Thursday, 12 March 2009

‘Escape from Hell’ – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor)


Way back in 1976 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a book called ‘Inferno’, a modern day retelling of ‘The Divine Comedy’ where a recently deceased sci-fi author finds himself guided through the nine circles of Hell by one Benito Mussolini. I was only a few months old when ‘Inferno’ was published so never got round to picking the book up. Come to think of it, I still haven’t got round to picking the book up...
Anyway, fast forward thirty three years and Niven and Pournelle have written a sequel to ‘Inferno’ which came through the door a couple of days ago. Any book that has the word ‘Escape’ on the front (and in big letters) is bound to get my interest and... Escape from Hell? You can’t escape from Hell... can you?
I thought I had better read the book and find out...

With the help of Benito Mussolini sci-fi author Allen Carpenter managed to escape the nine circles of Hell but remained haunted by the sight of those souls that he saw as being tortured unfairly. There was only one thing that he could do, go back into Hell and rescue as many souls as he could...
Now Carpenter is back in Hell and on a mission. If he can’t rescue souls then the very least that he wants to be able to do is to point them in the right direction. Carpenter barely managed to escape the last time though, will he be able to do it again?

As much as I enjoyed this book it’s worth mentioning that you really shouldn’t pay the ‘action packed thriller’ comment, on the front, too much attention. While there are moments where the pace heats up ‘Escape from Hell’ is more of a thoughtful work where Allen Carpenter is forced to question his own role in Hell and the fate of those he finds there. This takes place over what is essentially a guided tour of Hell for those who haven’t read Dante’s work. The background setting is suitably demonic and Niven & Pournelle do well to show the reader that while Hell’s evil is cast in stone, humanity’s free will makes for an evil that is a lot more flexible and can do a lot more harm. This makes for some interesting encounters with characters whose predicament gives rise to reactions that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Some people would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, others have made a promise and fully intend to stick by it; others do repent of their sins despite where they have ended up... Each and every encounter gives you plenty to think about, whether it’s about Allen (and the role he must play) or the people who he is trying to save.

The only real problem with the ‘guided tour’ format is that it lends a very repetitive air to proceedings. It’s very much a case of ‘Allen goes to the next circle, meets a sinner, tries to talk them into escaping, succeeds/fails, and repeat...’ I’ll admit that I had an issue with this; the repetitive nature of the plot did have me starting to yawn on more than one occasion...

What saves ‘Escape from Hell’ from being a one trick pony is not only the thoughtful nature of the subject matter but also the way in which Niven & Pournelle take each character through their own internal journey to decide whether they should seek to escape Hell or not. Some of the historical characters they choose to focus on make for some interesting reading. While the obvious choices (such as Hitler and Stalin) are featured it’s characters such as Sylvia Plath, Lester Del Rey and William Bonney that stir the imagination as we get an idea of their motivations in life and how their thinking may have changed now they’re in the afterlife The book also asks the reader whether they agree with Allen or not regarding the question of whether people deserve the punishments of Hell. Does everyone who’s there deserve to be there? Most people do, at least to start off with...

‘Escape from Hell’ is a slow old read but one that certainly got me thinking, I reckon it will get you thinking too.

Eight out of Ten

3 comments:

Erik said...

They put Lester Del Rey in Hell?

Michael Natale said...

@Erik:

You beat me to it. What in the world is he in HELL for!?

Graeme Flory said...

Yep, he was there... (A virtuous pagan apparently...)