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Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Published by Orb Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After several successful collaborations, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle decided they wanted to try a modern revisitation of Dante's famous work, the Divine Comedy. More specifically the first volume, Inferno, which has always been the most interesting of the three, with its vivid imagery of the torments visited upon the damned, torments chosen to be particularly appropriate to the sins committed by them in life.

However memorable those eternal punishments may be in their visceral appeal to our deepest fears, there's a certain thinness to the theology that's particularly bothersome to modern readers. Of course one has to consider that much of it is in fact more on the order of political satire, since many of the people who are portrayed as being punished in it are Dante's contemporaries, especially social and political notables. And the satire aside, there were some practicalities to consider: Dante was writing in a time when heresy was still a crime that could net a person some serious penalties, so he couldn't present anything that was contrary to stated Catholic Church doctrines of the time, even just as a work of imaginative literature. So he couldn't really delve into things such as the purpose of an eternal Hell of unending punishment in a universe created by a good God, or anything that might seem to challenge the doctrine of eternal damnation of the unsaved.

In the original, Dante wrote himself into the story as the protagonist, led by the ancient philosopher Aristotle on a grand tour of the afterlife. Since this story was a collaboration, neither author could directly write himself into the story, so they decided to do the next best thing and create a protagonist who was a sort of composite of themselves and some other writers they know.

Allen Carpentier is a science fiction writer, and he lives a life that many science fiction readers could recognize, including his attempts to impress his fans so that they'll vote for him in the Hugos (the annual awards given out at each year's World Science Fiction Convention). Thus he starts the novel by dying stupidly at a science fiction convention, showing off while drunk.

The next thing he knows, he's being let out of a bottle by an Italian named Benito (and yes, I guessed just who this Benito had to be the moment he appeared, but I've done extensive research on World War II, so I didn't need that many clues to make the connection). Benito then leads Carpentier through Hell on a journey that retraces the one Aristotle took Dante on. However Hell has modernized to deal with sins that Dante never dreamt of, sins made possible by modern technology and the society it created. For instance, there are punishments for those who willfully rape the environment -- and for enviro-weenies who block beneficial developments because of blind adherence to an organization or doctrine or due to a need for self-aggrandizement. The authors also get some interesting jabs in at various figures in the science fiction community, particularly L. Ron Hubbard, creater of Scientology, although there were some characters who appeared to be based upon more obscure fannish figures.

For the first part of the novel, Carpentier tries to make a scientific explanation for what he is seeing. A lifelong atheist, he doesn't believe in God or the afterlife, so he assumes that all he sees around him must be the work of incredibly sophisticated aliens. Something along the line of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld (although that series is never explicitly named), except built by sadists who are getting their jollies from the suffering of their hapless recreated humans. But as the story progresses, he becomes increasingly convinced that there's no possible way that any purely natural beings, no matter how incredibly sophisticated, could have done this -- the information problems involved in reconstructing every human being who ever lived are simply too huge.

Thus he has no choice but to conclude that all he is seeing is of supernatural origin, that he is indeed in the Hell which Dante toured. Yet he cannot consider the creator of such a place of horror worthy of worship. Instead, he becomes determined to confront this being, whom he calls the Big Juju to avoid using the term "God" with all its cultural baggage of demand for worship. Why create a place of infinite punishment for crimes that were in fact finite? It's only as he and Benito are making their final climb of the imprisoned Satan's body in order to reach the escape hole to Purgatory does Carpentier conclude that the purpose of Hell is not simply cruelty, or even retribution, but a sort of cosmic wake-up call to compell the damned to change their way of thinking and break free of the sins that are holding them there.

Thus Carpenter (he's dropped the "i" as an affectation and gone back to the original form of his name) decides to make it his job to spread the word, to get the souls in Hell to see that their suffering isn't their fate or their just deserts, and to believe that they can change themselves and become worthy to ascend. And in order to do that, to really believe what he is about to preach, he insists that Benito must go through the escape hole and ascend, to prove that anybody, even the worst of sinners can be freed.

This is one scene that feels real heart-warming when you read it for the first time, but as you think about it afterward, putting it in the context of the entire novel, it starts to bother you. How much evidence do we really have for moral and spiritual change on Benito's part? Yes, he talked about having tried to organize things in Hell and having failed, with the implication that he has given up ambition for personal and political power -- but is there any real evidence that he has truly reformed, rather than simply deemed it inexpedient to seek power and otherwise do evil? He never shows any remorse for his involvement in the horrors of the 20th century's worst war, any awareness that he harmed others rather than simply made poor choices that resulted in less than optimal outcomes for himself. In other words, has he truly reformed, or has he just sharpened his sense of enlightened self-interest?

Although the authors talk about striving to develop a more mature and self-consistent theology of Hell and the place of punishment in the afterlife, I'm not sure they've really succeeded. The problem is that they have focused almost entirely upon punishment as something done for the sake of the individual being punished, to make them turn away from their sins and move toward righteousness. But in fact rehabilitation is only one function of punishment, and it has two other functions in society: the function of deterrence -- society saying "this action is unacceptable, don't do it or you'll get punished too" -- and the function of retribution -- in order to prevent the endless feuds that come from private retribution, sovereign authority carries out retribution on behalf of the wronged in a systematic and impersonal fashion.

Even if the wrongdoer really has truly changed and has abandoned all rationalization and self-justification to become truly remorseful for their acts, is that alone truly sufficient to erase the debt that the wrongdoer owes the victim of those misdeeds? Or might there be some sins so terrible that it's not enough just to be truly sorry for them, that one needs to pay a price even after one is sorry, not for the sake of one's own soul, but so that the victim can be reassured that the transgressor is indeed paying for those terrible things? Are some wrongs beyond repayment?

And that failure to look at punishment within the context of social relationships, rather than just the individual, is probably the weakest part of this book. Had the authors been satisfied to write social satire, I think it would have worked, but when they tried to go beyond it and discuss deeper spiritual issues of sin and redemption, they got in over their heads. While the traditional understanding of the situation of the soul after death as represented by Dante does have its elements that feels like God playing "gotcha!" (especially the problem of a person who is normally a good sort but who does one bad thing while angry or otherwise emotionally overwrought and then has a fatal accident before they can calm down and repent), simply saying that Hell is one last cosmic wake-up call to get people to change their ways without considering the issues of the debts the wrongdoer owes those they have wronged is still simplistic in another way.

Review posted April 29, 2010.

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