PunkconformityLife, history, and the pursuit of knitting.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: Inferno (2008) by Niven and Pournelle

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Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Start date: 6/18/11
Finish date
: 6/18/11

Thoughts:
This is the second book I’ve read in the last year that uses Dante as a frame-work on which to hang a new story, and while Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club was a fine effort, Inferno is by far the better of the two. Niven and Pournelle, in their authors’ notes, explain this work as an effort to blend Dante’s geography with C.S. Lewis’ theology. It’s the most fitting description I can think of, as this new version does take away some of the na├»ve, accepting Catholicism of the original and replace it with a reasoned, logical Christianity (inasmuch as Christianity can ever be logical). And in doing so, they have made the work that much more profound. Though the circles of hell remain the same, those populating them have been updated to include advertisers, science fiction writers, and fascist dictators, and the escape therefrom has become a struggle towards understanding and grace, rather than the divinely gifted get-out-of-hell-free card of Dante’s vision. It is a much richer, more satisfying theology, and the adventure, far from being a mocking litany of all the ways good Catholics can go wrong, is a cautionary tale on how humans misperceive their actions here on earth and fall into sin. In this hell, punishment is not the product of “infinite power and infinite sadism” – as is suggested by the protagonist throughout the novel – but of people’s persistent unwillingness to admit their sins and reform not just their behavior, but their whole mental outlook. In following the characters through each circle, I was frightened and elated by turns, desperate for them to succeed in their escape despite never really being certain that I genuinely liked anyone involved (except possibly the priest-in-armor). And therein, I suppose, lies the genius of Niven and Pournelle, and the whole point of the book - "You must learn to hate the sin, yet love the sinner."