- New Sins for Old! New Sins for Old!
- It's the Little Things That Count
- Image is Everything
- What's the Meaning of This?!
- Aside: Is Inferno Science Fiction?
- Works Cited
Your assignment: Design Hell. Who would you put in your Hell? What would you do to them once they were in there? Would you just throw all the sinners in, lock the door, and turn up the heat? What would be the purpose of your Hell?
This is quite an assignment -- one that any theology student, new religion, or author might take up as a challenge. Dante Alighieri, tackling this assignment with the fervor of an ardent Catholic Classicist and a bitter political exile, created a highly regimented Hell. He developed a hierarchy of sins in the tradition of Greek natural philosophy and provided examples for each sin in well-known figures in 14th century Italy as well as legendary Greeks and Romans. For good measure and personal satisfaction, he threw in his numerous political enemies as well. Even though he showed some personal bias, his work was rather thorough; I'll give him an A+ for his excellent project.
Of course, there is the time-honored tradition of taking someone else's work and adding on to it. Designing a world is a tiring job, and it is difficult to think through every detail. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle basically do this in Inferno, in which they send a science-fiction writer to Dante's Hell (after sending him to a ridiculous death) and see how he deals with it. However, this is not simple plagiarism of an idea: as Raymond Wilson notes, Inferno "is almost entirely derivative and yet remarkably original". This is more than a simple book "in which the authors introduce all their favourite characters from history, with a loose thread of plot." [Shippey] Niven and Pournelle not only provide new examples for the old categories of sins but also so change the entire atmosphere of Hell.
Where would Dr. Jack Kevorkian go in Dante's Hell? The bloodbath of the Violent? If so, would it be right for his victims to be in the Wood of Suicides? What about the scientists who designed the first atomic bomb? The people who built it? The people who dropped it? Many new "sins" have been created since Dante's time, and others seem to have fallen by the wayside. Bishops and popes no longer give clerical positions to those who pay for them. Would that mean no more people would be sent to the bolgia of simony?
Niven and Pournelle make sure that every circle of Hell is well-populated by modern people, giving new examples for sins that one just wouldn't think apply any more. They also give a new twist to very familiar sins; and, for their personal delight and commentary, they take a few of their least favorite people and dump them in Hell, just to make a point.
Allen Carpenter is our Dante on this trip, and he starts in the Vestibule. Being a self-absorbed agnostic, he is trapped in a bronze jar, a new addition to the people forever chasing banners on that level. There he finds a grossly fat woman, condemned to her fate due to her support for the ban on cyclamates. It seems she is also being punished for self-absorbedness, for she doesn't realize she fits her own description. She says that fat people would have not been moderate in their use, just eating as they always have, and would then get sick. However, she herself could eat just as the fat people would: the only difference was that her metabolism was nicer to her.1
Nothing new is added to the First Circle of Hell, other than noting an abundance of children in Limbo. All that is added to the Second Circle, that of the Lustful, are unsuccessful lovers trying to be caught up by the winds of passion. The Third Circle offers an interesting addition. Here Allen runs into Jan Petri, a health faddist that he knew in life. This is an interesting twist in the Circle of the Gluttonous, for Petri carefully monitored everything he ingested instead of indiscriminately consuming . Here gluttony has been transformed into any obsession about food and other physical quantities. However, if gluttony was any such obsession the Third and the Fourth Circles would have to be merged.
For in the Fourth Circle resides the Hoarders and the Wasters. Here the new addition is Allister Toomey, who fits both categories. Just as in the case of Jan Petri, Niven and Pournelle present a person whose situation is an ironic twist from Dante's original. As a collector of science fiction pulp and novels, he hoarded a great literary and historic wealth, refusing to sell any of his collection; but due to this hoarding, Toomey could not afford to maintain his collection, which was destroyed by rain, rot, and rats. In obvious irony, Toomey's hoarding caused his wasting.
