Monday, 20 August 2012
Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have made significant impact on this human being through several collaborations I have had the pleasure of reading. Chief of which was Lucifer’s Hammer, the story of a comet threatening to hit the earth and standing up to its word: this young teen was not only impressed with the exciting story but also with the tale of civilization falling apart. Mostly, though, I was enchanted with the introduction to sex provided by the book. As a result I give the duo a lot of credit, so much so that when I happened to learn by accident they published a book about a modern human venturing through Dante’s hell I went ahead and got it for my Kindle.
That is, indeed, the gist of 1976’s Inferno: a modern look at Dante's old [lengthy] poem. Alan Carpentier, a famous science fiction author, falls into his death while trying to impress fans at a science fiction convention – fans who were busy turning their attention towards the Asimov that entered the room. As he falls our atheist expects the end of all things, but instead he finds himself trapped in a bottle somewhere. Thus starts the adventure.
After lengthy solitude he is rescued by Benito, who helps Alan realize he is now at the outer layer of hell – Dante’s hell. Indeed, Dante and his fellow Catholics were right all along about their choice of god! Silly rest of us! There is a way out of this hell, argues Benito, and that is to go all the way inside its nine circles. As in, go from the milder circles of hell deep into the harshest ones. He convinces our Carpenter (no, I don’t think the book’s choice of names is coincidental) to have a go; our hero joins mostly because of his sceptical curiosity. He doesn’t go for this whole divine thing, instead seeking rational explanations to what is taking place all along.
As Alan traverses hell he meets all sorts of characters, including the likes of Billy the Kid and other celebrities, as well as colleagues. Along the way he tries to explain the whole thing to himself: not only how hell works as an exercise in physics, but also what the whole purpose of hell is anyway. As in, why would God go through all these lengths to create an eternity of agony for humans? The beauty of Inferno is that us readers are looking at things through the eyes of a modern, skeptic, science fiction author well versed in creating worlds that make sense; when a world that doesn’t comes along, he treats it the way a book reviewer treats the books they read. He's analyzing.
Alas, I found Inferno’s wonderful premises to fail when it comes to actual delivery. First and foremost, I was bored. Despite the relatively short length of this book I was never suspended, never getting that feeling a good page turner of a book provides. It’s all pretty boring with pretty boring characters. “Uninvolving” is probably the best word to use when it comes to describing Inferno, despite all of its potential for nine circles of delight.
“A waste of a great idea” is another term I would use for describing Inferno. I won’t go into details for fear of blooping, but let’s just say I found the philosophical explanations at the book’s ending rather unsatisfying; Niven & Pournelle seem to have taken the cheap way out [of hell] when it comes to answering the questions they themselves raise throughout the book.
It could have been funny but it isn’t. When considering the whole attraction of the book would be the demolishing of silly medieval hallucinations by modern day thinkers, this neither here nor there of a conclusion represents a disappointing ending to a disappointing book. To clarify, it's not the plot ending that suffers here, but rather the philosophical idea behind the ending.
Overall: An uninvolving waste of a good idea deserving 2 out of 5 stars.