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Inferno Revisited and Genetic Illiteracy

Today as the film version of Dan Brown’s novel Inferno opens, starring Tom Hanks fresh off his Saturday Night Live performance, I’m revisiting my post from January 9, 2014. Here’s hoping a geneticist consulted on the film. (I’d planned to repost on Inferno to coincide with the film release, so wrote about breaking news on exonerating “patient zero” for the US AIDS epidemic at my second home, Rare Disease Report.)

From 2014:

When Dan Brown’s novel Inferno was published last summer, several people insisted I read it – because it’s about an insane geneticist. So when my local library asked me to give a talk about a book with genetics as part of the plot, I chose it.

Dan Brown gets an A, as usual, for writing style. But he gets an F in science.

Tom_Hanks_as_Robert_LangdonAs anyone who’s read the Da Vinci Code and the Lost Symbol knows, protagonist Robert Langdon is a Harvard symbologist. He’s summoned for emergencies that require him to rocket through Europe running from bad guys and heading off global disasters, while following clues and cues in artwork. He’s always called “Professor.”


Robert Langdon is reminiscent of Jack Bauer (aka Keifer Sutherland, now of Designated Survivor) in the TV series 24, in which incredible action unfolded over the course of a day. Inferno also takes place during a very busy day.

Due to time pressure, Langdon’s metabolism is perpetually in high gear. Within a few pages, he was frozen in utter disbelief, startled, stunned, chilled, transfixed, he reeled, and did several double takes. I became concerned about his health when, in short order, his mouth fell open, heart raced, hair on his neck bristled, his pulse quickened, he sat speechless, audibly gasped, and barely breathed. Later on, his eyes went wide, his stomach knotted, he felt a visceral tremor, and his insides reverberated. Much of this happened whilst learning perfectly ordinary things about viruses, like the fact that they can nestle into our DNA.

Poor RL.

Because the villain is a warped geneticist letting loose a gamete-eating virus, Inferno is also reminiscent of Contagion, Outbreak, and The Andromeda Strain. My favorite is The Hot Zone because it’s true.

Bartolomeo_Di_Fruosino_-_Inferno,_from_the_Divine_Comedy_by_Dante_(Folio_1v)_-_WGA01339Inferno opens with a frighteningly vivid dream sequence based on artists’ depictions of Dante’s experiences in hell. Then RL awakens in a hospital room in Florence, tended to by a woman with a blond ponytail, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who gradually becomes “Sienna” or “Ms. Brooks” while the menfolk retain their titles. An obsession with feminine follicles emerges when we encounter a threatening “spike-haired woman” and the silver-haired head of the World Health Organization.

When the set-up is finally revealed, I was catapulted back to 1986 when Pam Ewing sees her supposedly dead husband Bobby in the shower, on the TV show Dallas. Instead of introducing a surprise twin after actor Patrick Duffy quit, his character was killed, and then he decided to return, the writers had Pam realize that her hubby’s death had been a dream, and the entire previous season, all 31 episodes, had never happened. (See Bobby Ewing In The Shower: An Epic Storytelling Gaffe).

Inferno has that feel of wasted reader time.

$1000“Genetic engineer” Bertram Zobrist explains the exploding human population problem to WHO’s silver-haired leader Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey. I assume Dr. Z has a PhD — he’s described as a “genius of genetics,” whatever that means.

(Aside: The vague term “genetic engineering” is a media invention. You can’t major in it, and engineering schools don’t offer it. The only place I could find it as an academic field is in a few online programs from outside the US, and in the name of a publication I used to write for. However, Dr. Brooks declares, “The world of genetic engineering is one I’ve inhabited … for many years…” Perhaps she took the online course.)

Anyway, Dr. Sinskey doesn’t take Dr. Zobrist’s predictions seriously, perhaps because Dr. Z has apparently forgotten that reaching “carrying capacity” would level off of the human population, not annihilate it.

So Dr. Z. hires a shady organization called the Consortium, which is headquartered on a big yacht full of mysterious bad guys and the spiky-haired woman. They shield him for a year as he invents and plants a viral plague to control population growth.

Spores_of_Bacillus_pestis_which_caused_the_plague_and_its_ve_Wellcome_V0022572Dr. Zobrist, it turns out, is a big Dante fan, and Dante died of bubonic plague. This is when I became intensely interested, having been criticized for writing an article for The Scientist on the plague genome, with a sidebar on using it as a bioweapon, just weeks after 9/11.

