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Escape from Hell

A book by Larry Niven

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Climbing Up Satan's Hairy Leg

  • Feb 27, 2011
I have just completed Niven & Pournelle's sequel to INFERNO - ESCAPE FROM HELL.

And I am at a loss as to exactly how to proceed with this review. I consider it almost mandatory that new readers engage with the initial book first (Inferno) and, if you've not read it, I am loathe to provide spoilers - which greatly cramps my style when it comes to talking about either book. Nevertheless...

Inferno first appeared on the scene as a serialized novel in the pages of Galaxy magazine. It was nominated for both the Hugo and and Nebula Awards (though it won neither - competition in the late 70's was somewhat fierce and the importance of a nomination back then was almost as strong a recommendation as the win itself) and caused quite a bit of lively discussion amongst readers at conventions and in the (non-electronic) fan press at the time.

Using Dante's epic poem Inferno as the launching pad, Pournelle and Niven drop a skeptical, well-educated and mostly agnostic science fiction author straight into (what many believe to be) Biblical Hell. (Most modern day folk's vision of the netherworld is more Dante than Bible tho most don't realize it.)

Allen Carpenter (writing in the fictional world as Carpentier) finds himself in a formless void, bereft of form and unable to determine how he can be aware of anything since he knows that he died - the result of a 'maybe' accident while attending a science fiction convention.

He runs through numerous science fictional explanations for his condition (in a manner that informs us that Carpenter is truly a stand-in for the combined Niven-Pournelle persona - the person that the two of them would be if their numerous collaborations were in fact the work of a single author).

The initial conflict is science fiction literature's own conflict: how to incorporate the mystical, mythical, paranormal and physically impossible into a world view that demands logic and the rule of physical law.

And Carpenter handles it in the only truly logical manner open to a science fiction author - he makes up a story. In Carpenter's mind, the Hell he experiences has got to make SENSE. As informed and familiar as he is with the tropes of modern (70s/80s era modern) science fiction, Allan has no trouble conjuring up possibilities, finally settling on the theory that Hell is an alien construct, an amusement park he calls Infernoland.

Subsequent events begin to nibble away at the edges of Carpenter's theory, not the least of which is the identity of his travelling companion. Together, Allan and 'Benito' accept that most of what they see is an accurate depiction of Dante's poem and they use their knowledge of the epic to navigate the circles of Hell in a quest to find egress.

The novel itself is equal parts philosophical treatise and an amusement park ride through Infernoland. The concept of hell, the propriety of eternal punishment, the seeming injustice, all of which is typified in the statement that "We're in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism" are examined in light of the various punishments meted out for the different sins that are revealed as we travel along with Benito and Allen towards the bottom of Hell.

The adventure quest is no less entertaining - enormously amusing in places as Carpenter pits his creative skills and modernist sensibilities against those of a medieval torture chamber.

No less amusing are the various fates endured by many historical figures - the identities of whom are often only hinted at, leaving the reader the discern who is being punished in such a fashion (and whether, as the characters themselves often ask, the punishment is a just one).

Carpenter rapidly comes to the conclusion that, given the condition of the inhabitants of Infernoland there can truly be no justification for Infernolands existence - unless the souls who are captured there can eventually achieve salvation.

In many respects, Inferno is a novel about the importance of learning the rules and an interesting take on how science fiction informs on that activity: there may very well be unseen consequences to the rules - and there certainly are for breaking them!

The irony, of course, is that Niven and Pournelle managed to write a science fiction story that remained very true to the conceits and forms of that genre, while delving into a topic that is anything but logical and scientific in nature. The unstated conclusion is that the tools of science (fiction) prove to be capable of handling the problem and emerge triumphant.

Take a break for thirty years. Watch a little as religion (in all its various forms) changes and evolves with the times, is forced, more and more, to wrestle with knowledge and information that seems to be at odds with many of its teachings. Generate just a tad of sympathy for your character who has remained in Hell for all of those years (though since Infernoland defies normal time-space laws, thirty years may only seem like the blink of an eye to your character) and you end up with ESCAPE FROM HELL.

Much anticipated (at least by fans of the Niven-Pournelle collaborative novel), Escape is a valid continuation of the series and a much different novel than the first.

Upon opening, we discover that Carpenter has turned his theory (there must be a purpose to Hell and it is only served by allowing the inhabitants to escape) into a self-appointed task.? He's accepted the pain and the torment as a necessary condition, he's accepted the timeless nature of the place and sets out on the beginnings of a quest to make sure that every single soul in Hell knows that they can get out.

Those who have previously read Inferno will understand that Escape From Hell is a differently-oriented novel the moment that Carpenter meets his first companion - the poet Sylvia Plath. Plath committed suicide and is rooted (literally) in the wood of suicides. Sylvia is a tree. Sylvia can only speak to Carpenter if she is 'bleeding' and Carpenter performs the necessary task of breaking off her limbs as they continue their conversation.

