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Literature / Inferno (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle)

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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 a 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:

  • Affably Evil: Unlike the demons stationed further up, a crude and vicious lot, the demon tasked with torturing the schismatics is affable, even-tempered, and polite. He holds civil conversation with Allen while calmly carving up damned souls, and honors his agreement to let Allen pass on if he wins a game of tic-tac-toe carved by him into Allen's flesh.
  • Afterlife Tour: Allen is guided through Hell by "Benny", eventually revealed to be Benito Mussolini.
  • 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.
    • "We're in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism." A languishing soul says this to Allen in the first book and the phrase lingers in his head through both books, Allen questioning the justice behind Hell's torments and the intentions of a God that designed it as such.
  • Army of The Ages: Hell employs a defensive force staffed by the souls of the damned, who are drawn from the breadth of history. A number of these figures, wearing uniforms and holding tools and weapons that Allen does not recognize, are implied to originate from future eras — time is fluid in Hell, and Allen does not know for certain how long he was trapped unfeeling in his jar.
    • The violent damned in Phlegethon are guarded by soldiers from both sides of the Revolutionary, Civil and World Wars, Britons warriors in woad and Roman legionnaires in armor, tribal warriors in fur and Greek hoplites, guarding their posts with everything from throwing sticks and slings to spears, bows, crossbows, pistols and automatic rifles. These are noted to be people who in life did violence for what they felt were higher causes and enjoyed their bloody work; in Hell, they enjoy it still, and do not seek to escape.
      The guards looked silly in those costumes. I knew some of them. Nazi swastikas and American GI's. Coldstream Guards and Cameroon Highlanders. Blue and gray of the Civil War. World War I helmets. Redcoats and the blue-and-buff of Washington's Continentals. Fuzzy-wuzzies and Chinese Gordon's Tommies, and more: Roman legion, Greek hoplite, vaguely Asiatic uniforms, long gowns and wicker shields, spears with golden apples on the hilts; and more still, yellow men in animal fur, red and black men in little besides war paint, blue men stark naked. Blue? Britons in their woad, marching besides legionnaries, followed by men and women in coveralls carrying tiny machine guns of a variety I'd never seen.
    • A variant. The Infernal Bureaucracy is staffed by a motley assortment of bureaucrats, pencil-pushers and officials from across human history. In the halls of Dis, Allen comes across modern-day businessmen and postal workers, Chinese mandarins, Dickensian clerks, Roman officials, and a few figures apparently from future times. The most revered civil servant in the lot is Himuralibima, Hammurabi's secretary, who invented record-keeping.
  • 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 power plant 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.)
  • The Atoner: It's implied through the book that "Benny", Allen's guide through Hell, is trying to make up for something — he was also condemened to Hell after his death, and he hopes that guiding enough lost souls to salvation will earn him redemption as well. It turns out towards the end that he is, in fact, Benito Mussolini, and has quite a heavy cosmic ledger to balance.
  • Author Avatar: Carpent(i)er serves as a stand-in for secular science fiction authors like Niven and Pournelle. He even alludes to works of his that contain similar ideas to ones the authors have actually written.
  • Bamboo Technology: Carpent(i)er builds a fairly effective glider out of vines and tree branches taken from the River Styx, using robes for the sail, although he thinks it looks like a Cargo Cult artifact.
  • 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.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: The narrator and his guide blag their way into the administrative center of Hell by looking like badly-dressed officials, who will be assumed to be secret police.
  • 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. The wall of Dis is staffed by a vast organization of damned bureaucrats from across human history. 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.
  • Dead to Begin With: The story is sent entirely after Carpentier's death — the first chapter begins with him waking up in the afterlife.
  • 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.
  • Demon of Human Origin: Some damned souls are given positions in Hell to help organize the Pit and manage the other sinners. When crossing the Malebolgie in the sequel, the group encounters several Malebranche that were very clearly human sinners, but who have since taken positions among the torturers and have grown steadily more demonic. J. Edgar Hoover still looks basically like his living self, but has already grown horns and fangs; others, such as a former Communist soldier, are almost indistinguishable from the other demons.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: By the time he reaches the center of Cocytus, having passed through every horror in the pit of Hell, Allen has little regard for the trapped form of Lucifer outside of briefly reflecting on how he cuts a much more pathetic figure than popular culture depicts.
