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Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After a number of successful collaborations, science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle decided to do a modern take on Dante's Inferno. The novel they produced, also entitled Inferno, starred a science fiction writer, one Allen Carpenter or Carpentier, who was a composite of several writes they knew. After dying in a stupid accident at a Worldcon room party, he awakens in Dante's Hell, rescued from a bronze bottle by one Benito, who's obviously a certain Italian dictator of the 20th century.

The two of them then retraced Dante's journey downward through the various circles of Hell to the bottom and the secret passageway out. In the process the authors got in ample opportunity for social satire against both individuals and trends, as the protagonist saw the way Hell has been updated to accommodate the new kinds of sins made possible by technological change, including the places for the punishment of those who rape the environment and those who push ill-considered environmental reforms for the sake of power.

At the end, Allen Carpenter witnessed Benito's departure from Hell, and with that proof that even the worst of sinners could indeed be reformed, headed back up in search of new souls to save. It looked like a pretty good book, complete unto itself -- until this new volume appears, continuing Allen Carpenter's mission.

Interestingly enough, it doesn't pick up right after the ending of the first volume. Instead, some time has passed, and Allen is perched on a tree in the Wood of Suicides, trying to heal from some kind of a vicious mauling. The tree can speak to him only when it bleeds, and through its injured twigs reveals to him that it is none less than Sylvia Plath, the poet. They immediately recognize their common ties, and he tells her the story of his adventures since the end of the last book.

It seems that he'd no sooner emerged from the passage out of Hell than he encountered a wild-looking man who embraced him and exploded. The next thing he knew, he was back in the Vestibule, the area outside Hell proper, having reconstituted himself from the mist into which he was blown. He immediately set to work trying to recruit people for the journey out of Hell. At first he seems to have some success, and he notes some of the changes that have been made just in the time since he passed through with Benito. Not only is Hell changing to accommodate new sins, but it's also updating its administrative structure and procedures -- and he gets to watch one of his most promising recruits being seduced away from him by a smooth-talking lawyer who offers her a place in his staff, processing appeals.

And thus Allen ends up in the fix that leads him to be in Sylvia's tree. As he's healing and going over his experiences, he realizes what he needs to do to free her. It's a messy task that involves running out onto the fiery desert to retrieve enough fireflakes to set the tree alight -- with her permission, of course. And when it's all ash, she reconstitutes as a human being and they set off together on the journey toward the bottom and the way out.

Here again we have a recap of the journey in the first volume, but with interesting changes as various characters Allen and Benito encountered have taken up the task of rescuing their fellow damned. A cleric condemned for hypocrisy has set up an ice cream stand in the middle of the fiery desert, where souls on their way down can pause and have a bit of refreshment and pleasant chatter. But not everyone has taken the idea in a positive way, as we witness in the "letter pi" figures running through the wastes -- two people grab a third and use that person, usually someone smaller and weaker, as an umbrella.

Except this time, when they reach the bottom, Allen's attempt to free a crusading knight imprisoned in a tomb has backfired in a spectacularly nasty way. He wrote a bunch of slanders on the tomb, assuming that it would be sufficiently incendiary to tick off one of the exploding terrorists who are wandering around Hell blowing themselves up. Instead, the terrorist has come looking for the writer -- but instead of Allen getting blown up again, he's rescued by the very man he just cut from the ice moments ago. Namely J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb, who intercepts the terrorist in a spectacular explosion that melts an enormous amount of the ice, freeing thousands of the worst souls in Hell, the moral monsters who made history into a nightmare for untold millions.

Which means that suddenly Allen is not welcome in Hell any more, and they want him OUT. And thus we have the ending deferred in the first book -- yet I find it oddly dissatisfying, the lukewarm ending of a disappointing book.

I enjoyed the first volume, even if it wasn't exactly stupendous literature. It was funny to sees certain well-known figures of the science fiction pro and fan community, celebrities and notable/notorious politicians getting their unpleasant comeuppances, either under their own names or fairly transparent pseudonyms. And Allen Carpenter's efforts to make logical sense of the situation, starting with the idea of hyper-advanced aliens creating it for sadistic entertainment, and then deciding that it had to be exactly what it claims to be -- the Hell toured by the Italian poet Dante in his famous poem.

But this novel just doesn't have the same zing. Part of it may be the simple fact that it covers so much of the same ground, just in different ways, so that it ends up reading at times like a rehash of the first volume. But I also feel that the shift in focus from exploration and witnessing to actively seeking to rescue souls may have weakened it as well. A number of other critics have complained about the philosophical discussion slowing down the flow of the story, but I don't think that's all there is to the problem. Allen was struggling with the philosophical underpinnings of eternal punishment in the first volume, trying to reconcile the idea of an eternal punishment with the relative smallness of the sins most people were guilty of, sins that mostly harmed themselves and maybe a few people around them. And the philosophical issues are pretty much the same in this volume -- the disproportionate nature of the punishment in comparison to the crime, and the sense that people don't deserve to be punished forever for wrongs that were finite in duration.

Thus it must be a more subtle problem that makes this story less satisfying, even when it has some really nice scenes, such as Aimee Semple McPherson's story about cutting a deal with the administration of Hell that allowed her to carry out her own ministry of soul-rescue, in which she acknowledges her own flaws even while she insists that others deserve rescue. Part of it may be a shift of tone which undermines the sources of enjoyment of the first volume. And this leaves me with the uncomfortable conclusion that maybe a good bit of the attraction of a story about Hell and the sinners within it is Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of seeing Those Bad People Over There getting what's coming to them in a grimly ironic fashion, and thus reassuring ourselves that we're not so bad as them, that we're covered spiritually and have our golden tickets firmly in hand.

By contrast, when the focus of the story turns to the rescue of the people who messed up enough to need correction, but not enough to merit the unending punishments of a wrathful, vindictive deity, it starts getting rather uncomfortably close to home. Maybe we aren't quite as good as we think we are, and it could be us in there needing to be shown the way out. Not to mention making us think a little harder about the purpose of punishment in society, a subject that our society has historically been rather confused about. As long as it's Those Bad People Over There, we're all for harsh punishments. Make an example of them, to make sure that nobody else dares to transgress. Make them suffer, because they've got to hurt the way they made other people hurt, and if the punishment isn't harsh, it means that you're disrespecting the victims. But when we're the ones who've gotten caught up, we want clemency, we want leniency, we want an opportunity to show that we're really, really sorry and should get a second chance, a fresh start.

So quite honestly, I'd be just as happy if the authors left the storyline where they've ended it, and not try to revisit the other two volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy. Because quite honestly, the Inferno has always been the best known, and arguably the strongest, of the three parts of that masterpiece. And not just because the Paradisio remained incomplete at Dante's death and the ending had to be cobbled together by his heirs. There's a sense that the attempt to portray heavenly bliss always falls short, especially when one compares it to the delicious nastiness of portraying wickedness getting its just deserts. And it's not just in Great Literature -- even the Heaven of Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series seems pale and wan in comparison to the vividly realized Hell with its scheming Satan who's trying to sell unwitting sinners onto its apparent pleasures.

Review posted February 1, 2013.

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