On a recent trip to Borders, I was surprised to find Escape from Hell, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s newly published sequel to their 1976 novel Inferno. I had greatly enjoyed the original when I read it back in ’86 during my tumultuous year in Hollywood. I was taken with the tale of a science-fiction writer who found himself in a Hell patterned after the one described in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The notion of Hell has always fascinated me. At first it was something I feared, due in no small part to watching too many Twilight Zone episodes. Later I was obsessed with the dissonance of a loving, fatherly God meting out eternal punishment. I came to believe that no earthly sin, no matter how heinous, justified torture for all time. Yes, that includes Hitler.
Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno came to a similar conclusion, as its narrator encountered souls suffering horrible and cruelly ironic fates for what, in some cases, were relatively minor “sins”: for example, an FDA attorney doomed to an eternity of immobile obesity because she banned a sugar substitute. It was she who spoke the line echoed in Escape from Hell, “We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism.” Ultimately, Inferno suggested that Hell must be only temporary, and that even the worst of humanity could be redeemed. Indeed, at the conclusion of that novel, the protagonist watched a reformed Benito Mussolini climb his way out of the pit.
Escape from Hell seemed to promise that it might address some of the remaining questions from Inferno regarding the purpose and nature of Hell*, but opts instead for posing those questions a second time. In fact, it struck me as less sequel and more remake, with its hero being blown all the way back to the beginning and having to make the perilous journey a second time. In a recent interview Pournelle says that the reason he and Niven revisited the setting after so many years was that they “had a story.” I’m not entirely convinced of that. While there are hints of changes in Hell wrought not only by Mussolini’s escape but by real-world events such as the Vatican II council, these never quite boil into a full-fledged expansion of the plot.
What it does allow is for Niven and Pournelle to toss a whole new batch of sinners into the pitch, including Ken Lay, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Carl Sagan. I was disappointed by the book’s handling of Sagan. In the above-linked interview, Pournelle claims a relationship with the astronomer, so I won’t dispute the authors’ reasons for consigning him to the Inferno. I just felt that, pragmatist or not, Sagan came off as too quickly accepting of a Biblical Hell, and too willing to cooperate with its masters.
It also gets a bit talky at times, with the characters frequently digressing into philosophical discussions. Natural enough, I suppose, but I didn’t feel like they were saying much that hadn’t been covered in the first book. Plus, the authors presume that I have as much interest as they do in the life and work of Sylvia Plath. (The poet is a major character in the sequel.) I can assure them that I don’t.
That said, there were some clever bits in Escape from Hell. One of the most striking images is of a post-9/11 Ground Zero in which an endless series of proposed replacements for the Twin Towers rise, each in turn proving insubstantial and collapsing due to a lack of commitment. In moments such as those, Escape from Hell demonstrates that while it’s far from a necessary sequel, it at least has something new to say.
*In our own world, Hell appears to serve several purposes. The threat of eternal damnation is an inducement for “good” behavior. It’s one method by which religious leaders exert control over their flocks and influence over the rest of us. But I suspect that its most important purpose is to allow us some measure of satisfaction over the rampant injustice we see. We know damned well that–despite aphorisms such as “crime never pays”–horrible people do prosper, and all too often they are never held accountable. Hell allows us to believe that even those who go to their death on a pile of money and whores will meet their just punishment in the afterlife.