    This was a very different picture from the dapper gentleman who offers to buy your soul. Or from Milton's epic hero, proud and unrepentant. One could not imagine playing riddles or chess games with this hideous, miserable, helpless mountain. I studied it almost without fear.
  • Devil's Pitchfork: The demons guarding the bolgia of the grafters use pitchforks to keep their charges in line. Allen is briefly struck by the absurdity of seeing such a cartoonish concept in the grimly serious confines of Hell.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The protagonist believes that being sent to Hell for eternity is disproportionate punishment for finite sin. He later comes to the conclusion that punishment in Hell is a) not eternal, and b) actually a form of highly extreme psychotherapy.
  • Distant Sequel: Escape from Hell takes place a hundred and fifty-odd years after Inferno — Allen spends an unspecified amount of time reforming in the Vestibule after being blow to kingdom come in Cocytus, and only learns of the gap when he gets back to Dis. The essentially timeless nature of Hell means that this doesn't hugely impact his experiences in traveling through it, especially since the story was implied to already be set in the real world's future, and this serves chiefly to emphasize how easily the centuries pass by in the Pit.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Discussed. When the characters visit the first bolgia, where seducers are sent, Benito explains that the word that Dante used was closer to what English means by "rape". Allen, seeing women in the crowd, wonders aloud how a girl could be a rapist. Benito replies that there are other ways than violence to force oneself onto another.
  • Escaped from Hell: The plot follows a handful of damned souls making their way down through the rings of Hell, hoping to follow the path Dante used to escape it and make it to Purgatory.
  • Epiphanic Prison: Hell is speculated to work something like this. It is possible, albeit extremely difficult, to leave it. One of the primary things keeping the damned from doing so, besides the demons and the fire and such, is their own belief that they cannot and that they deserve to be where they are. On several occasions, the characters offer to let sinners join them on their trek, only to be met with jeers and self-pity and be forced to move on.
  • 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.
  • Gold Digger: In Escape from Hell, Allen and Rosemary meet a woman in the Third Circle who was a Playboy playmate that married a billionaire — with the catch that he was eighty-nine and she was twenty-six. She claims that it was a perfectly fair deal, since he knew he wasn't long for the world and she was faithful for the few years they were together — so what if she inherited all his money afterwards and was a serial widow anyway? Rosemary, who knew her in life, is not impressed. After her husband died, she blew his money away on alcohol, drugs, and men, which got her sentenced among the Wasters after death.
  • Healing Factor: Everyone in Hell can heal rapidly after injury, so that they can be hurt again.
  • Heaven's Devils: The Demons in Hell openly identify as servants of God, diligently working to reap justice without mercy onto the damned and take obscene pleasure in doing so. They even ask Allen to relay the message to Heaven and its offices that they continue to serve faithfully.
    "I think I would like to do that, but I cannot. But when you stand before the Court, tell Michael that we here obey. Tell him that Gantiel awaits a command."
    "Shouldn't I tell God?"
    "Do you believe yourself so highly favored that you will stand in His presence? But if ever you are, tell Him."
  • Heaven Seeker: The main characters are driven by a particularly urgent version of this. They are all sinners, and damned to Hell, but they believe — or, at least, fervently hope — that it is possible to escape or earn release from the Pit, make it to Purgatory, and achieve salvation.
  • 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.
  • Historical Domain Character: While a large portion of the people met in Hell are fictitious, Allen's travels bring him across numerous notable figures from history. In addition to being guided around by Benito Mussolini and picking up Billy the Kid as a traveling companion, the sinners encountered in the first book include such folks as Jesse James, Henry the Eighth, Vlad Țepeș, L. Ron Hubbard and Al Capone. Benny even meets his fellow fascist dictator in Adolf Hitler. In the second novel, the traveling party includes the poet Sylvia Plath and the radio preacher Aimee McPherson; on the way, they come across Charles Francis Adams preaching to the heretics, J. Edgar Hoover among the Malebranche, numerous WWII military leaders among the evil counselors, Pontius Pilate on his own peregrination, and several others.