Also new to the Fourth Circle is a group of bridge builders and destroyers, working over a chasm. These are a new breed of hoarders and wasters: those that are obsessed with development. Here Allen finds Barbara and Pete, a divorced couple in opposite groups. Barbara Hannover is depicted as an eco-freak; her cause was preventing any new construction anywhere. This is showing an obvious political slant on the part of the authors, who are both well-known for their pro-technology stances. Other than the their bias, one could justify this from God's orders in Genesis that humanity should go and subdue the earth. However, the epitome of this, Pete, is also here in Hell, forever working on a bridge that Barbara would be continually dismantling. He is construction gone wild, leaving no natural scene without a paved-path, cabin, and markers. I believe this is less a political statement than a personal statement: Barbara is portrayed as anti-progress, Pete as just plain annoying.
Again, nothing much of interest is portrayed in the Fifth Circle. Upper Hell, filled with the minor sinners, in some Circles just doesn't provide much meat for commentary. In the Fifth Circle are the Sullen and Wrathful, which I suppose could be filled with modern rioters. However, this would be a sure way of alienating a large portion of readers who felt that many of the riots occurred due to societal injustices. In any case, the most extravagant of the Wrathful would fit in other circles of Hell, like that of the Violent.
At the walls of Dis, the infernal city, a new sublevel has been created. Between the Fifth and the Sixth Circles Allen finds an enormous bureaucracy. This is a poke at the governmental grinds that waste everyone's time doing things that aren't helpful . This section seems to be mainly added for humor, and in a sense, horror. Allen realizes a previous client had to finish filling out forms using his own blood, and then the clerk throws one copy away. This is very much like the horror one experiences in watching Brazil.
In the Circle of Heretics, one finds the first victim of a Niven-Pournelle personal vendetta. Allen finds Kurt Vonnegut in an enormous tomb lit up with a blinking neon sign proclaiming "SO IT GOES". After pouring out invective about Vonnegut and his work, Allen realizes he is condemned for creating two religions (found in Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan) that poked fun at those who believe in the true religion.2
Next comes the violent, and various combinations of it. In addition to the usual mob of murderers, this Circle has a sunken boat containing slave traders, an island made of officials who knowingly let criminals go free3, and people on that island who were "justified" murderers. This last category is personified by William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, for getting caught up in a range war. Other historical figures in this category are Aaron Burr and the man who ran the Andersonville prison camp in the civil war. At this point, one wonders if this will degenerate into a kind of Riverworld novel, in which famous literary and historical figures just happen to run into each other out of the masses of humanity.
In the second level of this Circle, one finds the Wood of Suicides transformed into a modern wasteland, filled with all known examples of human pollution. Here they find the updated version of the Violent Wasters, people who would prove their wealth by burning their possessions.4 The modern version are Polluters, condemned to work in slime-belching factories just as they owned and profited from in life. Interestingly enough, the example the authors use here is Jon, head of an environmental group that opposed thermonuclear power plants. Corbett, voice of the future, indicates that this action caused power outages and disease. Jon knew, of course, that nuclear power was safe. I wonder if Niven and Pournelle feel the need to revise this in light of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
The Desert of the Sodomizers and Usurers is a bit troublesome, for it leaves some questions unanswered. The examples here are two swingers, a Hell's Angel and a go-go dancer. That creates no problems. But one wonders if all homosexuals are here.5 The authors skim over this for this is rather shaky ground. The examples portrayed are so obviously in the wrong, they are not disturbing, unlike the earlier examples of Jan Petri or the grossly fat woman. Loan Sharks are the modern Usurers, of course. However, there is another matter that is glossed over: during Dante's time, usury was charging any interest on a loan (One can see this in A Merchant of Venice). This even has Biblical roots. So do all loan officers go to this level in Hell?
Panderers/Seducers are pimps, movie producers, and emotional rapists; Flatterers are advertisers; Simonizers are theology diploma mills and New Age gurus selling enlightenment. These are just little bits of social commentary; this is more humorous than a anything else. The example of a Fortuneteller is a teacher who would label any slow reader as dyslexic: thereby predicting the child's educational future.6 Grafters are the same as in Dante's day: those who stole from people who trusted them. Boss Tweed is thrown in for humor. In religious hypocrites, one of the millennium priests is shown; perhaps this was intended to be a warning to those who think they can profit on the coming millennium mark. Also, a well-known evangelist, Amie Semple MacPherson is named. In the pit of Thieves, buyers of stolen goods as well as thieves run around stealing each other's forms.
