Skip to main content

That's not me in Dan Brown's 'Inferno'

By Laurie Garrett, Special to CNN
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Laurie Garrett: Evil character in Dan Brown's "Inferno" alarmingly close to her own job
  • Character is biologist at Council on Foreign Relations, but similarity ends there, she says
  • She says book silly but raises provocative issues about potentially dangerous biology
  • Garrett: Book makes council seem nefarious, WHO well-funded

Editor's note: Laurie Garrett is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

(CNN) -- Try this for a spine-tingling moment: An immensely popular novelist who specializes in eerie, conspiratorial mysteries portrays an evildoer who is, gulp, an awful lot like yourself. And the word "popular" doesn't really come close to describing this novelist, whose every book is launched in multiple languages and shoved into movie production (starring Tom Hanks) before the manuscript is bound in hard copy.

It's Dan Brown, whose "Inferno," the latest tale of Robert Langdon, the Harvard iconographer-turned-homicide-hunter, hinges on the deeds of a dastardly biologist who kidnaps the director general of the World Health Organization and compels her to heed his insanity while locked inside the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan.

I am the only trained biologist working in the New York headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations, where I am senior fellow for global health. I've never kidnapped WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, but I have been known to corner her for some whispered one-on-ones.

Laurie Garrett
Laurie Garrett

The day after "Inferno" was launched with the usual Dan Brown-associated brouhaha, my brother e-mailed "OMG!" telling me he was devouring the thing on his e-reader. All day long I received notes from worried friends and family, concerned that Brown's conspiracy-minded readership would turn its sights on the council, or me, and my global health work.

Brown's ability to raise this kind of intrigue was demonstrated with his first blockbuster, "The Da Vinci Code" which spawned an entire genre of dark Vatican-oriented novels that imagine self-mutilating, power-grabbing monsters lurking in medieval dungeons beneath St. Peter's Basilica. With "Angels and Demons," Brown had millions of readers convinced that an 18th-century group called The Illuminati was secretly pulling strings of power all over the world, the group allegedly (in Internet conspiracy canon) dominated by David Rockefeller and his pals at ... you guessed it, the Council on Foreign Relations.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I opened "Inferno" on my Kindle.

I can now report that Dan Brown has produced a silly, but interesting and provocative book, delving into biologist Paul Ehrlich's old "Population Bomb" ideas, synthetic biology, dual-use research, human genome alteration and even hypothetical germ line mutation of people. Perhaps Brown has grown bored with only castigating Catholicism, for he now chucks his aspersions on science. Of course it's not realistic or accurate science, given the author's penchant for mixing Dante's 14th-century poem "Inferno" with 21st-century gene sequencing.

Dante's original "Inferno" guided readers through the most explicit journey of hell and purgatory ever committed to paper. Brown's "Inferno" takes a 21st-century spin through a hell of man-made microbes, pandemics and human overpopulation. The Brown hell is just close enough to the edges of biological reality to make for thriller reading. Biology as a discipline is indeed delving into human-directed evolution and creation of life forms in ways that ought to be scrutinized. And while the real work of science is not dark and genocidal, as Brown portrays, there are risks of accidental release of modified organisms and, less likely, terrorism that merit wider attention.

For those who fear Brown's version of inferno might come true, here is some spoiler-alert news from the real world. The private C-130 that "Inferno" imagines the WHO owns, jetting about the world to stop disease, is not just a fantasy, it would be impossible. Far from affording its own jet, WHO is in deep financial straits, now facing its third year of painful budget deficits and layoffs, leaving its epidemic response division tapped-out for 2013, Chan has told me.

Giuliani: I worry about homeland attack
Is the U.S. prepared for bioterror?
Health expert weighs in on 'Contagion'

In Brown's imaginings, the European Union's version of the Centers for Disease Control has a huge secret SWAT team of hulking, fully armed, military-trained disease-fighters that swoop into countries, violating all local law with impunity, to stop epidemics. Of course there is no such team, nor does the budget-strained U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have Kevlar-wearing, Uzi-toting microbe hunters.

On Brown's version of planet Earth these disease-fighers have such limitless power that prime ministers immediately take their calls, and armies and police forces the world over are at their command. Margaret Chan might dream of having enough clout to command an obstinate national leader to cease covering up his country's epidemic, but in truth her only tools are persuasion, bluffing and the rage of world media. Wouldn't it be sweet if the impoverished WHO actually did have a budget large enough to finance an agency C-130 and rapid response team?

The Kindle is switched off. Back to work at the Council on Foreign Relations, trying to create and push policies that spare populations of millions the scourges of disease, malnutrition and climate change.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laurie Garrett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT