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Literature / Inferno

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Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a modern retelling and Deconstruction of the first part of The Divine Comedy, with Ontological Mystery elements. The protagonist is a science-fiction author named Allen Carpentier (real name Carpenter - he added the "i" to sound more interesting), who finds himself consigned to Hell after drunkenly falling off a window ledge at a convention. A mysterious figure called Benito (whom he calls "Benny" for short) rescues him from imprisonment in a brass jar, and then begins leading him to the exit Dante used at the very center of Hell, which is supposed to lead to Purgatory.


While the basic structure of the Inferno follows that laid out by Dante, Niven and Pournelle come up with interesting twists, and much is made of the Values Dissonance between the nature of Hell itself and Carpent(i)er's secular morals, as well as his attempts to explain Hell with science-fiction tropes. For an interesting review which compares and contrasts this work with the original (contains spoilers), see here.

A sequel, Escape from Hell, was published in 2009. Not to be confused with the first third of The Divine Comedy, the second novel of the Indigo series, also called Inferno, or the fourth novel in Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series, likewise titled Inferno.


This work contains examples of:

  • Arc Words
    • "This has been willed where what is willed must be": From the original The Divine Comedy, this served to pass many barriers. Which makes sense because if you live in Hell, you really don't want to make waves with those serving the will of God or Heaven.
    • "Pay it forward": From the sequel, where Allen realizes that he must pay his debt to Benito to others in need.
    • "For the love of God" / "For God's Sake": Allen is originally released from his bottle prison when he unintentionally prays, "For the love of God, get me out of here!" In the sequel, perhaps realizing his duty, he will ALWAYS lend a hand if someone invokes God in this way, even if betrayal is certain.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: One man is hooked up to a bicycle to power all of hell because he convinced many people that a Fusion powerplant was dangerous, despite knowing it was perfectly safe, drawing analogies to fission plants in spreading fear and panic. Considering some of those analysis linked from here don't understand the difference and think the man was right, it shows all too much the fear and panic. (This is also a Writer on Board moment.)
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  • Author Avatar: Carpent(i)er, arguably. (He even alludes to works of his that contain similar ideas to ones the authors have actually written.)
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Carpent(i)er's pseudonym is a mild example.
  • Bamboo Technology: Carpent(i)er builds a fairly effective glider out of some plants found in the River Styx, although he thinks it looks like a Cargo Cult artifact.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Benny is really Benito Mussolini, seeking to redeem his sinful record as an Evil Chancellor by guiding lost souls.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: This being Hell, everyone is more or less corrupt. Except those on the first circle who were non-believers and don't believe themselves to be in hell.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Not wanting to admit he's in a genuine supernatural Hell, Carpent(i)er refers to God as "The Builders" or "Big Juju" and calls a demon a "capriform humanoid". He even mocks himself for this tendency.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: An Infernal variant, of course, staffed by lost souls as well as demons. Notably, human soldiers take the place of the original's centaurs in guarding the violent in the Seventh Circle of Hell.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: Carpent(i)er throws Benny into the Pit of Evil Counselors upon finding out who he actually is, but goes back when he realizes Benny was trying to redeem himself, had been nothing but helpful to him, and that betrayers of friends are put in the lowest circle of Hell.
  • Cuckoos Nest: One of Carpent(i)er's explanations for his plight is that he's been revived from Human Popsicle status and placed in a futuristic insane asylum, where some inmates think they're in Hell.
  • Cultural Translation: Times have changed since the 14th century, so Niven and Pournelle's attitudes (and those of the society they live in) are different to Dante's. Hell is largely the same in geography, but the inhabitants that we see are different, and the place has changed with the world. This is most obvious in the Wood of Suicides, where in Dante's time, suicides were punished by being turned into trees that bled when broken, with a sideline in the profligate and "violently wasteful" being chased through the wood by wolves. Now, the wood is greatly reduced, but the profligate are much more numerous, and are hunted by sentient bulldozers.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Carpent(i)er's narration in many scenes; this attitude may be the only way he can keep his sanity and avoid a Heroic BSoD.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: While Carpent(i)er remains a skeptic for most of the story, his personal experiences of Hell's power - such as being severely burned and healing in minutes - challenge his scientific explanations. However, some of his explanations are almost as implausible as the supernatural itself, showing a degree of Arbitrary Skepticism.
