Skip to main content

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

By Laurie Garrett, Special to CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT