[Review] Inferno by Dan Brown

Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon awakens in an Italian hospital, disoriented and with no recollection of the past thirty-six hours, including the origin of the macabre object hidden in his belongings. With a relentless female assassin trailing them through Florence, he and his resourceful doctor, Sienna Brooks, are forced to flee. Embarking on a harrowing journey, they must unravel a series of codes, which are the work of a brilliant scientist whose obsession with the end of the world is matched only by his passion for one of the most influential masterpieces ever written, Dante Alighieri's The Inferno.

I think I want to preface this review with the realization that this genre isn't really for me. It's not that I don't read books in this genre upon occasion, because I do. I've read all the previous Langdon novels, some of Brown's other thrillers, and some other similar historical-clues thriller novels. But I don't enjoy them.

I view these books as rather like chess tournaments. Stuff is definitely happening and every single bit of it does add up to a complete and coherent whole, but unless you're actually in the chess match (to drop the metaphor, I mean that unless you're either Robert Langdon living this puzzle or Dan Brown writing it), the whole endeavor is a boring fucking slog. In other words, while this genre of clues-and-history seems super fun in theory... it's incredibly forgettable in actual practice. I don't think I could tell you what actually happened in any of these historical-clues thrillers that I've read before, and I'm sure the same will go for Inferno if you ask me about it again sometime after the next two months.

(Or maybe not, because one particular thing that happened in it was batshit. But more on that in a minute.)

That said... I still feel about this genre the same way I feel about YA pulp horror a la Fear Street and Point Horror: I don't actually enjoy reading these books, but my relationship with them is kind of like what I expect most people feel about action movies. They don't have to be good, and I know they're almost certainly not going to be good, and yet I'm eventually probably going to sit down and watch (read, in this case)) one anyway.

And on that note, yes, I will be listening to the Origin audiobook as soon as I get the chance. Why? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine.

So now onto the negative. First, I want to touch on a middling complaint of mine, and that would be the use of female characters with this story and the genre in general.

I genuinely do not understand the insistence upon even bothering to include female characters in this genre. The authors barely seem interested in writing women in the first place, so what's the point? Are publishers making them? Do they feel like their female readers will decry the lack of representation if the standard female sidekick-and-love-interest isn't there? Because these so-called characters are so inconsequential and insubstantial (and objectified) that they practically aren't there even when they are. They don't have personalities; they have reasons why they're sexy. And in the case of Inferno, Sienna is sexy because she's a Super Mega Ultra Genius with a tragic backstory. She does get a few moments of intelligence and usefulness (some being warranted and well-written, others being Mary Sue as fuck), but her supposed genius is constantly overshadowed even when it does appear, and for the most part, she's just there to give Langdon someone to talk to.

...and someone to lust over him.

Let's take a moment to look at Sienna as our primary representation of women in this story. (There are two other female characters, but one is practically blink-and-you'll-miss-her irrelevant while the other is... certainly something.)

From this point on, there will be spoilers. Do not read on if you don't want to know the various plot twists of this novel.

Sienna is a painfully pathetic, stupid character. She is Inferno's quasi-love interest, but she is primarily its traitor character. At 12% of the way through the novel, we discover that (and I'm quoting from my GR status updates here)

Ah, yes. This gorgeous genius who speaks a million languages and works as a doctor and graduated college at like age five or whatever the fuck also happens to be bald and has a vaguely tragic backstory, so obviously she thinks she's too "damaged" and "broken" for the "handsome" Gary Sue protagonist to want her.

Later, after we discover that she was previously an accomplice to the villain (who, as we discover in point of view scenes of the other major female character, is the picture of a casual misogynist STEM dude mansplaining shit to the women who have experience way more impressive than his), we also learn:

Ah, yes, she's a gorgeous, perfect, submissive-but-emotionally-supportive genius with a tragic backstory who falls in love with the villain and lets him take her thirty-whatever-year-old virginity and so of course she'll do whatever he tells her even after he abandons her and kills himself, including releasing a plague that will sterilize a significant portion of everyone in the world.

The plot twist upon the plot twist, of course, eventually reveals that she was not, in fact, working to release the sterility plague (which means that her entire role in the story is ultimately a red herring that could have been resolved by a single line of dialogue earlier in the story) but to prevent its release. Again, though... more on that later.

In any case, Sienna is just genuinely awful. She literally shows up with rape-as-backstory for little reason other than to play red herring and to make sure we all know how hot Dan Brown, I mean Robert Langdon, is. She oopsy-daisy murders the actually interesting female character less than 50% of the way into the book, right when that character was actually going to do some really interesting stuff.

