Inferno (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Inferno1Abandon all hope… she’s reviewing another NivPourn book.

A comedy: less divine, more contrapasso. Perhaps a small penance for those bloggers who make fun of old classics, including that awesome time-travel story you loved when you were eleven and now you haven’t the social-awareness and maturity to admit to the shortcomings of things you enjoy. I’m sure I had it coming.

In Inferno, Larry and Jerry’s 1975 novel serialized in Galaxy, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter (Jesus reference! Jesus reference!) dies after a drunken fall at a science fiction convention. He recovers to find himself in a timeless void until his guide, some guy named Benito, rescues him from a bottle and takes him through the vestibule and into the ten circles of Hell. The rational, agnostic Carpenter prefers to think he’s in a far-future theme park called Infernoland. Modeled off of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Niven and Pournelle parody the pedantic mindset of the Hard sci-fi writer.

But, when even Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are surprised by the success of one of their books, you know you have stumbled upon an INSIGNIFICANT MOMENT OF GENRE HISTORYYYYY.

It’s not LOL funny, or even lol funny, but the premise is clever in its self-deprecating way. Niven and Pournelle cast their hero as a hyper-rational ego who can’t see the truth for gears. Where we see a giant demon, Carpenter sees an engineered machine, and not even Benito Mussolini or Clarke’s Law can fully convince him otherwise. (Now why Benito Mussolini was chosen as an adequate stand-in for Virgil, I don’t know…). And, although ad execs and bureaucracy in hell are nothing new in fiction, the gnats are a nice touch. I’ll give Larry and Jerry that.

InfernomagTypical of NivPourn stories, though, Inferno is peppered with old-fashionedy grandpa assumptions about women and gay men—not nearly so uncomfortable as The Mote in God’s Eye, thank goodness, but the F-bomb is dropped a few times, and I don’t mean ‘fuck.’ Worse, though, it’s an insubstantial read, a funny joke that ran out of steam long before that second beer, and the substandard NivPourn prose shows itself to be just what it is: a careless slinging of ideas across the page, check please.

What do I mean? Let’s have a look at examples of The Void in fiction:

Here’s Dante Alighieri’s version, Hell’s vestibule (Sibbald trans. 1884)

Scarce know I how I entered on that ground,
     So deeply, at the moment when I passed
     From the right way, was I in slumber drowned.
But when beneath a hill arrived at last,
     Which for the boundary of the valley stood,
     I upwards looked and saw its shoulders glowed,
Radiant already with that planet’s light
     Which guideth surely upon every road.
     A little then was quieted by the sight
The fear which deep within my heart has lain
     Through all my sore experience of the night
     And as the man, who, breathing short in pain,
Hath ‘scaped the sea and struggled to the shore,
     Turns back to gaze upon the perilous main;
     Even so my soul which fear still forward bore
Turned to review the pass when I egressed,
     And which non, living, ever left before.
     My wearied frame refreshed with scanty rest,
I to ascend the lonely hill essayed;
     The lower foot still that on which I pressed. (10-30)

Not that I would ever expect or want a genre writer to parrot the style of a medieval poet. So let’s take a look at Philip K. Dick, not always the best writer, but this portrayal of emptiness—not in Hell, but in a dusty, old, post-nuke apartment complex— successfully evokes a powerful sense of void in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep:

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experience the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came, it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won. (20)

Now here are Niven and Pournelle trying to portray a similar sense of unbearable vacuum:

I couldn’t tell how long I was there. There was no sense of time passing. I screamed a lot. I ran nowhere forever, to no purpose: I couldn’t run out of breath, I never reached a wall. I wrote novels, dozens of them in my head, with no way to write them down. I relived that last convention party a thousand times. I played games with myself. I remembered every detail of my life, with a brutal honesty I’d never had before; what else could I do? All through it, I was terrified of going mad, and then I’d fight the terror, because that could drive me mad—

I think I did not go mad. But it went on, and on, and on, until I was screaming again (15-16).

Inferno2That’s the most visceral passage in the novel.

A juvenile read with a first-page punchline, it’s meh-funny, but not that funny, and only on one level, really. Granted, it’s not intended to be deep, but, while I appreciate Niven and Pournelle’s good humor about themselves in relation to their work, that’s just not enough to last 100 pages beyond what should have been a one-off short story.

Like the Hell of NivPourn’s invention, Inferno is not that horrible, but it’s not very good, either. Let’s put this one in Limbo.

15 thoughts on “Inferno (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

  1. graycope14 says:

    Great review! Love the PKD quote and the way you’ve compared them both. I read that passage about 12 hours ago on the bus to Osaka. Got a cool Bladerunner vibe from the cityscape. Shame it was daylight… Feeling a bit spaced out sat nursing a Tsingtao in Hong Kong airport.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like some wonderful travelling going on. I read Androids soon after Inferno and both passages just struck me as the antitheses of one another, yet saying the same thing. I never thought I would turn to PKD for a “how it’s done” example, but it’s not like the competition is stiff in this case.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your tweet about this. (I also like the review…)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow that passage is so bad I just…actually I guess I’m not surprised but…how many books did they write together? Are there any more on the Hugos lists? I truly hope not.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. marzaat says:

    Having nothing on hand to make even an implicit defense of this book, I’ll leave a comment.

