Short Review: Inferno 2, Escape from Hell by Larry Niven


Escape from Hell (Inferno, #2)Escape from Hell by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not given to being a big fan of sequels for sequels’ sake, but as I had some distant memory of enjoying the previous book in this sequence some 20 years ago (!), I thought why not, it’s in the library. (Spoilers) If you remember the previous work, Inferno, the protagonist, Allan Carpentier (aka Carpenter), a somewhat down at his heels Science Fiction writer, dies in a very preventable, stupid accident while he was drunk. He wakes up in the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno. That’s right, the one with the nine circles. His guide is memory of Dante’s poem and Benito Mussolini, who is redeeming himself by guiding souls out of hell. I don’t want to get into the particulars of the previous book– it was light, it was fun. The theme was a rationalist (Carpentier) trying to explain a very supernatural version of Hell and not coming a suitable explanation beyond “This must be a giant theme park being put on by aliens for their own twisted amusement”. At the end of Inferno, no great spoiler, Benito escapes and Allan seeks to redeem himself further by trying to rescue souls from Hell. Which leads us to this book, which begins almost directly after the previous, in the Vestibule area of Hell. Allan begins trying to prove to himself that this medieval conception of Hell is fundamentally unjust and that everyone in it should theoretically be able to escape like Benito. The thing is most people he encounters don’t want to risk their little petty sinecures in Hell to even consider leaving. Carpenter meets Rosemary, a New Orleans prosecutor who stays with him until he reaches the Great City of Dis, then she takes a job with the Infernal prosecutor’s office. Much of the book is taken up with the protagonist replaying the same scenes of the previous book, but with a refined viewpoint of Hell and the reason for why he is there. After Dis, he finds himself in the wood of the Suicides, where he encounters Sylvia Plath, who becomes his primary companion and motivation for the rest of the novel. The plotting is somewhat patchy in spots, but added new elements I personally liked. The reaction of Allan Carpentier (who died in 1974) to events like 9/11, and suicide bombers, and laptops and the internet is pretty amusing. The first INFERNO was definitely light fare for Niven. The sequel has a much harder, almost bitter edge to the humor and social commentary– aside from the classic “is it just for a finite life to earn infinite punishment, even when they repent?”, there were some interesting interpretations of sins and some very unlikely sinners that appear as fellow travelers for Carpentier. I liked the previous Inferno for the Science Fiction interpretation of Hell, but I found myself liking this one more. Perhaps the characters were less two dimensional than the previous work, or perhaps I thought the story had more depth. In any event, Escape from Hell is a good read, still pretty light for a hard space writer like Niven, but sufficient to be entertaining and very engaging. I think I finished it in two days.

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