CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A few years ago I blogged about the book Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Here, I review Escape from Hell, the 2009 sequel. Spoilers from both novels are discussed.

Written in 1976, Inferno is an updated version of Dante’s Inferno. Instead of Dante traveling through hell, however, we have an agnostic science fiction writer – Allen Carpenter -- who dies ignobly while drunk at a party. He ends up in the first circle of hell and – guided by “Benny” – travels deeper and deeper into the inferno, becoming exposed to more and more of its horrors. Carpenter struggles mightily to rationalize all that he sees and refuses to seriously consider that he is in hell. His own explanations become so bizarre that he is finally forced to accept his station. Benny, however, claims to know the way out and the two travel through all the circles of hell, pondering the nature of sin, punishment, and judgment. At the end, Benny indeed escapes -- the way out is to suffer all the circles of hell and accept guilt for each sin -- but Carpenter feels undeserving and decides to continue Benny's mission and help others find their way out.

Inferno is a fantastic read and grapples seriously with modernism, sin, judgment, and the nature of humanity. It struck an excellent balance between such ponderings and genuinely interesting action sequences and suspense. The theology is quite Catholic, with an interesting mixture of conservative and liberal Catholicism.

In Escape from Hell, Allen Carpenter is back, taking up Benny's mission of telling others about how to escape from hell. He travels top to bottom again, gathering various friends along the way and running into some old friends, such as Billy. While it was interesting to see what had happened to some of these earlier characters, none play very important parts or undergo much development in this book.

Part of the problem is that this sequel retreads much the same ground. Carpenter spends much time lamenting the punishment and hell and asking how God could let this happen and how could this be just. I thought we had gone through all this in Inferno? And if anything Carpenter seems to have regressed and lost many of the lessons he had learned before. No novel about hell could be complete without grappling with these issues, of course, but they are approached with less gravity than before.

The lack of a serious theodicy (is hell really a part of theodicy?) is all the more telling because there is nothing else important going on. In the first novel, one of the most interesting features was Carpenter's coming to terms with the existence of the supernatural, much less hell. In Inferno I could sympathize with his initial reluctance to accept the reality of his situation and thought Niven and Pournelle were at their most masterful when discussing issues of rationalism and faith. There are blushes of this as Carpenter and crew encounter figures such as Carl Sagan who seem to resist the idea as well, but they all too quickly seem to accept their new reality.

The one pleasant surprise was the character of Aimee Semple McPherson. I assumed she would be another of the authors' convenient punching bags to be used as social commentary when they introduce her in hell, riding up on her motorcycle, shouting, "God loves you!" As it turns out, she chose to go to Hell when she learned there were stills souls to be saved there. Indeed, she seems more successful at saving souls and leading people out of hell than either Benny or Carpenter. A novel focusing on her exploits would have been worth reading!

Finally, although there is a chase scene or two the suspense and action is far behind what was offered by Inferno. The writing style is fine, but it offers little exciting or interesting to draw the reader in. A number of reviewers on Amazon wondered why the authors thought a sequel was even warranted because there was so little left to explore. Whether warranted or not, whereas Inferno is a worthy read, Escape From Hell is an unworthy successor.

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