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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
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."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
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.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
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
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
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.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
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.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT