As the world reels under the spell of a deadly virus, I reread Dan Brown’s 2013 bestseller, ‘Inferno’. Brown has this uncanny ability to weave fiction around facts, both historical and contemporary.
In Inferno, Brown gives us a virtual tour of Florence, a city that lies at the center of the novel's plot. Right now, the crowded monuments, museums, streets and gardens of Florence that Brown talks about in his novel have been deserted, or haunted rather, by the novel coronavirus.
Bertrand Zobrist is a top genetic scientist worried by the global overpopulation. He wants to find a way to keep it in size, and discusses it with the World Health Organization chief Elizabeth Sinskey. The WHO boss agrees that the rate of global population growth needs to be checked. But she is not convinced by Zobrist’s argument that no less than the planet’s fate is on the line. So the billionaire scientist decides to deploy his own resources to do something about it, and hires a secretive group, The Consortium, to hide him from the world for a year.
As the suspense builds, Zobrist seems to be developing a deadly airborne virus that would infect everybody on the planet within a week. By setting the plot in Florence, the hometown of great medieval poet Dante Alighieri, and drawing on Divine Comedy’s first chapter, Inferno, Brown expertly leads readers into an impending gloom. Enter the Black Death and the beaked masks that doctors wore in the 14th century when a third of Europe died of plague. It is likely that the virus being developed by the scientist, a death doctor of sorts, will cut world population to four billion.
In a stirring one-on-one with the WHO chief, the green-eyed transhumanist-scientist talks of the perils of overpopulation: “Those who have never considered stealing will become thieves to feed their families. Those who have never considered killing will kill to provide for their young. All of Dante’s deadly sins—greed, gluttony, treachery, murder, and the rest—will begin percolating … rising up to the surface of humanity, amplified by our evaporating comforts. We are facing a battle for the very soul of man.”
Deriding the WHO efforts to contain population by handing out free condoms in Africa, which end up in “landfills overflowing with unused condoms,” the scientist says measures like it is only causing more environmental problems. He brings up Machiavelli who talked of plagues as the world’s natural way of self-purging.
The protagonist Robert Langdon—the celebrated Harvard professor of art and symbology—then embarks on a scavenger-hunt from Florence to Venice to Istanbul to stop Zobrist from spreading the virus. Accompanying him is Sienna Brooks, Zobrist's former lover-disciple and a brilliant doctor—and a traumatized child prodigy. Readers are constantly at the edge of their seats as they go through the compulsive page-turner.
Creative people can look into the future. Brown didn’t have the slightest idea that a deadly viral pandemic would strike the globe seven years after he wrote the novel. But he had some imagination.