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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reading List: Inferno

Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8.
This thriller is a perfect companion to Robert Zubrin's nonfiction Merchants of Despair (April 2013). Both are deeply steeped in the culture of Malthusian anti-humanism and the radical prescriptions of those who consider our species a cancer on the planet. In this novel, art historian and expert in symbology Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital bed with no memory of events since walking across the Harvard campus. He is startled to learn he is in Florence, Italy with a grazing gunshot wound to the scalp, and the target of a murderous pursuer whose motives are a mystery to him.

Langdon and the doctor who first treated him and then rescued him from a subsequent attack begin to dig into the mystery. Langdon, recovering from retrograde amnesia, finds reality mixing with visions reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, whose imagery and symbols come to dominate their quest to figure out what is going on. Meanwhile, a shadowy international security group which was working with a renowned genetic engineer begins to suspect that they may have become involved in a plot with potentially catastrophic consequences. As the mysteries are investigated, the threads interweave into a complex skein, hidden motives are revealed, and loyalties shift.

There were several times whilst reading this novel that I expected I'd be dismissing it here as having an “idiot plot”—that the whole narrative didn't make any sense except as a vehicle to introduce the scenery and action (as is the case in far too many action movies). But the author is far too clever for that (which is why his books have become such a sensation). Every time you're sure something is nonsense, there's another twist of the plot which explains it. At the end, I had only one serious quibble with the entire plot. Discussing this is a hideous spoiler for the entire novel, so I'm going to take it behind the curtain. Please don't read this unless you've already read the novel or are certain you don't intend to.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The vector virus created by Zobrist, as described on p. 438, causes a randomly selected one third of the human population to become sterile. But how can a virus act randomly? If the virus is inserted into the human germ-line, it will be faithfully copied into all offspring with the precision of human DNA replication, so variation in the viral genome, once incorporated into the germ-line, is not possible. The only other way the virus could affect only a third of the population is that there is some other genetic property which enables the virus to render the organism carrying it sterile. But if that is the case, and the genetic property be heritable, only those who lacked the variation(s) which allowed the virus to sterilise them would reproduce, and in a couple of generations the virus, while still incorporated in the human genome, would have no effect on the rate of growth of the human population: “life finds a way”.

Further, let's assume the virus could, somehow, randomly sterilise a third of the human population, that natural selection could not render it ineffective, and science found no way to reverse it or was restrained from pursuing a remedy by policy makers. Well, then, you'd have a world in which some fraction of couples could have children and the balance could not. (The distribution depends upon whether the virus affects the fertility of males, females, or both.) Society adapts to such circumstances. Would not the fertile majority increase their fertility to meet market demand for adoption by infertile couples?

Spoilers end here.  

This is a fine thriller, meticulously researched, which will send you off to look up the many works of art and architectural wonders which appear in it, and may plant an itch to visit Florence and Venice. I'm sure it will make an excellent movie, as is sure to happen after the success of cinematic adaptations of the author's previous Robert Langdon novels.

Posted at May 23, 2013 21:49