When the traveling party reaches the pit of Evil Counselors, the book gets interesting, for Allen discovers his guide to be Benito Mussolini. A man who approved the Dresden fire-bombing and the man who led the mission exhort Allen to throw him in. For the Sowers of Discord, the authors throw in two familiar figures: Henry VIII and Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula. Lawyers who goaded people into suits and divorces are also found in another part of the pit; but here are the religious schizmatics: people who fractured the true church for their own gain. They get this out of the way before tossing in their final personal shot against L. Ron Hubbard, pictured as an odd sort of centipede. Hubbard's sin, of course, is the creation of Scientology for his own personal wealth.7 Rounding out this trio of the sins of Fraud is the pit of the False Witnesses. Here we find a woman who would "roll" unsuspecting, horny men, a man who sold quack cures, and a psychiatrist that was an egotistical fraud. Also, an immobile man without ears yells constantly, claiming he can reveal a plot against Satan. The only social commentary seems to be about psychiatry; since the authors tend to stick to hard science fiction, one can see that they might hold mind sciences in contempt.
Finally, to round out one man's journey through Hell, Allen comes to the ice plain in which the Traitors are trapped. Again, we have the historical parade of sinners: Bob Ford, who shot Jesse James, Al Capone, and Vito Genovese. But before Allen can get to Hell's exit, Niven and Pournelle inject one last political shot: two Senators are stuck in the ice, their punishment due only to their votes on anti-ballistic missiles vs. a laser defense system. Both voted the opposite of their conscience, but along party lines; both voted opposite each other. By being traitors to their consciences on a matter of at least nationwide life-or-death, they were condemned to the lowest part of Hell. I found this as a criticism of America's political system, in which one joins a party for its clout, and in which one may vote "wrong" on important matters for it is the party line.
While waiting in line for Minos's judgement, Allen sees a cabbie wound round with three loops of Minos's tail. Right before the ice plain of the Traitors, a giant chained in front of a wall asks, "Ildurb fistenant imb?" Not all of the authors' adoption of Dante's Hell is blatant; the above are little details that the casual reader of Inferno may miss. The number of times Minos winds his tail around a person indicates the Circle of Hell he has been relegated to; so the cabbie is going to the Circle of Gluttons. The giant is Nimrod, the supposed builder of Babylon, forced to blather nonsense for eternity. In the pit of the Sowers of Discord, Allen sees a man sliced "from crotch to throat"; if no others share this punishment, this is Mohammed. A careful reader, with both texts in front of her, can keep finding these little nuggets throughout the book.
Something I find humorous is the use of complete lines from Dante. Consider the following two lines:
It sure makes it easier when your dialogue is already written out for you.
However, there are some interesting changes in the details of Dante's Hell, which seem to have varying significance. For example, the lake of boiling blood is guarded by centaurs and other mythical beings in Dante's Hell -- they're part of the staff, in other words. However, in this Inferno, the guards are other damned souls, people who had to be violent as part of their duty, but they enjoyed it.8 Niven and Pournelle add a few artistic touches to Dante's original creation: in the level of the Flatterers, Dante never says where the excrement comes from. Allen tells us that the flatterers' mouths are second anuses. Also, in Dante's epic, the healing of injured people is only mentioned in the pit of the Sowers of Discord. Niven and Pournelle extend this s regeneration property to all of Hell; like Prometheus's liver which regrew every night to be picked out by eagles again, the damned have a continual miraculous healing so that they may be tortured for eternity. All of these cases are a simple embellish on the original. An interesting omission is the ability of the dead to see the future: throughout the original work Dante is warned about the impending political war and exile. The dead in this modern Hell cannot see the future; one can tell this for the Senators had to ask Allen if nuclear war had been averted. Also, Allen himself is dead, and he cannot tell what is occurring on earth. A more significant change is the absence of the infamous sign proclaiming "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" ; the significance of this will be discussed more later.