  • Hollywood Mirage: In the sequel, while crossing the burning desert of the Seventh Circle, Allen spots a wavering mirage-like vision of a cartoon ice cream stand just visible in the heat haze. Played with, later, in that it's something of a conditional mirage. The ice cream stand is quite real — it's the only oasis of rest from the fire and heat in the desert — and staffed by a priest formerly from the bolgia of the hypocrites. However, for most of the damned it's nothing more than a fleeting mirage; only people on genuine journeys of redemptions can find and enter it.
    I snorted. That was really cruel. I turned back to the forest and ran with fire in my hair.
  • Improvised Umbrella: In Escape From Hell, some of the damned souls in the desert of raining fire have figured out the trick of teaming up, grabbing somebody else, and holding him overhead as a shield.
  • 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. This seems to be done on purpose to better illustrate the nature of Hell or, as in Dante's original work, to allow the authors to zap someone with a Take That!. The characters discuss this when crossing the 8th Ring, noting that Dante met an "improbable number" of Italians peppered with Greek and Roman heroes, while in their own trip they mostly met Americans; Benito also recalls encountering a lot of Germans while escorting a German woman. They chalk it up to people preferentially noting their fellows over strangers. In the sequel, Sylvia speculates about travelers through Hell being deliberately guided along.
    • 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: Hell works in this manner much like it does in the Divine Comedy, with some unusual interpretations of the original's sin-categories.
    • In the outskirts of Hell, the indecisive, who spent their lives committing to nothing and following no ideals, chase endlessly after banners that they can't catch, while atheists are trapped inside brass bottles until they ask God to let them out.
    • The Second Circle works as it does in the Comedy, with the lustful blown and tossed about on storm winds to mirror how they allowed carnal urges to direct them in life. Unsuccessful lovers, who obsessed over carnality but never got anywhere with it, are stuck on the ground, endlessly trying and failing to join the other lustful in the wind.
    • In the Third Circle, the gluttonous lie inert in a freezing mire. A man who was obsessed with health food is also condemned here. 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 he tells Allen and Benito that he shouldn't be with the gluttons, Benito tells him "It is the fixation, not the amount."
    • In the Fourth Circle, the hoarders and the wasteful try to crush each other by rolling huge Sisyphean diamonds at each other, only to always knock each other flat and have to start again. One individual, who spent all his money hoarding rare and irreplaceable books that rotted away for lack of care, is considered both a hoarder and waster and is left to lie flat between the two groups, crushed on every pass. Nearby, in and across a large break in the cliff, greedy land developers endlessly built dams and bridges while Animal Wrongs Groups tear them down. In Escape from Hell, the concept is expanded to include materialists as a general category — people whose life revolved around obsessing over material things. On their way through, Allen and Rosemary meet a Gold Digger, and later come across office buildings full of venial bureaucrats stuck in endless frustrating tasks.
    • In the Fifth Circle, as in Dante, the wrathful fight viciously in the swamp of the Styx, while the sullen lie gurgling in the water. In Escape from Hell, Phlegyas mentions that the Circle has become increasingly disturbed due to the recent inflow of suicide bombers.
    • In the walls of Dis, a Babylonian bureaucrat is stuck trying to fill out the government forms that will let him retire. The trouble is that he needs to write them out in cuneiform in mud, and he never makes it quite to the end before the red-hot iron walls cook them through and he needs to start over. The bay he's dug out of the Styx in his attempts has become a local landmark.
    • The Sixth Circle, as in Dante, holds heretics in burning tombs.
    • The Seventh Circle's first ring is Dante's lake of boiling blood for murderers, warmongers, and others who caused violent suffering. A sunken ship swamped in the blood holds the souls of slave traders trapped belowdecks. Crooked cops, judges, lawyers and lawmakers who let killers loose in the public that trusted them to keep them safe are crippled and turned into an island that killers trample over to find refuge from the blood. The Valley of Desolation, a wasteland where living bulldozers chase the souls of the worst polluters and environmental despoilers, forms a new wedge cutting through the Wood of Suicides and the burning desert, as violence against nature has become a common enough concern to merit particular attention.
    • The Malebolge of the Eighth Circle hold a variety of new inmates for modern forms of fraud. Advertisers are among the flatterers. 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. The sowers of religious discord include Henry the Eighth, decapitated like he had his wives, and Vlad Țepeș, who spent a lifetime torturing Turks to death in the name of Christ and now marches around the bolgia with a wooden stake up his... "back". In the pit of the falsifiers, a man who peddled phony cancer cures searches madly in a pile of pills for the one that will cure his tumor, while a quack psychiatrist who tortured his patients is struck with madness instead of physical disease.
