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Review: Dan Brown’s Inferno

Warning: This review contains spoilers and reveals key plot elements of Dan Brown’s new thriller, Inferno, which in case you haven’t heard features transhumanism prominently and has a transhumanist villain in addition to Brown’s usual mix of Renaissance and Medieval European art, obscure symbolism, secrets and conspiracies.

They say there is no such thing as bad publicity, but is that really true? If you’ve been reading the press about Dan Brown’s new book you might wonder. Perhaps you have heard that Dan Brown’s book features a secret transhumanist organization and transhumanist villain? Critics of transhumanism such as Wesley Smith have been crowing about it, celebrating the arrival of a widely read popular fiction vehicle critical of transhumanist ideas. The thing is apparently none of them actually read the book.

Dan Brown’s book isn’t what it seems at first. I’ll leave the critique of his Dante scholarship to others. The city of Florence and the history of Dante’s famous work The Inferno really do little more than add color to this story. This is a book about the future of humanity and existential risks due to exponential human population expansion. The book includes not one but two exponential (really super exponential) graphs.

Reality check, Dan Brown’s “villain” solves the population bomb without killing anyone, without a war, and without releasing any sort of deadly plague whatsoever. Not everything in Inferno is what it appears to be at first.

Brown’s serial hero tweed wearing Harvard “symbology” professor Robert Langdon heads to Italy, this time to help prevent a global plague from an engineered virus or micro-organism. The only problem is someone is trying to kill him and he has amnesia from a gun shot wound to his head. Luckily for Langdon, Sienna Brooks a young attractive doctor is on hand to save him and the two begin a standard Brown symbol quest through the world of Dante Alighieri’s vision of hell.

Swiss Billionaire transhumanist, Dante fanatic, and genetic research genius Bertrand Zobrist has created an apparently deadly plague to be released the very next day. Can Robert Langdon and  his savior the attractive young blonde genius Dr. Sienna Brooks find the location and stop Zobrist’s plan to release the virus before it is too late? As usual Brown’s hero Robert Langdon has to decipher various clues, codes, and cryptic symbols to find the location where Zobrist plans to release his deadly disease.

Zobrist is protected by a shadowy organization known as “The Consortium”. Zobrist leaves the Consortium a disturbing video to be released on a specific date in which he appears as “The Shade”. Breaking protocol, the Provost watches the video before release and decides to act.

Contrary to some other reviews I’ve read, and to be clear, The Consortium is not a transhumanist organization at all but rather a secretive group that specializes in hiding people and creating cover stories for governments, corporations and (generally very wealthy) others. The Consortium, and their leader, The Provost,  have accidentally gotten themselves mixed up in Zobrist’s seemingly deadly plot. Opposing the Provost is the a mysterious woman with grey hair wearing an amulet, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey of the World Health Organization who has been hunting Zobrist and who fields a paramilitary team, the SRS, to stop him.

But Brown has a few plot twists up his sleeve. Reviewers that confuse The Consortium with a secret transhumanist conspiracy didn’t get more than 30% into the book apparently, because it is clear pretty early on that The Provost and Consortium are just in the business of illusions and want nothing to do with transhumanism or Zobrist’s scheme at all. It is a problem for them and they want out, breaking their most basic and cherished operational rules to prevent apocalypse.

Sienna turns out to be the real deal, a transhumanist who calls herself FS 2080 in the style of real transhumanist founding father FM 2030. Following the initial “reveal”, Brown lets us believe FS 2080 aka Sienna Brooks is a villain, she’s actually bald from worrying so much about the future of humanity and her blond hair is a wig, and oh yes she is also a master of disguise working with The Consortium and later double revealed to be Zobrist’s lover. Oh did I mention that Langdon’s amnesia was drug induced and the gunshot wound was faked by the Consortium in order to learn what he knew about the location of Zobrist’s biological agent?

Langdon now finds himself working with the WHO and Consoritum to stop Zobrist’s lover and transhumanist FS 2080 aka Sienna Brooks who flies to Istanbul in a private jet in order to release the biological agent. It turns out that isn’t in Italy at all, but in Istanbul near the famed Hagia Sophia in a vast underground cistern.

FINAL SPOILER: Brown has one huge final trick up his sleeve however when it turns out Langdon et al arrive too late; a week after the agent has been released. Sienna is triple revealed to be trying to stop Zobrist’s plot and to secretly be a good transhumanist after all. Zobrist’s agent it turns out, isn’t a deadly virus but instead renders 30% of people randomly sterile. The viral agent alters human DNA lowering the species’ total capacity to reproduce. Nobody is happy but it is too late to stop it.

The involuntary genetic alteration of other people is entirely unacceptable of course,  but the actual solution to population issues is an idea that some transhumanists will find ingenious and within the tradition of “obsoleting the dilemma”. FS 2080 also apparently has a soft spot for professor Langdon who states that he is “too old” for her in what is probably the least convincing part of the book. This does avoid an awkward sex scene or further romantic dialog which Brown probably wouldn’t do a great job on anyway. Phew!

The book actually mentions a few real transhumanists and transhumanist ideas briefly and I think mostly somewhat favorably. Transhumanists are described as mostly “ethically accountable scientists” for example. Humanity+ gets a mention, as “Humanity-plus”, and so does FM 2030 who’s Wikipedia page is quoted extensively. Brown states, “Transhumanism is an intellectual movement, a philosphy of sorts” which states “that humans should use technology to transcend weaknesses inherent in our human bodies.” Not too bad.

Despite the fact that he has his hero Langdon reply “Sounds ominous.” when he first learns about tranhsumanism, his transhumanist side kick and misunderstood heroine FS 2080 has the first name “Sienna”, a type of brown.  This was a conscious choice of the author and not an accident obviously.

After I finished the book I started to suspect Dan Brown is a secret transhumanist and was hanging out on some transhumanist forums around 2010-2011 under a pseudonym. The 2010 Humanity+ conference specifically gets mentioned and Brown knows about transhuman separatism too, “as in many movements there exists a small but militant faction that believes the movement is not moving fast enough. They are apocalyptic thinkers who believe the end is coming and that someone needs to take drastic action to save the future of the species.”

Summary: Inferno is a fun and entertaining summer read that is far from the worst book out there on transhumanism. Brown presents what is in the end a modestly balanced view and initial reviews to the contrary were clearly from people that never actually finished the book. The weakest spot is where he suggests that fanatic transhumanists follow FM 2030′s naming convention. Not true of course. Brown mostly gets this right otherwise.

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