A plague story! Alas, Inferno evokes “plague” rather loosely. Somehow the plague bacterium that felled Dante along with a third of Europe during the Middle Ages morphs into an airborne viral infection in the novel and presumably the film.

Dr. Sinskey taps RL to find the bioweapon, because clues lurk in Sandro Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno and other works. Hints struggle to the surface of Langdon’s consciousness as he and Dr. Ponytail schlep through the art and artifacts of Florence.

It would have helped the good Dr. L. immensely, and saved at least 100 pages, if he owned a smartphone and didn’t have to bug tourists to use their Internet connections to look up the parts of Dante’s tome that he can’t recall. Here the film may improve upon the novel. Meanwhile, European CDC guys join the chase. Here is a good website for the artistic clues and helpful maps.

Red_HerringThe plot detours to a few red herrings, which are jarring and manipulative. Dr. Brooks doesn’t really have a ponytail, it’s a wig; she’s bald from the lingering stress of a sexual assault. Dr. Sinskey isn’t really being drugged against her will when RL spies her slumped over in the back of a car; she has a barfing disease that requires sedation. And finally, imposter Jonathan Ferris doesn’t have plague, he has a latex allergy from wearing a mask to play a character that appears earlier in the book. Good guys are bad guys and vice versa.


Early foreshadowing of superficial science is on page 36, where the author confuses cerebellum with cerebrum, PET scans with CT scans. And he makes the classic trio of errors later on — human cell walls (animals are the only types of organisms without cell walls), “a bacteria,” and each of us having our own genetic codes (no, we have our own genome sequences).

But the worst illogic comes towards the end.

Tethered beneath the surface of a gloomy underground lagoon, not in Italy, lies a bag filled with yellowish-brown goop that holds enough of a mysterious virus to render much of humanity infertile – somehow. The investigators have set up PCR devices throughout the area, which all start blinking red to indicate detection of the “never-before-seen viral pathogen.”

But to mass-produce a nucleic acid using the polymerase chain reaction requires a smidgeon of DNA or RNA from a known pathogen. What did Langdon et al use for primers when they don’t even know the difference between a virus and a bacterium?

I had difficulty envisioning the airborne viruses entering the sex cells of the hundreds of people fleeing the tainted lagoon. The feared germline manipulation isn’t easy, and must be done on the spermatogonia and oogonia nestled deep in the gonads, not the mature cells on their way out.

128px-Biohazard.svgThe supposed experts in Inferno mix up “vector” and “virus.” A “vector” is a general term for DNA from one source used to transfer DNA from another source. Yet proclaims Dr. Brooks, “A vector virus … rather than killing its host cell … inserts a piece of predetermined DNA into that cell, essentially modifying the cell’s genome.” A virus inserting into a chromosome doesn’t modify a DNA sequence, it adds to it. And it’s normal. Our chromosomes carry loads of viral sequences.

Still, “Langdon struggled to grasp her meaning. This virus changes our DNA?”

256px-The_X-Files_logo.svgThe ignorance about viruses may be due to a Dana Scully effect, the assumption that any medical doctor is also a scientist. (She was from the X-Files, an MD constantly calling herself a scientist.) The three technical experts Dan Brown thanks in the preface of the book are MDs – two are infectious disease specialists, the third I couldn’t find, and none belong to the American Society of Human Genetics.

Evolution is also handled oddly, although RL claims to be skilled in matters Darwinian. He and the docs confuse natural selection and survival of the fittest, which deal with reproductive success, with genetic enhancement to “advance the species” and “create better humans.”

The long-awaited explanation of the science is all hand-waving — throw out a bunch of terms that presumably readers won’t recognize to make it sound like it makes sense. It doesn’t.

Even the conclusions in plain English are vague to the point of idiocy: “He had unlocked the evolutionary process and given humankind the ability to redefine our species in broad, sweeping strokes.” All this, from a virus with a predilection for gametes?

Finally, the fake-ponytailed Dr. Brooks, flummoxed by the ins and outs of viruses, assures us that “the human genome is an extremely delicate structure … a house of cards.” Then how can “genetic engineers” manipulate it with a whiff of a virus?

It’s great that a novelist as acclaimed as Dan Brown uses genetics as a plot. But he squandered an opportunity to teach the public about the good that geneticists do. The last thing our science-phobic world needs is another mad scientist – even a fictional one.


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