    • In the sequel, while crossing the empty plain between the last Bolgia and the ice of Cocytus, Allen and Sylvia encounter a writer obsessed with solipsism. He now sits along at a desk in the middle of nowhere, unable to perceive anything as anything more than passing figments of his imagination.
  • Karmic Reform Hell: While the ending leaves the question of whether this is the case open, the ironic punishments combined with the possibility of anyone leaving Hell imply that it's meant to reform "theologically insane" souls. The process of leaving Hell weeds out all but those who have done the most growth and introspection — but those few can leave. Allen, speculating at the end of the first book, compares it to extreme forms of therapy, intended as a last-ditch effort to shock at least a few more souls into realizing what they did not in life. This becomes more strongly implied in the sequel, as the demons claim that angels cheer and mock them when souls escape Hell, and soulsavers like Allen are granted the miraculous gift of tongues to aid them.
  • Loan Shark: Loan sharks are condemned to Hell. This has some basis in the original The Divine Comedy, which depicts usury as a sin, in turn deriving this from the laws of The Bible. The protagonist, although generally opposed to the concept of eternal damnation, reflects that, if anyone belongs in Hell, it's them.
  • Man on Fire: Exploited in the sequel. When Allen needs to retrieve fire to burn down Sylvia's tree, he initially brings a bundle of branches to the burning desert near the Wood of Suicides and uses them to retrieve the flames. However, all of them burn away, break, or are lost on the way. As a result, Allen has to resort to carrying back flames in his own burning hair — he heals back eventually, as all damned in Hell do, but in the meantime it's still an intensely unpleasant experience.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, is sentenced to the bolgia of the schismatics and turned into what Allen calls "the last word in centaurs" as a parody of his preaching the ability to remember pre-human past lives. He has the back end of a trilobite, then the torso of a primitive fish, then that of a more advanced fish, and so on progressing through lungfish, proto-mammal, early mammal, ape, and finally a human head. He pulls himself along on a dozen mismatched limbs, and when he gets to the demon with the cleaver he gets chopped into component segments that each crawl along independently.
  • My Nayme Is: 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.
  • No Such Thing as Space Jesus: Discussed, and ultimately subverted. Allen is — much like the writers — an author of 70s-era science fiction, mostly focusing on future Earth and space-age settings, and with a strictly materialist understanding of the universe. Thus, when he wakes up after very clearly dying, he assumes that the frightful afterlife he finds himself in is a monstrous amusement park or some other megaproject created by extremely advanced aliens. As he descends farther and father into the pit, he needs to make increasingly large concessions to the technological prowess of these "Builders", including the ability to effectively alter physics and time. He eventually realizes that he's given this hypothetical civilization so much power that there is no difference left between them and God now beyond pure semantics, which is when he admits to himself that, indeed, he is dead and he is in Hell.
  • The Nothing After Death: Allen, as an atheist, is stuck in his own pocket universe of nothingness after death until he finally breaks down and calls out to God to rescue him.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Infernal Bureaucracy of Hell, as might be expected from the place, is a slow, ponderous thing intended to make the locals' afterlives as much of a pain as possible. When Benny and Allen try to get through the wall of Dis, they first need to grapple with a peevish, uncooperative bureaucrat who demands that they fill out twenty-page-long forms, in nine copies (one marked to be destroyed after being filed), filled with abstruse questions such as their great-grandmothers' blood types. They get one pencil for it; if it wears out before they're through they'll just need to "get creative". They get through mainly by means of Benny pretending to be an inspector. Later, they encounter damned souls going through similar ordeals to requisition the tools needed for their punishments.
  • Occam's Razor: Being an atheist and a science fiction novelist, Allen tries rationalizing Hell as a sort of "alien theme-park" with incredibly advanced technology used to explain the unexplainable, only to abandon his "Infernoland" Theory when the logic-defying lengths the hypothetical theme-park owners would have to have gone to make the whole thing work go past his suspension of disbelief.
  • One Degree of Separation: In Escape From Hell, every other person Allen Carpenter meets is someone he met in the previous book, or someone who's met one of those people, or both.
