Inferno August 2, 2012

Review of Inferno by  Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle


In my college Epic Poetry class, I was given the assignment of writing a new Canto to Dante’s Inferno. I had two ideas that seemed equally appealing, so I stuck them both into my own three-page masterpiece of undergraduate prosy. First, being the unique and creative individual that I am, I thought that Hitler probably deserved a place in hell. Rather than simply stick him with the suicides or the violent or the wicked leaders, I imagined a place where racists suffer for eternity. Black and white souls are flayed forever in a swirling ocean of rainbow-colored glass. The professor was (quite rightly) less than impressed.

Second, I started to think about myself and the long list of my own sins, and realized that I was more of an equal-opportunity sinner. Dante seems to have no real category for that, so I described a tunnel that runs from the bottom of hell to the top. Harpies would carry souls to the entrance of hell and shove them so hard that they bounce through each circle to the bottom where, after suffering each available torment, they are carried back up and shoved again. Forever.

I suspect that every reader of Dante’s Inferno has taken a moment to imagine a new corner of hell for their favorite sins or sinners, even if not for a grade. Likewise, I suspect that all of us who’ve trampled through Dante’s elegant cantos have asked ourselves the question: is this really fair? The awful things that Dante imagines going on for all eternity? Isn’t that a bit… harsh? Would a loving God really punish people for all eternity?

Unlike most of us, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have put those thoughts on paper and written an updated version of the Inferno. In this 1976 book, science fiction author Allen Carpentier dies and awakes in the Vestibule of Hell in the presence of his guide, Benito Mussolini. The two make their way through the pit, meeting everyone from Aeneas to an astronaut from the future. Niven and Pournelle largely stick to Dante’s geography, only occasionally updating where it seems consistent with changes in world history. For example, among the “Flatterers” are advertising executives. The city of Dis has become an administrative bureaucratic nightmare and, well, finding the other changes is a good portion of the fun of the book.

Most importantly, the main character regularly asks the question we’d expect from a 20th century sci-fi writer who found himself in hell (once he stops thinking it’s a giant alien experiment). Namely: Doesn’t the existence of these apparently extreme punishments imply that God is “infinite power and infinite sadism?”  Carpentier repeatedly declares that God is unjust in his punishment of the wicked. Which makes it a temptation to dismiss this as simply having too shallow a view of God’s holiness and justice. And yet, as Carpentier talks to each sinner he decides that perhaps their specific punishment isn’t so bad.

We may not like the idea of hell as an abstract concept, but when faced with the personal reality of evil, Divine justice becomes appealing to even Carpentier’s cynical mind. Maybe in general we hesitate at the idea of eternal punishment, but when confronted with the immediate and personal effects of sin such hesitation loses some of its force. While we like the idea of broad and general mercy, few of us actually want murderers to get away with it. Niven and Pournelle have given us a book that encourages us to think about these common approaches to the problem of divine justice.

Overall, this is a fascinating and well-written book. Not least because (according to the Author’s Note) it is the result of an attempt to combine Dante’s Inferno with C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. As a result, Hell is not a static place of punishment, but rather a place of continued opportunity for salvation through humility. As Lewis repeatedly suggests in The Great Divorce, the problem is not that people can’t leave hell, it’s that they won’t. Which also means that the theology of the novel perhaps isn’t the greatest ever, but that’s to be expected from a combination of Lewis and Dante. Both of whom I dearly love, but they’re better writers than theologians.

Highly recommended to fans of science fiction, Dante, Lewis, or theology.

Note: there is a sequel, but it is not Purgatorio, it is instead called simply Escape from Hell.

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