However, the parallels between the works are as interesting as the changes made to the classic story. For instance, Dante is led through Hell by Virgil, the Roman poet who captured the glory of the origin of Rome in the Aenid. Allen is led by Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader who tried to kindle the glory of Rome through fascism. Fascism, as a term, itself comes from the fasces, a symbolic bundle of sticks carried by Roman high officials to symbolize power in unity. Also, in Dante's Inferno, when Geryon appears, Dante emphasizes that the tale he tells is true. Allen later tells Benito that it was Geryon that convinced him this was the real Hell. What is significant is how Allen expresses that: "`Geryon was lying. Lying without saying a word.'" This provides a sharp contrast to Dante's claims of truthfulness.
Another sharp contrast is Allen's and Dante's reactions to the sinners they encounter in Hell. Though Dante did people his Hell with personal enemies, there were also noble people like Ulysses that he found in Hell. The plight of some affected him so much that he would swoon. When he came across enemies, he would throttle them. Allen shows some similar reactions, becoming angry at the man who shut down the nuclear plants. However, mostly he finds the tortures to by the result of "infinite power and infinite sadism" and is angered by the injustice of too much punishment for relatively small crimes. Even the murderers' victims had a finite amount of pain. There are no noble people in this Hell. They have all been degraded, made disgusting, and turned inside-out.
However, Allen's most interesting reactions are that of identifying himself with some of the sins. In the pit of the Flatterers, he thinks of his juvenile behavior at the convention as immoderate flattery to the fans; he also thinks of this when he is near the Wood of Suicides. Downing rum while sitting on a windowsill, not touching the sides, does seem like having a death wish. He is forced to consider religions he made up for fictional species when coming to the pit of schizmatics. Most importantly, before going to the ice desert of Traitors, he thinks of how he betrayed his benefactor Benito, and then decides to go back for him. This is more human and more palatable behavior than I found in reading Dante's Inferno. Every so often Dante would be primping himself that he was a virtuous man who never stooped so low; he even made himself look better than Virgil (since Virgil was a pagan and Dante was a pure Christian man.) Allen's comparison of these sins against his own behavior makes the reader think about the same thing, getting the reader a little more attached to these descriptions and empathizing more with the people being punished.
Allen's hands follow a red-hot pitchfork into a fiery pit while he stands above screaming, smelling the overdone hamburger smell or his burnt flesh. Vlad the Impaler walks around with a literal pole up his ass. A woman slaps away a fire snowflake on Allen's testicles. Allister Toomey lies on the ground without an unbroken bone in his body.
It's not surprising that one reviewer notes that Inferno is filled with "apparently conscious vulgarity."
Allen pulls out a priest's body, completely formless, from within a pure golden robe. Jerome Corbett is "a charred corpse, black from end to end, with blood-rare steak showing through cracks in the char. There were no eyes left in the sockets." Allen holds his guts in after gouging a game of tic-tac-toe on his belly.9
These were just a few examples. Indeed, one gets tired of people hurting at you. Just like watching Schindler's List, one can tell from the length that more horrors will come, and you sit transfixed by the sheer brutality of the images. You wish that this carnival of pain and torture would stop. Surely, the authors didn't need to be so graphic.
However, I think that those who criticize the excessive display of pain may not have remembered (or read) the original Inferno. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Granted, this is from a recent translation of the text10, so the word choice is rather blunt. However, the force of the images is unchanged. Those who have seen William Blake's illustrated translation may not have seen such harsh things, but they were always there. Only the archaic style hid the full force.
So Niven and Pournelle's imagery is truthfully no worse than Dante's; in this age of televised brutality, they needed to be as obvious and detailed as possible. Perhaps it was that they could not shield the reader from any of this in the veiled niceness of poetry, so that critics who had read Dante's work so long ago remember the morality and the shielded journey of the Pilgrim and not the real horror of the punished sinners. The authors did not create this world; in fact, Niven writes that the reason t hey finished this novel so quickly was "Because the territory is terribly unpleasant. We wanted out!" [Playgrounds] Those who would remove the horrors of this Inferno would need to conduct major surgery on the original, just for consistency's sake.
