Review of ESCAPE FROM HELL by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Tor, February 2009
Deceased SF writer Allen Carpenter helped Mussolini escape from Hell and now he's back, intent on helping Hell's entire population escape. It turns out, though, that a lot of Hell's population is happy where they are. Carpenter does have one early success, though. He discovers poet Sylvia Plath transformed into a tree (the fate for suicides) and comes up with a painful way of helping her escape from that prison. Together, the two writers explore Dante's Hell, where they run across any number of mostly-Democratic politicians, lawyers and scientists...and help out assorted Nazis.
ESCAPE FROM HELL is a sequel to INFERNO, also by Larry Niven (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by Niven) and Jerry Pournelle (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by Pournelle), bringing back Carpenter for a second run through Hell. ESCAPE raises some interesting questions--how, exactly, can a loving and all-powerful God be reconciled with a place of eternal punishment? Is it possible for those in Hell to learn, to become worthy of a better fate? Are demons who punish sinners simply doing God's work, or do they have objectives of their own?
Jerry Pournelle's books, in particular, have always been a bit heavy-handed when it comes to conservative politics. For the most part, however, this heavy-handedness comes within the context of an exciting story. ESCAPE FROM HELL contains all of the heavy-handed politics (there's scarcely an interest group within the Democratic party that doesn't come in for special abuse in Hell) but it lacks much of a story. We don't really feel Carpenter's need to escape from Hell or his burning desire to help others escape. Rather, he seems mostly to be enjoying the scenery and the discovery of various lawyers and politicians burning for their sins (along with the opportunity to moralize...the scientists behind banning DDT are burning because of the millions of malaria victims who would have lived had it not been for the ban). Sure it's interesting to see unintended consequences, but again, if we wanted lop-sided editorials, we'd read the Wall Street Journal, not a fantasy novel.
Hell is an interesting place. The concept of Hell raises intriguing questions about the nature of God and his relationship with humanity. Dante's INFERNO is one of the great classics of the western world, and Pournelle/Niven deserve credit for increasing interest in this fascinating epic. I wish, though, that they'd spent a lot more time outlining a plot, giving our characters some, well, character, and a bit less time listing and burning every conservative bugaboo from the past eighty years or so.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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