Poets can only speak if they are bleeding!? (Although other fates await other poets who have ended up in Hell, this cynical, ironic statement about Sylvia's fate encapsulates much of the viewpoint of the novel itself.)

Together, the philosophical science fiction writer and the philosophical poet once again begin exploring the nature of Hell and the conclusions one must come to if Hell is to make sense - and they are desperate for Hell to make sense, because otherwise there would be no meaning to anything. (That Hell is a stand-in for the general human condition should not be lost on anyone.)

Much more philosophical treatise than travelogue this time around, Escape From Hell gives Niven and Pournelle a chance to delve more deeply into many of the questions raised by the original novel. It also gives them a chance to 'update' Hell in light of changes that have taken place in the contemporary world - not the least of all is a chance for non-Catholics (Dante's Inferno was very much a Catholic construct) to reach salvation.

Along the way we do meet some interesting inhabitants (Lester Del Ray the science fiction author - who would have the answers if any EXPERT would... Carl Sagan the? astronomer and science popularizer and well-known atheist among them) and it quickly becomes apparent that everyone has done something during their lives that would justify eternal damnation.

If the rules are strictly interpreted in black and white - EVERYONE goes to Hell. Of course, Carpenter takes hope in the corallary to that rule: the road out of Hell is OPEN to everyone.

What also seems to be happening is that the real world has begun intruding on Hell (how else explain the preponderance of attorneys and advertising folks?) and the conceit here seems to be that in the face of more and more information becoming available to the common man, the more and more the myth of Hell is forced to change and retreat.

Explaining exactly how that works would be a spolier, since it involves the fate of Islamic suicide bombers...

Escape From Hell is certainly not the thrill ride that Inferno was. In many respects the action-adventure aspects of the first story may have detracted somewhat from the philosophical questions being pondered (not necessarily in a bad way: in this respect, Inferno hewed closely to Gernsback's theory that science fiction should candy-coat the science for easier assimilation) and many folks may have unwittingly been introduced to concepts and ideas that might otherwise be foreign to them. Not so in Escape: the questions raised by the existence of a real Hell and real eternal damnation are front and center. You may very well find yourself (uncomfortably) questioning some of your own actions and decisions throughout your life.

Carpenter, as a character, is (forgive me) hell-bent on proving his theory: like most of us as we get older (and as the authors themselves have aged) we seek some meaning to our lives and Carpenter is no exception. Even if those answers run contrary to everything he once believed, so long as they remain internally consistent, he'll have his meaning.

In the long run, the meaning to be garnered from Escape From Hell may be that it is only until we take responsibility for everything that we have done - for good or for ill, whether intentionally or consequentially - will we have meaning.? After all, are we not the sum of our lives? What we've done is who we are.

If readers are expecting the same spectacle - the playing in Infernoland - as is found in Inferno, they will be disappointed. Perhaps the best way to delineate the two is this: Inferno is the kiddie ride through Hell, Escape is the ride you have to be above a certain height to take.

The novel is a standalone, but you'll be far better informed and, I think, will be able to enjoy Escape From Hell in its proper context much better by reading Inferno first. You might even want to bite the bullet and go all the way back to Dante's epic poem (Escape recommends several editions:? indeed, Inferno turns out to have inspired the re-publication of the original and caused an increase in academic interest).

Escape From Hell is a more thoughtful presentation of the material, a worthy successor to Inferno and a work that is reflective of the talents behind it, talents that have aged well over the past three decades.

I give Escape From Hell four out of five stars and recommend it - for Niven and Pournelle fans, for fans of Inferno and for anyone who is interested in the by-play and intersection to be found in examining non-traditional themes through a science fiction lens.

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review by . May 07, 2009
Escape from hell was long coming but is a very worthy successor to Larry Niven's inferno.    Our Hero Allen Carpenter (or Carpentier) finds himself again going from top to bottom encountering people from New Orleans levee boards to Ground Zero.    This time Allen is in the Benito role trying to lead people out of hell. He finds himself with companions; the primary two being an attorney from the big easy who died recently (our time) , and a famous Poet from …
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In the long-awaited sequel to 1976's Hugo and Nebula–nominatedInferno, dead science fiction writer Allen Carpenter returns to the nine circles of Dante's Hell on a quest. After witnessing infamous fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (Carpenter's Virgil-like guide inInferno) escape from the confines of Hell, Carpenter vows to make the nightmarish journey again and liberate as many tortured souls as possible. Poet Sylvia Plath, recently freed from the Wood of Suicides, accompanies Carpenter, as do a diverse cast of notorious historic figures, including Pontius Pilate, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Anna Nicole Smith. This well-constructed tale will inspire many readers to seek out the originalDivine Comedy, but fans ofInfernomay find that the landscape and the plot are a little too familiar.(Feb.)
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ISBN-10: 0765316323
ISBN-13: 978-0765316325
Author: Larry Niven
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
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