Up to now, one can see that Niven and Pournelle have provided a good sketch of a modernized Dante; the differences shown were slight and just created more poetic justice. However, let us return to the absence of the entrance sign. Obviously, one need no t abandon hope upon entering Hell. Benito and at least six other people have escaped by traversing to the very center, climbing upon Satan, and going on to Purgatory (if Dante is correct). Allen himself has decided that he has discovered the purpose of Hell:
"`There's only one possible excuse for Hell, and I almost missed it in the ravings of a crazy psychiatrist. It has to be the final training ground. If nothing can get a soul into Heaven in its life, there's still Hell, God's last attempt to get his attention . Like a catatonic in a hotbox, like me in that bottle, if Hell won`t make a man yell for help, then it was still worth a try.'"
It is this that has caused the most criticism of this book. John Pierce writes:
"Niven and Pournelle are attempting to justify God's ways to man, although this entails a heretical attitude toward the eternal nature of damnation." Raymond Wilson writes:
"Niven and Pournelle have simply turned Hell into Purgatory in order to resolve the paradox of a Hell created by an all-merciful God. Unfortunately their solution is weak both logically and dramatically, and the book's resolution comes to little more than an exercise in wishful thinking."
In some senses, I have to agree with their judgement. This conclusion does seem rather wishy-washy. It certainly does not agree with Dante's depiction of Hell, which was that of eternal punishment. There was no hope of escape, no hope of your condition ever changing. However, I don't think their theology is weak; Christian theology is riddled with logical holes.11 Part of this comes from the clash between Old Testament and New Testament personalities of God: vengeful vs. forgiving. A lifetime seems to be an arbitrary period to find salvation. Then there's the sticky matter of unbelievers that were never exposed to the "true faith". As far as theology goes, I don't think Niven and Pournelle handled this any worse than your average parish priest.
I dispute that they have made Hell little more than Purgatory. In escaping Hell, neither Benito nor Allen have paid for their sins; as Spinrad remarks, they have become aware of their state. Benito pulls Allen out of the bottle after he screams "For the love of God, get me out of here!" By traversing the entire span of Hell, Allen is on a journey of self-discovery and discovery of all the sins of humankind. I believe Spinrad puts it best as "[You escape Hell] by accepting moral responsibility not merely for your past actions but even for the fate of your fellows in a manifestly unjust universe." Niven and Pournelle have changed Hell into God's preschool, a place where people learn to share, to ask for help, and to behave.
I have several responses to this:
- The commercial: On my Pocket Books edition, I see "Science Fiction" on
the spine. So it's science fiction.12
- Popular agreement: As Michael McClintock writes, "science fiction (or
fantasy) is the genre composed of those texts that have been called
science fiction (or fantasy)."
However, one of the first reviews of this book calls it "[a] thoroughly successful fantasy."
And some other reviewers, such as Norman Spinrad, refer to it as science fiction. Oh well.
- Author's opinion: One might ask "Which Inferno are you asking this
about?", for Niven himself claims:
"The Divine Comedy is an immortal fantasy, but only time has made it so. It was the first hard science fiction novel!
It has all the earmarks. It's a trilogy. Its scope has never been exceeded. The breadth of the author's research is very apparent: theology, the classics, architecture, geography, astrology, all of the major fields of study of Dante's day." [Playgrounds]
Surely, Niven must consider his sequel to the work to be science fiction also, even though this work does not have the breadth of The Divine Comedy.
- Authors' reputation: Pournelle and Niven are both hard science fiction
authors. I know this from extensive reading of Larry Niven's work and his
other collaborations with Pournelle. Science fiction authors write
Of course, Niven also wrote a series of stories about the use of magic. (In fact, one of his creations in these stories, the Warlock Wheel, was changed to an artifact in a popular fantasy game. They call it Nevinyrral's disk. But I prefer to say it backwards.)
- My opinion: It's science fiction.
