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Escape from Hell

April 20th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Escape from HellEscape from Hell, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (TOR 2009) [B&T Books] PS3564.I9 E83 2009.

Allen Carpenter is still in Hell. Those who have read Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno, one might have expected him to at least be somewhere in Purgatory by this time. For everyone else, Escape is Niven and Pournelle’s follow-up on their updated prose adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. That first effort proved, if nothing else, a catalyst in renewing interest in Dante.

As unseemly as it may sound, Hell is better the second time around. Inferno dealt with two questions, what does it take to get one to believe something one firmly holds to be impossible and whether Hell just or just sadistic. Most of Inferno is spent with the atheist Allen Carpenter (also known as Allen Carptentier) coming to grips with the fact that he is really dead and he really is is in Hell. The question of justice hung more as a rhetorical device to support his skepticism than as a true investigation However, epistemic angst goes only so far and it sometimes left Inferno feeling like a travelogue of the damned. Escape, while not it may not answer the question, at least engages the reader in what justice could possibly be served in every circle of Hell.

Escape finds Carpenter back on the Isle of Suicides talking to noted poet Silvia Plath. This is a fortuitous meeting since she was a tree when they meet. If you’ve read Dante, you know why, if not, Niven and Pournelle explain. This is also fortunate for the reader. Dante needed Virgil as a guide through Hell and Plath comes much closer to Virgil than Carpenter’s last guide.1 Not only are Dante’s seven circles of Hell laid out, but a fair bit C. S. Lewis can be found also. Without too much work, one can find references to The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, Miracles, and even The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis, however, was unavailable as a guide. Plath, however, is a poet, read Dante, and was an acquaintance of Lewis. Niven and Pournelle may have stretched that last part a bit and I dare say some admirers of Plath may not be altogether pleased with how she is depicted. After a while Plath begins to take on the voice of the newly converted such that one cannot hear the Plath that one would expect from the Bell Jar at all. At one point she anachronistically states that we are cocreators. Even if the events prompt her to such a view, surely she would have come up with something other than this theological neologism. I should not be too harsh, however. Niven and Pournelle have carved out a special niche in Hell for at least some of those critics who would prefer the unreconstructed Plath. To an extent, Plath is among those who have just found faith. She would not make a very good guide if she were still rooted as a tree, and so some sort of conversion would be necessary.

Now, those who have read Dante already know that suicides are in the seventh of seven circles. Even though the seventh circle is very convoluted, it hardly seems Carpenter needed a guide, he already had gone through six circles (twice!) before meeting her. Well, sometimes one needs a guide to get through and sometime to find a way through. Carpenter is looking for justice and Plath provides that guidance as he narrates his tale to her. Like Lewis, Carpenter is convinced that Hell is locked from the inside, Plath helps him discover how that might be. To achieve this requires creating engaging characters whom the reader believes are getting what they deserve and yet sympathizes with enough to wish that they someday get out. Niven and Pournelle pull this off while rarely falling into the temptation of putting their own adversaries in their place, as it were. As a further twist, a fair number of those whom Carpenter meets are giving service to God and well know it, and this service comes out diverse and marvelous ways.

Escape concludes with all Hell breaking loose and Carpenter being cited for disturbing the peace (or terrorism, its hard to tell). What special place Hell finds for Allen Carpenter is your to discover. The journey is worth the destination.

jimm wetherbee

If Escape from Hell looks good, here are some other interesting Baker and Taylor Books. . .

  • The Knights of the Cornerstone, by James Blaylock
    Call Number: PS3552.L3966 K55 2008
  • Juggler of Worlds, by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner.
    Call Number: PS3564.I9 J84 2008
  • The Children of Húrin, by J. R. R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien).
    Call Number: PR6039.O32 N37 2007

1 Although Niven and Pournelle name Carpenter’s first guide, I won’t on the off chance that those who haven’t read Inferno might wish to do so before readying Escape from Hell.