by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Andrew Brooks
Orb Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765316769
Date: 02 September 2008 List Price $12.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Science fiction writer Alan Carpentier, drunk and trying to impress fans at a con, falls from a hotel window and wakes up in a close approximation of Dante's Hell. This isn't a cautionary tale of what to avoid at cons (that could be a whole other novel), but the intro to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's classic Inferno. Reprinted in anticipation of a long awaited sequel, the forthcoming Escape from Hell. Inferno follows Alan through the levels of Hell as he not only attempts to make sense of why he's there, but also tries to escape with the aid of a guide named Benito, who's in Hell for reasons it takes Alan a while to catch on to. Inferno isn't just a rehash of Dante's Hell, and Alan's journey of discovery isn't just to showcase the kinds of hellish landscapes Pournelle and Niven could think up. Inferno is about the journey, the physical and the emotional, and thirty years on it's still a great read.
When Alan Carpenter finds himself in Hell his first thought is that an advanced race has somehow brought him back to life, on an Earth far changed from the one he remembered. He initially believes himself to be a part of some experiment, the rest of the poor souls around him being only robots constructed to inhabit some alien race's idea of an amusement park. Alan meets and convinces fellow inhabitant of Hell, Benito, to go with him towards an immense wall in the distance, but despite traveling for what feels like eons the two get no closer. Benito then promises to show Alan the only way out and they make their way through the levels of Hell. What they find as they travel is both horrific and fascinating, but never dull. Far from it.
The further they go along, the more Alan comes to realize that perhaps he's wrong with his whole alien constructed theme park idea. He sees people in Hell that he knew before he fell and wonders why they were brought there too, but he struggles with something else. Does the punishment fits the crime? This is a recurring theme throughout Inferno, and the central thread behind Alan's emotional metamorphosis. It's fascinating reading and it keeps the novel from being just about a journey through Dante's Hell. And have no doubt, those levels are as nightmarish as you're thinking.
There are of course boiling lakes of blood and demons with pitchforks, but there are other punishments for the denizens of Hell far more interesting. Alan and Benito come across a group rolling giant diamonds towards each other, punishment for both Hoarders and Wasters. They come across fiery deserts and even frozen wastelands, as well as driverless Corvettes that prowl a particular border in Hell. There's even a giant bridge that is being constructed by one group of sinners as another group constantly undoes what they are doing. If there's any common theme in the tortures in Inferno it's repetition.
Niven and Pournelle's classic stands up well despite being over thirty years old, and that's saying something considering a lot of older novels don't. But this is one I can easily see younger SF fans reading and enjoying. Inferno is fascinating, compelling and thought provoking, the ending is fitting and made me like the character of Alan Carpenter even more. I can't wait to begin the sequel: Escape From Hell! Highly recommended.