Hell may not fit to our rules, but neither does a world that includes faster-than-light travel, telepathy (all information on this is anecdotal; I found parapsychology journal articles in a personal search for abuse of statistics), time travel, and the like. These are all popular subjects in "hard" science fiction.
Since Allen used scientific reasoning in determining that he was traveling through Dante's Hell, I think this book has more claims to science fiction than other books so labeled. One can see a contrast between Carpenter and Velikovsky, who decided that all Biblical events occurred exactly as described. To that end, Velikovsky created a very bizarre model of the solar system to explain how manna rained from heaven and how Joshua got the sun to stand still. There's a big difference in coming to a conclusion ion after analyzing experiences and in deciding one's conclusion before looking for evidence in backing up one's claim.
The first is science, the second is creationism.
- The cyclamate study involved surgically implanting the chemicals
in the animals' organs. The results were never reproduced, and other studies involving
feeding the substance to animals and people showed few ill effects. And yet
cyclamates are still banned in the U.S.[Kramer]
- As Benito says, "Now you know." I just want to point out that
Pournelle "is a believing Roman Catholic. He himself says that he's a liberal.
A 14th century liberal." [Spinrad] Updated
Info: Larry Niven tells me that Jerry Pournelle is actually a member of
the Church of England. Perhaps this looked the same as Catholic from
- This is a crude political comment about "congressmen that passed
laws against putting a man in jail if the evidence wasn't got in a special way." [Inferno] Yes,
it's a pity that officials must get a warrant to search one's home.
- Allen then explains the Western Indian tradition of potlatch. I
believe this to be Niven's work. A few other times Allen lectures on irrelevant
topics, such as the cargo cults and bow drills. As Niven admits "I'm a compulsive teacher."
[N-Space] He used the cargo cult lecture as the basis for the game in Dream Park.
- If I remember correctly, the abomination is for a man to lie with a man
as one would do with a woman. And, of course, there are several proscriptions against
certain heterosexual behavior. But not a word about lesbians. Makes me wonder.
- This bothers me a lot. Did they really think that being dyslexic meant
one couldn't read? One of my friends is dyslexic, and this is mainly evident in
his difficulty in differentiating between homophones. Updated
Note: I am told by Larry Niven that "Jerry's (teacher wife's) animus is
against teachers who use dyslexia (real or fiction) as an excuse for not
having taught a child to read." What with the "phonics for all" programs
nowadays, people aren't likely to be able to get away with that
excuse; however, I have noticed lots of students (and their parents) trying to
get designated as "learning disabled" so that they get more time on tests.
- May the IRS catch them at it someday. The "church" as a whole has acted
as a Sower of Discord on the Internet for several years now, attacking the
privacy of former members who denounce the church as a cult, or worse, as a
cold-blooded scam. Even more sickening is that they are tearing apart the Cult
Awareness Network by forcing themselves as members and disputing claims that
Scientology is a cult.[CAN]
- This always gave me a problem. What is keeping these people doing their
job here? Will they be thrown into the blood if they stop guarding? And how is
eternal vigilance punishment?
- The demon must have been toying with Allen here. Allen has started with
and X in a corner, and the demon filled in an O in an adjacent corner. Allen then
has three ways to force a win with his second move. If the demon wanted to
thwart a win, he should have put the O in the center.
- For an interesting translation of Canto VI, see
- I'm still trying to get a Presbyterian to explain how they can reconcile
predestination with morality.
- This is also known as the smart-ass response.
Coughlin, John. The Inferno: A New Translation. http://www.eseuss.com/seuss/parody/seuss_inferno.html
McClintock, Michael W. "High Tech and High Sorcery: Some Discriminations Between Science Fiction and Fantasy". Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. George Slusser and Eric Rablin. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
Niven, Larry and Pournelle, Jerry. Inferno. New York: Pocket Books,1976.
Pierce, John J. Great Themes of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Shippey, T.A. "Into Hell and Out Again". Times Literary Supplement, 8 July 1977, .820.
Spinrad, Norman. Introduction to Inferno, by Niven and Pournelle. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979.
Wilson, Raymond J. "Larry Niven". Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 8, part II. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.Last updated: 27 Mar 2001, Mary Pat Campbell