – clues that they learn, have to be correctly deciphered before a certain date, lest an unspecified, but by all indications catastrophic event take place at the venue that the clues point to. The involvement of the director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) further complicates this already complex plot.

I won’t be a spoiler by revealing too much about the narrative to those people who have not read the novel; suffice it to say that, although the status of Dan Brown’s novels as thrillers would probably prevent them from being classified as “literature” in the “high art” sense of the term, this does not mean that they are devoid of literary value. For one thing, if Jacques Ranciére’s notion of the “redistribution of the sensible” through art (including literature) is taken seriously, this novel does so in an important fashion.

This phrase means that the way in which a literary work, or a painting, or film, presents the sensible world in iconic or symbolic terms, rearranges the relations between things and people in the world in a significant manner. Just like Dante’s “Inferno” did this, so, too, Dan Brown’s Inferno achieves the same effect, albeit not at exactly the rich literary level that the Italian master’s epic poem operates. In brief, the novel “partitions the sensible” by allowing readers to glimpse disturbing possibilities, if not probabilities, which they may otherwise not have perceived.

As before – especially in The Da Vinci Code – the research that went into the writing of this novel is astonishing, and, as far as I can tell, accurate. This is not only the case with Florence (where most of the action is set), Venice and Istanbul, whose important historical buildings and other artworks Brown has researched thoroughly to be able to write the novel – one could prepare for a visit to all the worthwhile places in Florence just by reading his descriptions of them carefully.

There is an even more persuasive reason for reading this novel, however. If one does not know what the mathematical concept of “geometric progression” means, and how it would apply to population increase, you will find out in the course of reading Brown’s Inferno. It’s really simple: double the number 1, which makes 2; double 2 to make 4; double 4 to make 8, and so on, and see what colossal number you get after executing this doubling fifty times. Now apply this to human population growth. And if you have never heard of the 19th-century mathematician Malthus, who used this concept to predict the disastrous consequences of the human population reaching a level where the food supply on the planet would no longer be sufficient to feed everyone, you will learn about it here, woven into the fictional fabric of a gripping story, but no less disturbing than when one reads it in Malthus’s own work.

Moreover, if you have ever been struck by the irony, that the incremental improvement in medical care over the last few centuries has created a situation where humanity is slowly but surely approximating the population level where sheer numbers become an increasingly intractable problem, you will find this thematically explored here. The figures and graphs concerning things like population growth, climate change, fresh water depletion, fish depletion, and more – all of which are interwoven with the riveting narrative – appear to be accurate for the time of the novel’s publication. The fact that all these processes are rising in a curve that parallels the rise in human population comprises the basis for the driving motif: a brilliant, but unhinged scientist believing that he should “save” humanity by eradicating a sizeable number of people.

Did you know that it took millions of years for humans and their predecessor species on earth to reach one billion individuals (relatively recently)? And that since then those numbers have shot up to over seven billion? Here is an excerpt from the novel where the significance of this population explosion is explained analogically by Sienna (p214):

” ‘I’ve studied a fair amount of biology,’ she said, ‘and it’s quite normal for a species to go extinct simply as a result of overpopulating its environment. Picture a colony of surface algae living in a tiny pond in the forest, enjoying the pond’s perfect balance of nutrients. Unchecked, they reproduce so wildly that they quickly cover the pond’s entire surface, blotting out the sun and thereby preventing the growth of the nutrients in the pond. Having sapped everything possible from their environment, the algae quickly die and disappear without a trace.’ She gave a heavy sigh. ‘A similar fate could easily await mankind. Far sooner and faster than any of us imagine.’ ”

Dan Brown has rendered an invaluable service to society by writing this novel – read it. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is “only fiction”. This fiction is firmly rooted in reality. And it calls for informed action, instead of the familiar dithering on the part of world leaders.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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