‘Inferno’ by Dan Brown – by Janet Maslin – NYT book review

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/books/inferno-by-dan-brown.html

“But it takes more than geography to keep a Brown escapade spinning. The formula also calls for sinister cultism of some sort, and in this case the dark scheming involves overpopulation. One character, Zobrist, is a wealthy Malthusian with a powerful, secretive, high-tech army at his command (Mr. Brown says it is real, but he has given it “the Consortium” as a fake name) and a doomsday plot to implement. While talking about controlling the rapid growth in population with the head of the World Health Organization, Zobrist is told, “We’re at seven billion now, so it’s a little late for that.” His reply, a fine specimen of mustache-twirling villainy: “Is it?”

There’s a lot more in “Inferno” along these lines. And it all ties together. Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest. And eventually the book involves itself with Transhumanism, genetic manipulation and the potential for pandemics. Just as Mr. Brown’s “Lost Symbol” tried to stir interest in the noetic sciences (studying mind-body connections). “Inferno” puts the idea of a plague front and center, invoking the black plague, its casualty count and its culling effect on mankind. Mr. Brown is more serious than usual when he invokes Dante’s dire warning: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

But the main emphasis here is hardly on gloom. It is on the prodigious research and love of trivia that inform Mr. Brown’s stories (this one makes mincemeat of all those factoid-heavy wannabes, like Matthew Pearl’s “Dante Club”), the ease with which he sets them in motion, the nifty tricks (Dante’s plaster death mask is pilfered from its museum setting, then toted through the secret passageways of Florence in a Ziploc bag) and the cliffhangers. (Sienna: “Don’t tell me we’re in the wrong museum.” Robert: “Sienna, we’re in the wrong country.”) There is the gamesmanship that goes with crypto-bits like “PPPPPPP.” (Sienna: “Seven Ps is … a message?” Robert, grinning: “It is. And if you’ve studied Dante, it’s a very clear one.”)

And finally there is the sense of play that saves Mr. Brown’s books from ponderousness, even when he is waxing wise about some ancient mystery or architectural wonder. Once the globe-trotting begins in earnest, private planes figure in the story and Langdon calls his publisher to ask for one. No, says the publisher, then adds: “Let me rephrase that. We don’t have access to private jets for authors of tomes about religious history. If you want to write ‘Fifty Shades of Iconography,’ we can talk.”Guess what: Mr. Brown has already written it. And then some.”

Is Climate-Themed Fiction All Too Real? We Asked the Experts – by Livia Albeck-Ripka – NYT

Climate Effect: Adaptation‘The Machine Stops’

by E. M. Forster

Forster’s eerily prescient novella imagines a world where life on earth’s surface — besides ferns and “a little grass” — has become impossible. Humans live underground, where they communicate via glowing blue-lit plates and eat, drink and sleep to the rhythm of the eternally humming “Machine.”

Written in 1909 — just over a decade after the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius suggested anthropogenic emissions could change the climate — “The Machine Stops” prophetically described something like the internet. But it was far off in imagining how we would adapt to climate change, said Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.“The idea that we could have self-sufficient civilization underground basically requires we replace the sun,” Dr. Foley said. “And any technology that’s capable of doing that — whether it be fusion, or some kind of magical technology — would have to be so powerful that I’d ask: Why didn’t we solve the climate problem first?”

Dr. Foley said the novel’s ideas weren’t that far from the science-fiction-like discussions he heard coming from Silicon Valley, where vertical gardens, orbiting microwave transmitters or machines that harvest carbon are touted as silver bullets for climate change. “The actual solutions are far simpler,” he said. “But they’re not as sexy. Like, hey: What if we threw less food away, or we ate less meat?”

Dr. Foley said that if he ever wrote a novel, it would be one in which “we all do the slow, hard muddling work of just pitching in, but no hero rides in on a spaceship to save us all.” It would be a terrible novel, he admitted. “No one would buy it, and Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie, but it’s the one I want, and it would surely save the world.”