Inferno is the modern day telling of Dantes 14th century epic poem. Even for those who have never read The Divine Comedy (such as myself), this tale of a trip to hell is familiar to many. The 1976 Hugo and Nebula nominated novel by Niven and Pournelle has had over twenty reprints over the years. The latest reprint is available on the shelves of bookstores in time for its long awaited sequel Escape from Hell.
The novel opens with Science Fiction writer Allen Carpentier dying in a stunt to impress fans. The agnostic Carpentier finds himself in an astral equivalent of solitary confinement. His world is a bronze haze. He can think, speak and move but cannot feel or see a thing. His very existence challenges Descartes statement I think therefore I am. In a fit of madness, he says the magic words that frees him from his prison (a djinn bottle), only to find himself in the Vestibule of Hell where he meets guide, Benito (a real person in history). Benito informs him where he is and claims to know the way out, through the nine circles of hell to its very center.
The ever-skeptical Carpentier chooses to believe he is elsewhere and theorizes he is in a futuristic amusement park he terms ‘Infernoland’. Allen and his guide travel through all the horrors of hell all while he meets people that he knew during his life and famous people throughout history.
Inferno is a visual masterpiece. Each layer of hell is laid out as maze of terror. The souls of the damned suffer as cruelly as the fire and brimstone preachers have claimed, and some, in this book. Carpentier and his companions suffer many of the punishments of the damned as they cross each circle. They endure such cruelty as a boiling lake of blood, a desert of burning sand with snowflakes of fire, and an industrial wasteland patrolled by driverless Corvettes that run down the wasters in life. However, Carpentier’s real struggle is with his own agnostic beliefs.
One of the foundations for an agnostic is why would an all powerful being create a supernatural torture chamber like hell? Allen, the Science fiction master prefers to believe he is another prop in a futuristic society than contemplate a possibility that Dante’s vision was real. He is constantly reevaluating his theories while witnessing many of the miracles and horrors of hell, such as; never being able to reach the short wall the circles hell, the judge of Hell, Minos, and his impossibly long tail, and the ability to heal despite suffering the worst of injuries.
Carpentier cannot understand the unending punishment souls are forced to face for eternity. The suffering that many endure seem out of balance for the sins they had committed in life. His conscience argues this point throughout the book while he tries to piece together the where and why he and others are there. The ability to make a universe does not presuppose moral superiority, he concludes at one point. By the end of the novel, Allen finds a reason on why god would have a place like hell, one that I found fitting.
As an amateur that writes as hobby, I recommend Inferno as a great template on how to build on a familiar theme (hell) and insert characters that are larger than a wonderful plot. One of the recommendations that many ‘How to’ books stress is to make your character change from the experience in your story. Allen Carpentier changes like few others that I have read before. Niven and Pournelle create a man who faces down demons and wades through boiling blood very believable to me.
There are very few writers in the industry that are able to work together and produce a publishable story, Niven and Pournelle make it look easy. The two accomplished authors have published several together, The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall, are just a few. Inferno was their third collaborative novel together, and in my opinion, their best. I was hooked on the first page, followed their journey eagerly as they passed through each circle of hell, and found the ending moving.
Some may find Inferno theologically challenging. I believe it was written to be that way. As reader who loves Science Fiction and Fantasy, Inferno has remained in my top ten favorite stories of all time. I can’t recommend highly enough.
Frank Dutkiewicz is every bit as cute and cuddly as his picture suggests. He has nine stories that have been published. His first eight were all flash fiction then he got wise and rode Dave's coattails and sold one to the upcoming Shadows of the Emerald City anthology. The chicks dig Frank and can't keep their hands off him but hate his cold nose.