  • Our Demons Are Different: As in Dante, hideous humanoid demons, nine feet tall and with horns, hooves, tails, and tar-black skin, inhabit the lower reaches of Hell, guarding the damned and using pitchforks and long whips to encourage them along in their eternal punishments. A colossal demon, with teeth a foot long and a fingernail as long and sharp as a sword, is taksed with carving up the schismatics.
    They moved fast because there were beings with whips urging them along. It took me a moment to register.
    Okay, Carpentier, you're in Hell and there are demons in Hell. There were things on the red-hot wall that might have been demons if you could have seen them clearly through the fog. There's Geryon, certainly a monster. Of
    course Big Juju can make demons.
    But I hadn't wanted to believe it.
    Now I was looking at them. They were black-skinned rather than the red I'd expected, and they were uglier than I could have imagined. They were using whips twice as long as themselves. They screamed at the laggards.
  • Pilgrimage: The novel follows two damned souls, Allen and his guide Benny, as they undertake a long and difficult journey in the hope of following Dante's path through and out of Hell, reaching Purgatory, and earning freedom from the Pit. Benny mentions having taken multiple souls on this journey before, and the conclusion and later the sequel establish that this can be successful but requires the pilgrim to have undergone significant moral growth and to understand, repent for, and move on from whatever landed them in Hell to begin with in order to succeed.
  • Polluted Wasteland: In the Seventh Circle, the rise of pollution and environmental degradation among humanity has made it necessary to separate the violent against nature from the violent against art and God, who were previously all sent to the desert of fire. The new area takes the form of a great valley, cutting through the Wood of Suicides and deep into the desert; it is referred to in the sequel as the Valley of Desolation. It is a barren, polluted waste of churned mud filled with garbage, toxic waste, and oily puddles, cut through by a sluggish river of brown-and-purple slime and dotted with smoke-belching factories and great strip mines. The souls of the worst polluters are sentenced here, to run through toxic slurry while chased by living bulldozers.
    We left concrete for dirt. When we topped a gentle rise, the ground was suddenly all erosion gullies, hard red and yellow clay studded with gravel and gashed by flash floods. We had to scramble in and out of them. Some had water at the bottom, water filthy with broken bottles and bottle caps, used condoms, floating grease, occasional bursts of brightly colored dyes, chemicals that burned our sandaled feet. Nothing grew here; there were dead stumps of trees and dried brown vines reaching upwards like dead old women’s fingers. Strange smells moved on the air; incongruous whiffs of automobile exhaust, acids, burning oil and rubber.
  • Prospector: While crossing the Valley of Desolation — a newer area of the Seventh Circle, a Polluted Wasteland reserved for the violent against nature — in Escape from Hell, Allen and Sylvia encounter one of several camps of Gold Rush-era prospectors. Having been sentenced to Hell for their thoughtless harming of nature and human life alike in their pursuit gold through dangerous, wasteful, and crude strip-mining, they now spend the ages digging at the slopes of the Valley in hope of amassing enough gold to buy their way out of Hell, but are endlessly hampered by their slipshod rigs that periodically collapse, sending waves of filthy mud, rubble and prospectors towards the hideously polluted bottom of the valley.
  • Purgatory and Limbo:
    • Allen starts the story trapped inside a brass bottle in the Vestibule of Hell, the sentence given to atheists who were not sufficiently moral to join the virtuous pagans. He remains stuck there for a long but otherwise unguessable time, before being released when he angrily yells "For God's sake, let me out!" Once the bottle breaks open, he ends up in the muddy fields of the Vestibule proper, where ditherers and the undecided chase after fleeting banners while being hurried along by stinging insects to give them the movement that they lacked in life. In the sequel, its revealed that the banners are pulled by the Vestibule's other residents, the angels who refused to pick sides during Satan's rebellion.
    • The first true Circle, the home of the virtuous nonbelievers, is essentially an earthly paradise where upright non-Christians and unbaptized children enjoy pleasant surroundings and good company. It is divided into areas matching multiple areas and historic periods of Earth; the story mostly visits the part inhabited by Greeks and Romans plus a few modern people. Benny claims that this is the cruelest of the Rings, since its inhabitants think that they are in Heaven.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Carpenter, trapped in Hell, ineffectively declares war on a clearly evil and sadistic God (although, being a sci-fi author, he refers to God with names like "Big Juju" and "the Builders").
