Tag Archives: epidemics

So, he wrote The Da Vinci Code. What else can he do?


A review of Inferno, by Dan Brown

@@@ (3 out of 5)

So, today’s subject is Dan Brown.

What can you say about a man who has sold more than 200 million copies of just six novels? Clearly, the guy has got something going for him. And whatever else you might say about The Da Vinci Code and its successors in the Robert Langdon series, lots of people read them.

Far be it from me to advance some psychosexual explanation for this surprising phenomenon. The numbers don’t lie. I can only wonder why.

OK, admittedly, I’ve read all those Dan Brown novels. Yes, I admit it. And I even found the suspense in the first couple of them to be compelling. Brown’s early novels — Digital Fortress and Deception Point — were fascinating to me. And I couldn’t wait to get to the end of The Da Vinci Code because the historical mystery was brilliant and the suspense was excruciating.

Inferno, not so much. Although there were many surprises in store for me in the book’s final chapters, I’d already figured out some of the fast ones Brown was going to pull as he thundered toward the climax. Because, often enough, it’s possible to foresee the plotline based not on what an author writes as on what he doesn’t write. That sometimes smacks of manipulation, which invariably makes me uncomfortable.

Now, just in case you want to know what Inferno is about, listen up: Robert Langdon finds himself in a hospital bed in Florence with a raging headache and a case of short-term amnesia. He can’t remember a thing about the past three days, and he doesn’t have a clue why the back of his head is bandaged or how or why he got to Florence. Sienna Brooks, his physician — a lovely young blonde woman, of course! Hollywood must be appeased — tells him he’s been shot in the head. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a shadowy character who runs a mysterious and powerful global organization from his headquarters on a massive converted yacht anchored somewhere in the Adriatic. He appears to be mixed up in Langdon’s misadventure in some way, but it’s clear we won’t figure out how until we’ve read further in the book. Pretty soon another mysterious character — a spike-haired woman in black leather, somewhat resembling Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo — appears and starts shooting up the hospital, killing one of the doctors. Langdon and Brooks flee to her nearby flat, where . . . well, the plot thickens there. You get the point, right?

I’ll say this much for Brown: his writing seems to have improved a bit since Angels & Demons, and the man does do his research. Dante Alighieri, whose work is the centerpiece of this novel, emerges from the pages of Inferno as a living force in Italy and among scholars the world over. And, as usual in his later, blockbuster career, Brown presents himself in the mode of docent at an art museum, pointing out one priceless cultural treasure after another as the action shifts from Florence to Venice to Istanbul.

You’ll love this book if you like that sort of thing — a travelogue for art aficionados dressed up as a novel. For my money, though, Inferno was too predictable (knowing Langdon from his previous outings), the art commentary was boring, and Brown’s treatment of overpopulation — another theme that figures prominently in the book — was downright preachy. All in all, I found Inferno just a fairly good read. Caveat emptor. 


Filed under Disaster Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers

1491: Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before Columbus

A review of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492 — and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong.

As Charles C. Mann explains, in this recently revised edition of his 2006 bestseller, latter-day investigations in all these fields have turned up persuasive evidence that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.

  • “In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire.” And population density both in the Andes and in Mesoamerica was the highest in the world: “the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants.” Central Mexico housed more than twice as many people per square mile as China or India.
  • The deciding factors in the Europeans’ legendary ease of conquest were disease (smallpox above all) and political infighting within native communities. Compiling recent studies, Mann estimates that “In the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died” — and, more to the point, smallpox and other virulent diseases sped through both North and South America far more quickly than the conquerors. “Smallpox visited before anyone in South America had even seen Europeans . . . The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.”
  • The legendary bloodthirstiness of the Aztec (more properly called the Triple Alliance) needs to be seen in context. “If England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortes estimated for the (Aztec) empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England.”
  • “The corpus of writings in classical Nahuatl, the language of the Alliance, is even larger than the corpus of texts in Classical Greek.”
  • Recent archaeological excavations have pushed back the date of arrival of homo sapiens in the Western Hemisphere from around 9000 B.C.E. to as much as 30,000 or 40,000 BCE. One site on the Peruvian coast, Aspero, “might win the title of the world’s oldest city — the place where human civilization began.” And “people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.”
  • The landscape encountered, first by the Pilgrims and later by American settlers pushing ever further West, was anything but the virgin forest and prairie they thought it was. “Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowbooys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first.” On the Eastern seaboard, too, Indians extensively used fire, clearing tracts for farming and completely transforming the land before Europeans ever set sight on the coast.
  • Even the Amazon basin, long thought to be pristine territory, was home to millions of Indians long before disease introduced by the Spaniards decimated them and left their extensive works throughout the region to the ravages of rain and the forest. Mann notes that “the Amazon’s wealth of fruits, nuts, abnd palms is justly celebrated” and adds a comment from one of his innumerable interviews with scholars: “‘Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest there and constantly pick fruit from trees. That’s because people planted them. They’re walking through old orchards.”

As Mann makes clear throughout 1491, practically all these findings have their detractors. Some cling to old findings (often their own) and simply refuse to accept changed views. Others criticize the methodology (or the investigator). But that’s to be expected. In fact, a collection of scientists in just about any field will behave like the Israeli Knesset, divided into nearly as many factions as there are scientists. But the case Mann sets forth is compelling, controversy notwithstanding. And for anyone with even a smidgen of interest in history, anthropology, paleontology, or ecology, these revelations must be surprising. For a history buff like me, they’re mind-bending.

Mann is a science journalist who serves as a contributing editor to Science and The Atlantic Monthly. His research is thorough, as is evident with a glance at the extensive bibliography and notes crammed into both this book and its successor, 1493 (reviewed earlier at http://bit.ly/weutM4).


Filed under History, Nonfiction