  • Genre Savvy: An interesting subversion - Carpent(i)er constantly invokes sci-fi tropes such as Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, Ridiculously Human Robots, Lost Technology, and LEGO Genetics to explain Hell as a scientific creation, but his explanations always fall short. He could also be called Wrong Genre Savvy, being trapped in the world of an allegorical religious work.
  • Healing Factor: Everyone in Hell has the ability to heal rapidly after injury, so they can be hurt again.
  • Heroic BSoD: Carpent(i)er starts going into hopeless despair at realizing he's really dead and in hell. Until he finds Kurt Vonnegut's Tomb with lavish decorations and a blinking neon sign that says "So it goes." note  Pure speechless rage actually saves him from being trapped there.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Called by name by both Benny and Carpent(i)er. Most examples of the different layers are either someone famous (Billy the Kid in the 7th) or someone known to Carpent(i)er such as a couple with extreme opposite environmental beliefs. Seems to be done on purpose to better illustrate the nature of Hell. (Or to allow Niven and Pournelle to zap someone with a Take That!.)
    • If you know late 20th century science fiction authors, many characters not specifically named are apparent.
    • "Benny" is actually Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator during World War 2.
  • Ironic Hell: Deconstructed, presenting some unusual interpretations of the original's sin-categories. For instance, a man who was obsessed with health food is condemned as a glutton, and a teacher who "predicted" that some of her students had learning disabilities because they were too much trouble to teach properly is counted among the false diviners.
    • Consider gluttony as described in The Screwtape Letters (where it's less about eating too much and more putting matters of the stomach over matters of the soul) and the health nut's situation makes much more sense. When the man tells Allen and Benito that he shouldn't be with the gluttons, Benito tells him "It is the fixation, not the amount."
  • My Nayme Is: Protagonist Allen Carpentier is really named "Carpenter". He added the extra "i" to sound more interesting and exotic. Towards the end, when Hell has stripped away his illusions and pretensions, he reverts to calling himself Carpenter. From then on, it's plot-relevant when a demon refers to him by the old spelling.
  • Soul Jar: It seems self-centered, waffling unbelievers end up trapped inside metal "djinn bottles" in the Vestibule of Hell — forever, unless they ask God to let them out. These also appear to have Hammerspace aspects, since to the soul inside they seem like an infinite void with nothing visible. A Subverted Trope in that immortality and invulnerability has long ceased to be an issue for these souls.
  • Strawman Political: Both radical environmentalists (of the Animal Wrongs Group sort) and environment-destroying Corrupt Corporate Executive types are condemned to Hell; some of them compete to build and destroy bridges on the River Styx, while the worst environment-destroyers run through a poisoned wasteland, pursued by sentient automobiles. Another example is one man who shut down a nuclear fusion power plant he knew was completely safe because of the political power his organization amassed. Subverted with two Senators from both parties in an eternal debate on ABM due to both supporting the party position over their own feelings; they are trapped in the Circle of Traitors, encased in ice up to their heads, because they both betrayed their own views on what was best for the nation to support their party's position instead.
  • Take That!: While (like the original) Inferno is full of this sort of thing, L. Ron Hubbard is burning in a very special level of hell. Kurt Vonnegut has the biggest tomb in the 6th layer for heretics (due to the religious parodies in Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan). That Carpentier makes no effort to hide how much he despises Vonnegut just adds to the Take That!.
  • The Theme Park Version: Lampshaded - Carpent(i)er speculates that he's trapped in "Infernoland", a sort of Sadist Show made by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, but it's very real.
  • Undignified Death: Carpentier dies by falling out of a window while doing a stupid party trick for fans at a convention. Worse, no-one's even watching; their attention has been diverted by the entrance of Isaac Asimov.
  • Writer on Board: Pournelle and his wife have a hobby horse about the overdiagnosis of dyslexia; here, he takes it out on the teacher mentioned in Ironic Hell above.


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