    Benito Mussolini as a guide was inspired by Norman Spinrad’s use of Hitler as protagonist in The Iron Dream.

    A joke book? Certainly in that Pournelle and Niven threw friends and fellow writers into Hell (including Kurt Vonnegut) — but Dante threw some of his friends in Hell too.

    Dante’s motive was party devotion, part personal attack, perhaps some attempt to describe what he thought was a real place (though I don’t recall that from reading his Inferno).

    Lewis’ book was an attempt to re-do Dante’s theology — Hell is not a place you are eternally condemned to but can leave any time you want.

    Niven and Pournelle’s book wasn’t attempting supernatural cartography like Dante or innovative religious apologetics like Lewis. So, yes, the parody element is emphasized more.

    But labelling certain professions as modern sinners unknown to Dante and assigning them a place in Hell strikes me as more than just a jape on sf writers. It is partaking of the spirit of Dante, a modern update.

    I agree Dick is usually a more evocative writer. His vision is gnostic, that this is a fallen world. But Do Androids isn’t trying to do anything remotely like Niven and Pournelle’s novel. And, for all his skill at characterization, humor, and mood, Dick was almost invariably less accomplished in the plotting department than Niven and Pournelle.

    I haven’t read the novel’s sequel, Escape From Hell, but it does feature Sylvia Plath. Niven and Pournelle’s strength isn’t poetic prose, and I don’t think her presence will change that.


    • Thanks for that clarification about Mussolini’s inclusion. I’m familiar with Joachim’s memorable review of The Iron Dream, which I would like to read, but I never, ever would have thought of the two books as being related in any way. Not at all.

      I also read that about their incorporation of Lewis’ philosophy to Inferno, but it didn’t make it any more valuable to me.

      I agree that Niven and Pournelle’s strength isn’t poetic prose. A couple of things: One, it’s not an either/or clarity v. poetry argument. I’m not looking for poetry in my scifi. Two, Dick doesn’t do prose so well, either, which is why it makes for an informative comparison. Plath’s inclusion in the sequel won’t affect NivPourn style because I doubt they are capable of doing that sort of thing and it would be more painful if they tried.

      That particular paragraph I cited from them is a nice chunk of the kind thoughtless, unpolished juvenalia they produce. Even granting them the excuse of clarity, which is appropriate for Hard SF, that paragraph is no better than what a child can produce. I mean, seriously, kids write like that.

      I realize it’s a joke on their scifi colleagues because of the cameos, but cameos are cheap laughs. It would be perfectly appropriate for a convention-circulated newsletter. Like I said, it’s not that bad, but it’s not that good either. From a satirist with a less dorky sense of humor, I probably would have enjoyed it more.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sheesh, you’re writing these reviews faster than I have time to read them! I’m glad that at least someone has been productive this month, and these have been fun to read. Especially books like this one I have no interest in, so I’ll sit back and pop popcorn while you tear into it.

    What’s really striking here is that PKD quote against the NivPourn one. Dick was far from a master stylist, though I feel people call his writing “pulpy” without bothering to double-check some of it. But the way it puts the NivPourn quote to shame is painful… the Inferno quote is passive and repetitive, first-draft quality at best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, my experience with Niven (and Pournelle) is that they know how to put words on paper in the order of the plot they have in mind. It’s not very intellectually stimulating beyond the literal thing they are describing at the moment. As a reader, I need more.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Falling down drunk at a science fiction convention? Not sure I could go with such an implausible premise. 😛

    I have yet to read any of the Niven/Pournelle works, although I did pick up a nice first edition hard cover copy of Footfall this past summer with the intention of doing so. I do enjoy Niven, generally, and I’ve liked his coauthored works with Lerner.


  7. […] Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – A science fiction writer (heh heh) goes to a science fiction convention (heh heh) and gets drunk (heh heh heh) and falls (har har har) and dies (hardy har har) and winds up in hell (HAR har har har har har). AND IT’S LIKE DANTE’S INFERNO BUT THE SCI-FI WRITER IS TOO DISTRACTED BY HOW THINGS WORK TO NOTICE THAT HE’S IN HELL! GUFFAW! (I mean, who the hell writes their own fan fiction?) […]


  8. Sorry it took so long to get back to you on this book! I recently re-read Inferno (I had introduced my daughter to it and decided to refamiliarize myself). I quite enjoyed it back in the day. It’s not literature for the ages, but it’s fun. Unlike other PourNiv books, it’s nice and short, and it lacks a pointless prefatory Dramatis Personae.

    The two significant take-aways I got from this read were realizing that the author in the Heretics’ Circle was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and being very trepidatious about the depiction/punishment of homosexuals (which is part of Dante’s original). I think Niven was, too. Carpentier spends a lot of time wondering about and worrying after the fate of his gay neighbor couple.

    My impression was that the Sodomites punished in Hell were not punished for being gay. The folks we meet in the 7th Circle are all pretty horrible people whose common trait is that they have used sex as a weapon against other people.

    We never see Carpentier’s gay neighbors. They may well be in Heaven…


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