Who would dare to enter “on the deep and savage way” that Dante did in his The Inferno, except set it in our era and call it Inferno? Not many people would have the chutzpah or the talent to write an entertaining homage to Dante’s masterpiece from the thirteenth century. But Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, arguably the best living sci-fi collaborative duo on modern classics of science fiction The Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer, take on the challenge, and the result is a sci-fi classic in its own right. Inferno, as the authors mention in their notes at the end of the novel, “was never on the bestseller list,” but “it went through more than twenty printings, and has never been out of print for more than a few years since it was first published in 1976.” Thankfully for everyone who is a sci-fi and Dante fan, it’s once more back in print in perhaps the best edition yet; everyone who loves the genre should rejoice at seeing it back in print.
In the original version, Dante is taken on a journey through Hell while still alive by the classical poet Virgil. He describes the people he meets, some of whom he knew. He even named the names of some popes - which earned him and his sons the sentence of death by being burned at the stake (if he’d been caught). Dante relates their pain and suffering, and the fates that other famous people - both real and from literature and mythology - experience after their deaths within the various concentric circles of the Devil’s realm.
By contrast, the protagonist of Inferno is science fiction author Allen Carpenter (“Carpentier” is the name he writes under), who died while attending a sci-fi convention. The fans have reveled in trying to get him drunk, and Allen makes a bet straight from the pages of a Tolstoy novel:
Remember the drinking party in War and Peace? Where one of the characters
bets he can sit on a window ledge and drink a whole bottle of rum without touching
the sides? I made the same bet.
The irony is that as he tilts his head back to attempt to finish off the bottle and falls eight floors to his death, the fleeting and fickle attention of the fans causes them to turn away from him and miss seeing him plunge to his demise. Isaac Asimov has just entered the room, an even brighter sun for the fans to flock around, and they forget about all of the interest they’d shown Carpentier, bestowing it on Asimov instead.
Next thing Carpentier knows, he’s being rescued from one of countless bottles by a man called Benito. Allen doesn’t realize it until later, but his guide, though he seems to be poetic in his own way, is actually Benito Mussolini. Il Duce has been changed from the time he’s spent in Hell, the tortures he’s undergone and the people he has met and helped there. He’s become much like Virgil in wanting to aid as many people he can to escape from Hell, and the two follow the same route (as closely as possible) that Dante does in The Inferno.
Carpentier keeps his speculations about his new environs mostly to himself. While living, he was loath to admit the possibility of there being Heaven and Hell, God and Devil, and he searches for any other possible explanation before finally admitting to himself that he must be in Hell. He theorizes that the place he is in is an artificial construct by an alien race he labels “the Builders,” and that they consider watching the justice meted out in the form of torture and suffering as a form of entertainment. But whoever created the Hell he’s in, he eventually concludes, if not God is some being so technologically advanced as to be as omnipotent as the God of the Bible.
Allen and Benito meet people Allen knew or heard of in his life, much as Dante did. There’s a senator embedded up to his neck in the frozen icy lake of Hell’s innermost circle; Corbett, a space shuttle pilot who travels with the duo for a while; and Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Benito calls to the damned sinners as they journey through the circles of Hell, asking them to join them in escaping from Hell. Few people ever take him up on it, though, either believing he’s lying, he’s crazy, or that they deserve to be exactly where they are, that trying to leave would only be futile and possibly increase the severity of their punishments.
Inferno is a modern-day take on The Inferno as told from the perspective of a science fiction author. As renowned sci-fi author Norman Spinrad puts it in a blurb on the back of the book, it’s “quite literally a cakewalk through hell.” Everything I’ve ever read by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has been of a high quality and degree of excellence. Anyone who considers him- or herself to be a science fiction fan should read Inferno and everything else these talented authors have written. Also, if you’re someone who has read and loved Dante’s original, you’re sure to get a kick out of this ultra-imaginative novel.