Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle


After spending unknown hours (days? Weeks? Months?) is some sort of limbo state, deceased science fiction writer Allen Carpentier finds himself plopped down in the middle of a deserted wasteland, which he is informed is “the Vestibule of Hell.”  Carpentier is understandably skeptical, and persistently resists the assistance of his rescuer/guide, a mustachioed gentleman by the name of Benito.  Benito is intent on coaxing Carpentier into Hell (here an updated version of Dante’s nine-circle geography), in the hope that once he reaches the depths he will be able to emerge into Purgatory and thence to happier places.  Carpentier, on the other hand, would rather stay in the pain-free First Circle with the virtuous pagans than attempt the dangerous (and painful) journey deeper into Hell.  Also, Carpentier persists in his increasingly far-fetched belief that this is all some sort of hoax.  However, Carpentier agrees to accompany Benito further in, in the hopes that he can collect the supplies that would enable to build a glider he can use to re-enter the First Circle.  Along the way, Benito and Carpentier meet a host of past and future personalities and witness torment upon torment.  But will they ever make it out?  Will Carpentier succeed in making his glider?  Or will he have to join Benito in his downward trek?  And just who is Benito, anyway?  And what happens when you get to the bottom of Hell?

According to the authors, this book was intended to be a re-imagining (and update) of Dante’s famous epic poem, but with more hope and potential for growth. In other words, Dante’s geography by way of C.S. Lewis’s theology—at least as implied in The Great Divorce, Lewis’s portrayal of Heaven (or its vestibule, at any rate). As a result, each sinner is still punished for his defining sin, but he also has the opportunity to move past that sin and eventually escape Hell altogether. Or at least that’s the tale Benito tells. It does not appear that one needs any particularly charitable motive to undertake this journey—repentance is not required, merely a desire for (and belief in) escape.

Most, of course, decline to seize this opportunity.  After all, the lower levels are rumored to be even worse than their current torments, so any downward climb would entail escalating pain and suffering.  And there’s no guarantee that this quest would be successful, anyway.  Plus there’s always the risk that the dungeon masters below would be unwilling to release new victims to return to their home circles.  Better to accept your punishment. 

Still, for those who are willing, Benito holds out the hope of escape.  He even claims that others have succeeded, though the number is small and the way is difficult. Along the way, Carpentier witnesses endless suffering, and even suffers himself in turn.  Niven and Pournelle‘s additions to Dante are mostly clever, and occasionally surprising.  For example, advertisers are included among the flatterers, and a teacher who was a bit too free with her amateur diagnosis of dyslexia is punished for witchcraft (on the grounds that she spoke a false but ultimately self-fulfilling prophecy of failure).  However, unlike Dante, Carpentier concludes not that the torment is just punishment for evil acts, but that it’s all ‘too much.’  The punishments, though rationally—and sometimes ironically—related to the crimes, are all out of proportion.  And those punishments are eternal

This is admittedly a difficult theological truth—that a just and holy and loving God would eternally punish seemingly ‘minor’ sins.  Heck, even the big sins don’t seem to merit eternal torment.  But that’s exactly what they receive, and this outcome is consistent with God’s holiness, justice, love, and compassion.  It simply doesn’t add up, to our way of thinking.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Carpentier concludes that whoever set up the system is infinitely powerful and infinitely sadistic.  Even Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit and informed by God’s inspired Word, struggle with the idea of Hell.  We don’t like it.  We can’t wrap our heads around the idea that anything we do could ever warrant that kind of punishment.  But according to the Bible, such punishment is precisely what we deserve, and in fact it would be unjust of God not to punish us for all time, were it not for the fact that the full horror of our punishment was poured out on Christ.  It is only because He bore the penalty for our sins that God can save us from damnation and still be good. 

This is a doozy of a theological reality, and it comes as no surprise that Niven and Pournelle fail to comprehend it.  The only way they can imagine Hell is if it’s some sort of test, some sort of refinery that people have the power to leave if they so choose (and the power, when it comes, comes from one’s own will).  And even then, the creator of this Hell is decried as sadistic and merciless—powerful, to be sure, but with a corrupted idea of justice.  Carpentier is perfectly willing to judge this Judge and refuses to worship a God who keeps His own private ‘torture chamber.’ 

All of which is a perfectly logical worldly response to the doctrine of Hell.  But as a Christian, I was discomfited by the constant disparagement of the holiness and justice of God—the constant accusations and self-justification.  My mom always says that I shouldn’t be surprised when pagans act like pagans.  I don’t know anything about Niven and Pournelle’s own beliefs, but they certainly write like pagans—that is, people who are determined to judge God by their own standards. 

It’s an interesting read, to be sure, especially for those who’ve read and enjoyed the original Inferno.  And it does highlight the world’s questions about Hell and judgment. I suppose that in and of itself is of some value, since we as Christians need to know the world’s questions in order to give the world answers.  But since I suspect the answer here lies in God-given faith in God’s words about Himself, not in any rational explanation, I don’t know that wallowing in the question is all that helpful.

Still, it’s a decently written book (with a few minor inconsistencies).  I don’t know that it deserved to be nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, but it’s not a crummy book, either.  I just didn’t find it terribly edifying.  

No comments: