Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are known primarily for ďhardĒ sci fi novels like LUCIFERíS HAMMER and FOOTFALL. Iím not too into that sort of thing, but INFERNO is something else entirely: a sprightly, surreal and totally captivating fantasy with a daring take on the inferno as imagined by Dante Alighieri.
Danteís INFERNO, for those who donít know, was the opening portion of the DIVINE COMEDY (1308-1321), a three-part epic poem about Danteís exploits in the afterlife (with the succeeding portions focused on Purgatory and Heaven). Told in the first person, Danteís INFERNO consists of his journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil.
In Niven and Pournelleís INFERNO the protagonist is science fiction novelist Allen Carpentier, who during a party falls eight stories and comes to in Hell. More specifically, he finds himself trapped inside a bronze bottle, located at the Vestibule to Hell. But then heís poured out by a burly European-accented individual named Benito, who ends up playing Virgil to Carpentierís Dante as the two traverse the nine circles of Hell. Theyíre made witness to all manner of tortures along the way, and pick up (and discard) travel companions that include a space shuttle pilot named Corbett and none other than Billy the Kid. Their journey encompasses a flight over the infernal city of Dis in a homemade glider, a wade through a lake of boiling blood and a rumbling ride across a flaming desert in a self driving car.
As a pure adventure story this book is virtually impeccable. It suffers only from Carpentierís distracting interior monologue that periodically interrupts the action (he initially thinks heís in some kind of sci fi theme park called Infernoland); introspection is evidently not something Niven and Pournelle do especially well. Fans of more up-to-date fictional treatments of the inferno like Jeffrey Thomasí LETTERS FROM HADES and Wrath James White and Monica OíRourkeís POISONING EROS will likely chafe at the rather perfunctory descriptions and lack of X-rated detail, but that at least makes sense from a character standpoint. The tale, after all, is told from Carpentierís weary, curmudgeonly viewpoint, which is anything but soulful and contemplative (another reason the introspective asides donít work).
Itís difficult to remain cross with this book for too long, in any event, as itís such a blast of imaginative nastiness. Many surprises are in store for Carpentier and the reader, including Benitoís real-world identity (his last name is withheld until near the end) and the final revelation of the true purpose of Hell. The latter is pure speculation on the parts of Niven and Pournelle (and decidedly blasphemous speculation at that) but nonetheless makes perfect sense.
FYI, the authors crafted a sequel to this
book, ESCAPE FROM HELL, in 2009.