By Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle (Tor; 2009)
The long-awaited sequel to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1976 classic INFERNO. That book remains an invigorating jaunt through Dante’s Inferno, with the deceased science fiction writer Allen Carpenter traversing the nine circles of Hell. He’s guided by an individual named Benito who eventually reveals himself as none other than Benito Mussolini. Carpenter becomes convinced that Hell is in fact a training ground for wayward souls; he proves this (or seems to) by guiding Benito out of Hell, and on the final page he heads back to save more souls.
ESCAPE FROM HELL picks up where INFERNO left off. Carpenter tries to make good on his goal to lead Hell’s denizens out like he did Benito, but this proves easier said than done. He’s initially blown up for his troubles and ends up back in the vestibule of Hell, where he began the last time around. Thus he has to retrace his steps, reconnecting with many of the original book’s cast members and encountering quite a few new obstacles.
Despite the thirty-plus year interval the style is virtually identical to that of INFERNO, with the emphasis on action and sensation. ESCAPE is longer than the earlier book, and less cohesive, but at least the clumsy interior monologue of INFERNO has been jettisoned, and there are far more celebrity appearances.
Billy the Kid returns from the first book, as does Lucifer himself (Mussolini, having ascended to Purgatory, doesn’t return). The poet Sylvia Plath, introduced here as a living tree, is also on hand. She ends up joining Carpenter’s crusade, along with Carl Sagan. Other famous personages include Bertrand Russell, Oscar Wilde, Anna Nicole Smith, Albert Camus, J. Edgar Hoover, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Pontius Pilatus, and (in a last-minute cameo) Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. There’s even a living, thinking car, actually a deceased NASCAR champion who’s been appropriately redesigned.
The 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina are all alluded to (although Carpenter, having died in 1975, has no idea what they are). The authors are famous for their conservative views, but you may be surprised by their takes on these and other real-life events. Not at all surprising is the headlong pace and lively prose; Niven and Pournelle are known for those things, and with ESCAPE FROM HELL have provided a typically colorful and engaging romp.