Monday, September 01, 2008


I just finished re-reading "Inferno" for what is probably the seventh or eighth time. Not the one by Dante Alighieri, the hauntingly beautiful first installment in "The Divine Comedy." This was the retelling, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

The book would have benefitted from another draft. Because the narrator is a sci-fi writer, much of the book is dominated by sci-fi talk, as he tries to find scientic explanations for everything he encounters on his journey through hell. And because this is a Niven book, it's chock-full of sly and not-so-subtle references to his other works. Those things get a little distracting.

But I keep reading and re-reading the book. I've read it more times than I have read Dante's classic -- which, in all fairness to me, was among the books stolen from me when I left Haiti -- and more times even than I've read T.H. White's "The Sword in the Stone." Probably the only book I've read more is "The Lord of the Rings." Maybe. ("Inferno" clocks in at 237 pages. Tolkien's masterpiece is well over a thousand.)

Part of the appeal is that it is an easy read. Give me an uninterrupted afternoon, and I'll plow through "Inferno" in a couple hours. It's harder to do that with Ursula LeGuin's "Wizard of Earthsea" series, and impossible with "The Nibelungenleid," even setting aside matters of length. They just have more going on.

Undeniably, I also get a perverse kick out of seeing whom Niven and Journelle have placed among the ranks of the damned. There's Himuralabima, who invented bureaucracy; one of Niven's own fictional characters, from "A Time out of Mind"; Niven and Pournelle themselves, amalgamated in the main character, a science fiction writer named Allen Carpentier; and historical American figures like Billy the Kid, among others.

There's also just enough information given in a few cases to identify other real people who were alive at the time of the book's publication, such as Kurt Vonnegut and L. Rob Hubbard.

Part of the pleasure clearly lies in the hauntingly funereal beauty that Dante gave his hell. Yes, this comes through despite Niven and Pournelle's attempts to put it in science fiction parlance, like describing the plains of Judecca as frozen nitrogen, suggesting that Minos' extensible tail relies on hyperspatial conduits, or putting a collapsed singularity near Satan's navel.

The book suffers from those touches but it positively flourishes when Niven and Pournelle stay true to the idea of Dante's work, or even embellish it. The pit of flatterers, where sinners trod around in human excrement, becomes obscenely appropriate, as we find that the excrement comes out of their mouths whenever they speak.

Similar innovations lie in the Ninth Circle of hell, where Dante depicted traitors frozen in ice. Here Carpentier discovers politicians imprisoned for betraying their own consciences for the sake of party loyalty, Earlier in the journey through hell he encountered violent wasters. In Dante's time, these were people who ostentatiously destroyed objects of great value in order to display their wealth and in hell were chased by mad dogs. In Niven and Pournelle's novel, this presumed antiquated sin is committed by real estate developers who are chased by bulldozers.

Much of the appeal, though, lies in Carpentier's outrage at a pervasive sense of injustice. The eternal punishments of hell, he feels, are too much, too late. What purpose does such unending torment serve? We incarcerate criminals for a few years, maybe even for many years, if their crimes were heinous and they lack the money to hire a good lawyer. But sooner or later, they complete their sentence, they qualify for parole, or they die. At some point, each of them is done and free to leave, if nowhere else, then at least to the final peace of the grave.

But hell? Nothing doing. Day and night, year after year, the torment of the damned continues. Dante depicts homosexuals tormented in a desert where fire falls from the sky like snowflakes, religious schismatics are cut in half, and violent wasters are pursued by mad dogs. In hell the violent are trapped in a river of boiling blood, and traitors are frozen in ice. Judas himself is one of three sinners condemned to be chewed upon by one of Satan's three mouths for all eternity.

That's Dante's imagery, of course, but he didn't make it up ex nihilo. The doctrine of hell predated him by hundreds of years, and while he may have embellished it, Christians have subscribed to a belief in hell since the days of Rome. And I don't know of many Christians who don't find it at least a little problematic to think that the nice God we sing pretty songs to on Sunday could insist on torturing billions of people for all eterntiy. Even those who resist saying so, usually will admit to difficulty when pressed, though they'll always insist that God is just in all he does.

And God is just, being God and all. May God be true and everyone a liar -- but hell still seems harsh when you get down to it. Are the joys of heaven possible only if the damned writhe in eternal torment? Is there some sort of balance, and the Nine Worlds will come crashing down if the fire is quenched and the worm ceases to gnaw?

Does hell exist so the elect can feel safe from people who hurt them in this life? If so, it's going to make heaven a lonely place if that's the case, since everyone hurts someone.

This struggle, which is at the heart and soul of Niven and Pournelle's "Inferno," truly gets going once Carpentier pushes his guide into the Pit of the Evil Counsellors. Carpentier is struck by remorse. He identifies increasingly not just with the plight of the damned but also with the sins that put them there, and he discovers an interesting doctrine of hell; namely, that it's the hotbox God uses to get our attention when all else has failed. The worse we've sinned, the greater the heat, in hopes that something will get through to us.

(If you've read "The Divine Comedy," you'll recall that Virgil led Dante on his journey through the nine circles of hell, through their very center, thus to Purgatory and onward to Heaven, where Beatrice took over. Niven and Pournelle jumped to the logical conclusion that Dante's path shows the way for all the damned to leave hell, making it in essence a zeroth level of Purgatory and creating a universalist view of the afterlife that makes fundamentalists run screaming for the door.)

In the end, "Inferno" moves from being merely an updated vision of Dante's work, to a commentary on the work and even on the doctrine of hell itself. I have no answers myself, just questions that echo in my own soul when I read this book, and that itself is a triumph of sorts, and why I keep reading this book.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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