In the Inferno book, as well as in interviews Dan Brown gave at the time of the book’s publication in 2013, the mega-selling author is clearly undecided on whether Zobrist is as evil as he seems. Yes, Zobrist is made to look utterly evil, but his plot is aimed at warding off a real and looming danger, at least in Brown’s mind: the challenge of increasing human population and decreasing global resources for food, energy, etc.
At the end of the book (spoiler alert), even after Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks in the movie) has heroically attempted to foil Zobrist’s infertility-inducing plague, Langdon himself has mixed feelings about the morality of his own attempted intervention. Since Brown (and now Langdon, after all he has learned) favors taking steps to curb overpopulation, will the success of Zobrist’s plot turn out to be a secret gift to humanity, just as Zobrist envisioned?
As we demonstrated in Secrets of Inferno through interviews with scientists, virologists, technologists, and futurists, the old “Malthusian” issues of exploding demographics and finite resources that Dan Brown seems to take as starting points may well be outdated. Human population may be headed for a plateau in the middle of this century and new technology may evolve to address many of the 20th-century concerns about resource constraints. This is not to say overpopulation is a non-issue. Rather, it is to suggest that I think it is less of an issue than Dan Brown thinks it is.
In any event, I find the bigger issues hinted at in the book version of Inferno to be more interesting to contemplate than overpopulation. By this I mean the references to our increasing vulnerability to new plagues ranging from Ebola to Zika, the increased concerns about bio-hacking, and the new philosophical and moral issues surrounding robots, Artificial Intelligence, and the increasing marriage of humans and technology.
In the Inferno book, Zobrist is a billionaire, a biotech genius, a Dante enthusiast, but most importantly, a “Transhumanist.” (Transhumanism is a real social movement that takes its name from an Italian word coined by Dante in the Divine Comedy 700 years ago.) Just as Zobrist acts in a way I am quite confident Dante would never countenance as moral, Zobrist also seems to be a bad “Transhumanist.” Most of the real-life Transhumanists are actually quite bullish on humanity’s future, believing that technology will solve many of the problems that now bedevil a multi-century look into the viability of our species. Zobrist, on the other hand, believes that only a massive reduction in global population can solve humanity’s future crises.
In my opinion, there’s nothing good, morally speaking, about Zobrist. If anyone were to carry out his actions in real life they would top the list of genocidal maniacs in world history. To the degree we have a global problem of overpopulation, it should be obvious that we need thoughtful, humane, political, and social solutions to that problem. But the long-term issues driving Zobrist’s plot—as well as the plot of Brown’s story—do serve to remind us that we haven’t yet really begun to think about the massive challenges of the future that are coming towards us. Digital and bio-related technologies pose incredible new opportunities that can solve longstanding global problems and provide unimaginable human-scale benefits. But along with the opportunities come unprecedented risks and dangers. When will our political systems begin to focus on these issues?
I look forward to seeing the movie version of Inferno to see what remains of the nuances that Dan Brown (a writer not usually known for nuance!) wrote into the book version of Zobrist’s character and thinking.