Monday, April 12, 2010

Ex Libris: Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's Inferno

This one's an oldie but goodie.

Classical literature has always been a rich source of material for science fiction and fantasy writers. SF grandmaster Roger Zelazny wrote the story of Buddha from a science-fiction perspective (Lord of Light). Steven Brust tried to give Lucifer the right motivation in a prequel to John Milton's Paradise Lost (To Reign in Hell).

Even Dan Simmons wrote a funny short story that lamented (and took potshots at) Dante's political leanings when the latter created Hell ("Vanni Fucci is alive and well and living in Hell").

The last one is of particular importance in this case, as SF writing tag-team Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has managed to set up an updated Inferno. In this case, as they borrowed heavily from Italian poet Dante's Inferno, Niven and Pournelle have rewritten the journey to Heaven to accommodate their own Dante, i.e. middling SF writer Allen Carpentier.

Carpentier-- or later on accepting his real name, 'Carpenter'-- is your average 20th century guy who discovers that after living a mediocre life, he is now in Hell. But a chance plea has him meet up with his own Virgil and they soon head further into Hell into order to escape to Heaven. At first Carpenter tries to explain away the vast inexplicability of Hell, rationalizing it through the perspective of an SF writer. However, he ultimately realizes that this ain't Kansas anymore and that all the bio-engineering and world-building isn't enough to explain the domain that is Hell.

In the midst of Carpenter's journey, Niven and Pournelle have also updated Dante's kingdom by throwing in various personages throughout history, including Benito Mussolini, Billy the Kid, Vlad Tepes, and even fellow SF writer L. Ron Hubbard (though they don't have Dante's viciousness in naming names). They also point out some outdated sins ('simony') as well as adaptions to old ones.

Ultimately, the two writers question the vision behind Dante's Hell and this resounds throughout the book via Carpenter's 20st century mores: "We are in the hands of infinite power, and infinite sadism." And this reimagination of Inferno is what makes this book-- and others like its kind-- a standout. In this case, how would you perceive Dante's Hell? Is it right or wrong? Would you allow such a thing to happen?

One final thought: one thing great about taking a page from a dead writer is that-- aside from drawing from great source material-- you don't have to worry about them writing a sequel: that will be the future job of today's writers. Heh. (Rating: Four paws out four.)


Rommel said...

Kurt Vonnegut had a cameo in the book, if I remember it right.

banzai cat said...

hmm... good point, must have missed that.