Niven and Pournelle: Escape from Hell

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.31.36 AMWC’s parents had a 1948 edition of the White translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the one with the Doré engravings. Those engravings were dark, gruesome and vivid; they were fascinating to a teenager, and sucked WC in to Dante’s great work. And demonstrated to WC that the first book of The Divine Comedy, “Inferno,” was by far the most interesting.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle re one of the truly great science fiction novel collaboration in history. They have written absolutely top notch novels of first contact with aliens (The Mote in God’s Eye), alien invasion (Footfall) and doomsday meteor strike (Lucifer’s Hammer).

In 1976, Niven and Pournelle published their version of Inferno, a modern re-working of the first book of Dante’s opus. instead of Dante, the narrator was the fictional Alan Carpentier, nee Carpenter, a pedestrian science fiction writer. Dante’s guide was Virgil, the great Roman poet. Carpenter’s guide was, well, that’s a surprise, but let’s just say he was Italian also.

Inferno was interesting, if not quite great. In some ways, it also represented Niven’s lamentable descent into travelogue instead of plot. You know, “Inferno on $5 A Day.” But the novel also had some excellent moments, including the apparent ramblings of a mad psychiatrist, who turned out to understand the real purpose of Hell, or at least of Niven’s modern Inferno. The novel was a complete work; there was no real need to go back. There was no need for a sequel.

But go back we did. In the overwrought title, Escape from Hell, Niven and Pournelle revisit Alan Carpenter as he tries to put into effect the ideas he developed in “Inferno.” They don’t involve any escape from Hell; quite the opposite.

Again, the novel has its moments. The despairing would-be rescuer of souls reclines on the roots of a tree in the Wood of Suicides. And the tree turns out to hold the spirit of Sylvia Plath. The first half of the novel has Carpenter tell the story of his failures to Plath. Nice irony, especially if you’ve read Plath’s poetry. But the back story device isn’t successful; the dialog with Plath is much more interesting than the back story of Carpenter’s earlier fumblings. Not until Plath is out of the tree and headed further into Hell does the story really pick up, and then gets even more badly bogged down in the complexities of, wait for it, papal encyclicals. (WC couldn’t make this up.)

And while WC has a pretty good grasp of The Divine Comedy, WC sure couldn’t figure out why there are exploding Arab terrorists roaming Hell. And can someone explain how Robert Oppenheimer’s fate fits into the plot? Other than as a nuclear deus ex machina? And exactly what has happened, in Heaven, Earth or Hell, that is causing humans to supplant Dante’s demons as the administrators of Hell? Why do a series of minor New Orleans political hacks become Princes (or Princesses) of Hell? Why does Aimee Semple McPherson, 1930’s woman radio evangelist, ride a Harley-Davidson in Hell? All of these are interesting images and ideas, but they float through the plot without being linked to any explanation. Niven and Pournelle used to bring us airtight plots. Not this time.

Three stars for the return of Nascar Oscar and Billy the Kid, but that’s being generous. Read their earlier Inferno; it’s pretty good. Anyone but collectors should skip the hardback Escape from Hell and wait for the paperback.