(I guess Sienna just didn't want to get upstaged by a character female readers might actually give a shit about?)

Almost as an afterthought, we have our final female character, the leader of the goddamn World Health Organization. That alone should make her pretty smart and badass, yeah? Well, not really. We're led to believe for the majority of the story that she's been imprisoned by the villain, only to discover that her weird scenes in the first half of the book were actually something she chose to subject herself to for reasons that I'm not entirely sure I understood and do not care to have clarified. She's the character that gets the here-let-me-mansplain-world-health-to-you scene with the villain, and she's also the one who's noted as having regrets over her childlessness and the lifelong infertility that stemmed from a life-saving medical treatment in her youth.

That last bit feels like it's so low-key misogyny--we can't have a professional woman who's actually happy with her lack of children, can we?--but it's actually a bit of thematic foreshadowing for the story's endgame, so I'll let it slide...

But that brings me to the endgame itself.

Now this is some problematic shit.

Like, Brown, dude, you know a shitton about history. How did it manage to elude you that the climax of this book is just the most subtle and insidious white-privilege-and-unknowledged-racism clusterfuck I've seen in a while.

So here's what we're working with. The villain rolls up onto the scene with a grand plan to release a virus that for the majority of the book is assumed to wipe out significant swaths of humanity. This is because he wholeheartedly believes that the only way to solve climate change is to reduce the human population of the planet.

Let's address this before we go any further.

That's fucking racist.

Sorry, but it is.

Here's a little hint if you can't immediately see why. (And no harm if you can't. That's what privilege is: it's not having to notice shit that's problematic purely because you're not the one that's affected by it.)

developed countries are responsible for the majority of fossil CO2 emissions from 1750 to 2010 and [...] only 18% of the current global population enjoy First World living standards [...] 770 million people lived on <1.90$ a day in purchasing power parities (PPP) (referred to as extreme poverty) in 20134, and about half the world population lives on <2.97$ PPP a day (source)

Are you seeing the problem yet? It should be starting to become clear.

The notion that the only way to solve climate change is to reduce the human population of the planet is inherently flawed because the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people are not the problem here.

in 2010, the global elite or top 10% of income earners were responsible for 36% of global carbon emissions whereas the extreme poor accounting for 836 million people, that was 12% of the global population, contributed only 4% of global emissions. (source)

Now do you see it? The problem isn't just that "a person makes X amount of carbon and we have Y amount of people, therefore we have too much carbon". People who do not live in the developed world produce only a fraction of the carbon produced by people living in the developed world. So when we say that we need less people in order to produce less carbon, what is it exactly that we're saying?

What we're usually saying in that scenario is that everyone should get to live by the extravagantly wasteful standards of the average American, and that in order for this to be sustainable, we must simply reduce humanity's numbers.

Alright, then. I get it. Everyone wants to live a life of privilege and luxury (even if most Americans refuse to acknowledge that their lives are indeed full of privilege and luxury). Just one problem: who gets killed and/or sterilized and/or "encouraged" not to reproduce in this scenario? Is it going to be us extravagantly wasteful Americans? Will it be Europeans or citizens of other developed nations? Or will it be those people unlucky enough to live outside of developed nations? Seriously, tell me, who will be getting "reduced" in this proposal?

We all know that in this hypothetical, it's "other people" who should be "reduced". It's the impoverished and the disenfranchised. You know, those people who aren't the problem and who are already being exploited so that we can create the problem in the first place?

So with that out of the way, let's look at the other half of this villain's plan.

One of the myriad plot twists of the novel is that the villain does not actually intend to release a virus to kill significant portions of the world's population. He instead intends to release a virus that will forcibly sterilize a significant portion of the world's population.

And suddenly it's even more racist than before.

Why? (Seriously, it's okay if you don't already know. There's no shame in it just so long as you actually learn.) Let me introduce you to a little thing called eugenics. Quote:

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population through selective breeding.

How is that relevant, you ask? Just give me a minute; I'm getting to that.

The first and most important thing to know about eugenics is that the Nazis were all about that shit. It's how they planned to create and maintain their pure Aryan race, which obviously involved killing off all the "undesirables" like Jewish people (6 million), people with disabilities (250,000), Romani people (250,000, Soviet and Polish civilians (7 million and 1.8 million, respectively) Jehovah's witnesses (1900), people with criminal records and "asocials" (70,000), and homosexuals ("hundreds, possibly thousands").

