Tuesday, August 4, 2009

From Hell

About a month ago I re-read (decades after the first reading) Niven & Pournelle's Inferno, inspired by the recent release of the sequel, Escape From Hell.

Then last week, I read that very sequel, which in turn inspired by current book, also a re-read: The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, which is in fact a poem.

Anyone who doesn't live a sheltered literary life has at least a passing familiarity with what Dante's Inferno is about. A tour of hell. From the viewpoint, vision, or imagination of a Catholic Italian poet of the Middle Ages. Interestingly, for all of its imagery based in torture and humiliation Dante had a pretty idealistic, some might say enlightened view of what the Catholic church and medieval Christendom should have been like. It is the first part of a trilogy, but far and away the most popular volume. Horrors of the damned aside, it is an incredibly well thought out, meticulously constructed poem (and 'world') with a lot of social and religious criticism included.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, revisited Dante's vision of hell in the mid-70's with their book, Inferno. Whipping up science fiction author/avatar Allen Carpenter, they send their protagonist along similar steps Dante took, only looking at the Catholic hell through more liberal, modern eyes. Writing this thing the authors did not treat the subject lightly or humorously, despite there being some humor in the work. Much of the text of their Inferno is made up of Carpenter trying to be rational about all the supernatural happenings around him-- and then once he comes to believe it, to justify in his own mind why such a place would exist, that is, why would God create it?

Now in 2009, Escape From Hell finishes their vision. Inferno really did end on a note that many readers probably found unsatisfactory. It didn't bother me, but I could see why fans could clamor for a sequel. I don't know if that's why they wrote Escape. But it picks up right where Inferno left off more-or-less and I enjoyed it just as much.... enh, apart from one bit right at the end which seemed really contrived and out of nowhere. I don't want to be shitty spoiler guy so I won't give details, but it involves historical bombmaker Oppenheimer.

All three books are really fast paced. Considering when Dante wrote his poem, for a modern reader to find it so is pretty amazing. But it isn't long. If you haven't read it before, opt for a semi-prose version like Ciardi's translation (recommended by Niven & Pournelle). Most volumes include diagrams of hell to explain the unusual topography, and lots of notes to explain the context and politics of Dante's day.

The two modern volumes are still quite respectful of the idea of God, Satan, hell and all that. They aren't some modern attempt to debunk the whole affair. But it is very interesting to read what hell has become since Dante's time since a number of the sins are more-or-less obsolete (violent wasting) and there are tons of new ones (so where do they belong in hell?).

Good stuff.

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