Inferno (Book Review)
written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
published by Pocket Books, 1976
Sequels: None, though one is in the works
Pretty well everybody has heard of the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno. Very few have actually read it. But then, medieval Italian is not a common language, though there are various translations of it floating around. And, having been written in the 14th century, it is somewhat dated now--
Fortunately, this lack has been addressed! I'm willing to bet that Niven and Pournelle were sitting down together one day, or e-mailing, or talking by phone, or whatever, and one of them idly tossed out a sin that hadn't been around at the time of Dante. Whether that is the truth or not, the pair decided to address that deplorable lack.
Their modernized version of Inferno tells the story of one Allen Carpenter, more commonly known as the Science Fiction writer Allen Carpentier. He changed his last name to make it more distinctive. He died by getting drunk at a Science Fiction convention whilst sitting on a windowsill, and gagged and fell out, unnoticed as Isaac Asimov had just come into the room--
He wakes up in what appears to be the Christian Hell as defined by Dante. Of course, being a science fiction writer, Allen is not about to believe in magic! Obviously he was resurrected by aliens, or because saddened SF fans had his head frozen for future revival which occurred, or some other rational explanation, to be allowed to wander in the futuristic (or alien) amusement park of Infernoland. There to greet him in a man who identifies himself as Benito, or Benny if Allen likes.
And Benito offers to lead Allen out of Hell.
From there, Inferno chronicles Allen's journeys and explorations through Hell. Or Infernoland. He meets people, both famous and mundane, from his past and his future. Step by step they advance, joined and abandoned, following Dante's journey as best they can, but without divine aid. Many sins that were popular in the 14th Century are abandoned, but they have been joined and overwhelmed by more modern sins. What happens to those fanatics who believe that all technology is bad even when they are offered proof that it isn't? That pollution is evil? That lied in congress to follow their party but betray their beliefs? And many, many more.
Through it, Allen works through his own beliefs, about why he became an atheist, and what possible purpose Hell could serve for a supposedly benevolent God. If it is the literal hell, and not an alien or futuristic construct.
One does not need to read Dante's Inferno, or even know about it. Everything you need to get into this well written, slyly winking, narrative, is provided. Even though the transformational content is limited -- just the lizards and serpents in the Bolgia of Thieves in the Eighth Circle, this is a novel that makes you think. It shows that transformation can be included, and not be the be-all and end-all of the story. It makes one examine morality, both personal and Christian. And it offers one answer to why there is a Hell given a supposedly benevolent and all-powerful divinity.