And if you read the Wikipedia article about Nazi genetics, you'll notice it has a very interesting fourth sentence.

Eugenics research in Germany before and during the Nazi period was similar to that in the United States (particularly California), by which it had been heavily inspired.

Hol' up, what was that about the U.S.?

So here's the thing. Mainstream America (aka white America, middle-class America, straight America, Christian America, basically the "America" that you erroneously call to mind when you think of "the average American") loooved eugenics. And just like Nazi Germany, the American government was not afraid to put its money where its mouth was. One of the ways that it chose to do so was through compulsory sterilization. So let's take a look at what actually went down.

In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty U.S. states would soon follow their lead. [...] The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States.

[...] Men and women were compulsorily sterilized for different reasons. Men were sterilized to treat their aggression and to eliminate their criminal behavior, while women were sterilized to control the results of their sexuality. Since women bore children, eugenicists held women more accountable than men for the reproduction of the less "desirable" members of society. Eugenicists therefore predominantly targeted women in their efforts to regulate the birth rate, to "protect" white racial health, and weed out the "defectives" of society.

[...] A 1937 Fortune magazine poll found that 2/3 of respondents supported eugenic sterilization of "mental defectives", 63% supported sterilization of criminals, and only 15% opposed both.

[...] In the 1970s, several activists and women's rights groups discovered several physicians to be performing coerced sterilizations of specific ethnic groups of society. All were abuses of poor, nonwhite, or mentally retarded women, while no abuses against white or middle-class women were recorded.

[...] forced or coerced postpartum sterilization of Latina women following cesarean sections

[...] the sterilization of two young black girls by tricking their illiterate mother into signing a waiver

[...] Doctors told mothers that their daughters needed shots, but they were actually sterilizing them. Hispanic women were often sterilized due to the fact that they could not read the consent forms that doctors had given them. Poorer white people, African Americans, and Native American people were also targeted for forced sterilization.

[...] The number of eugenic sterilizations is agreed upon by most scholars and journalists. They claim that there were 64,000 cases of eugenic sterilization in the United States, but this number does not take into account the sterilizations that took place after 1963 [...] when women from different minority groups were singled out for sterilization.

[...] After [World War II], eugenic sterilization was aimed more towards poor people and minorities. There were even judges who would force people on parole to be sterilized.

[...] In 1972, United States Senate committee testimony brought to light that at least 2,000 involuntary sterilizations had been performed on poor black women without their consent or knowledge.

[...] The Indian Health Service also repeatedly refused to deliver Native American babies until their mothers, in labor, consented to sterilization. Many Native American women unknowingly gave consent, since directions were not given in their native language.

[...] In 2013, it was reported that 148 female prisoners in two California prisons were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 in a supposedly voluntary program, but it was determined that the prisoners did not give consent to the procedures.

So what do we get from all that? It's simple: "Undesirables" and particularly people of color have a long history of being forcibly sterilized by people who feel entirely comfortable stealing their fertility with no knowledge or consent in order to serve some greater good. In the case of reality, this is in pursuit of eugenics. In the case of Dan Brown's villain, this is in pursuit of environmental stability.

But it's racism (and other forms of prejudice) and eugenics all the way down.

But wait, you say! Just wait a damn second! This is the villain's plan. Villains don't win!

Except for in Inferno, wherein the final plot twist is that by the time Robert Langdon was on the case, the virus had already been loosed upon the world. Oops. Hope you didn't want to have any babies.

But hold on, that's just a case of a downer ending, right? That happens in books sometimes; it's nothing to get all worked up about! This was still the villain's plan, which means that it's not meant to be the "right" thing, right? It's not like the heroes sat around and had a whole conversation about how maybe what the villain did was actually the hard-but-right decision to make to save the world, is it? It's not like they explicitly decide not to try to fix the problem, is it?

Yeah, no, that all happens. The heroes propose various ways to restore people's fertility, decide that it's too dangerous, and then have a little chat about how maybe this was for the best.


I just... I'm at a loss. I don't know what the fuck to make of the batshit decision to use THIS book as the one where Brown lets his villain win. The stakes are too high, and there's horrible implications all around the decision, and it's just the worst decision to make.

I'm honestly too baffled to be offended. What editor took this from Brown and didn't bother to fucking tell him why he shouldn't do it? That's what editors are for: to see the goddamn shit the author can't. And in this case, what Brown couldn't see was that he accidentally made all his characters come across as being halfway to fucking Nazis.

Ye gods, ya'll.

Hopefully the next one will be better?


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