  • Refusing Paradise:
    • In the sequel, while crossing the flaming tombs of the Sixth Circle where heretics are punished, Allen comes across Charles Francis Adams, the real-life son of John Quincy Adams. In life, Charles had been part of a religious tradition that among other things emphasized reason over formal doctrine and did not consider damnation to be permanent or Jesus to be God — son of, perhaps, but not God. This didn't get him damned — it was enough for him not to be considered a Christian, but he was otherwise morally upright enough to be placed among the virtuous pagans, whose Circle is essentially a terrestrial paradise. The reason he's down there now is because he marched up to Minos anyway and insisted on being judged as a Christian. The judge of the dead reluctantly dropped him off among the heretics, although he was not trapped inside a burning tomb and can wander free; he has spent his time since trying to talk others into redeeming themselves — after all, he believes damnation to be temporary, and he was evidently not judged as a heretic, was he?
    • Later, in the Bolgias, the group comes across Aimee McPherson, a radio preacher of the Twenties and Thirties. When she came to Minos to be judged, she was meant to go to Purgatory — she had sinned in life, repeatedly, but repented when it happened and honestly tried to serve God. She had made her living as a soulsaver on Earth and decided that she wanted to keep at it in the afterlife, and as such asked Minos to place her in Hell instead so that she could try to rescue the sinners there.
  • Satan: The books have a somewhat more articulate Satan who talks to the protagonists when they are climbing down him to escape, suggesting sardonically that God "could take lessons in morality from Vlad the Impaler" and that "He could have made a better universe by throwing dice".
  • Scully Syndrome: As the book goes on, Allen Carpentier's attempts to interpret his experiences as a product of super-advanced technology end up becoming more unreasonable than accepting the reality that Hell exists and he's in it. He starts to catch on once he realizes that he's given so many powers to his theoretical "Builders" that they aren't meaningfully different from God anyway.
  • Secret Police: Discussed. Benito and Allen get through the Obstructive Bureaucrats of Dis by means of Benny pretending to be a government official. The ruse is paper-thin and everyone knows it, but the bureaucrats think that they are secret police and obey him anyway. When Allen later asks Benito how he knows that there's a secret police around, the latter replies that that's the only way a bureaucratic state can function. He'd know, being a former dictator.
    "They think — what do they think? That we're important officials?"
    "No. Of course not. They know that we are only pretending that."
    "Then what—"
    "But they cannot be sure. We might be important officials. But most of them think we are secret police."
    "But how do you know there are secret police?"
    Benito looked very sad. "Allen, there have to be. You cannot run a bureaucratic state without them."
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: Downplayed. Hell is very much the Dantean one, with fire, boiling pitch, sheer rock walls, and demons with pointy implements to keep the damned in line. However, a major factor keeping the damned in their condition is their own refusal to help themselves. Throughout both books, the characters on pilgrimage offer others the chance to go with them and are rebuffed. The damned would rather just wallow in self-pity, or rage against God and the universe and fate; many others just can't let go of whatever personal issues landed them in Hell in the first place and endlessly pursue pointless feuds with one another or chase after delusions of fame or wealth, or would just rather alleviate their misery by hurting one another. The first necessary step to leaving the Pit is to process your issues, let go of them, and take that first step on a long journey — but for many, that is too hard, too uncomfortable, and too intimidating, and they refuse to do so.
  • The Soulsaver: Benito tries to save the souls of people in Hell by helping them escape, in order to earn forgiveness for himself. At the end of the novel, Allan Carpentier takes over his role. While the defenses and guardians of Hell itself are a formidable obstacle, the larger part of the challenge comes from the damned themselves — most of the people in Hell are too caught up in the petty concerns that got them there, hopeless self-pity, arrogant pride, or fear of the torments deeper down to be willing to journey out. Escape from Hell notes that others have been undertaking similar tasks; in particular, Allen meets Charles Francis Adams among the heretics — he was technically considered a virtuous pagan, but insisted on being judged as a Christian — where he has been spending his years debating with the damned and trying to convince them to take the leap of faith necessary to climb out of their flaming tombs and seek escape from Hell.
  • Straw Character: A number of Hell's inmates are political extremists of various sorts.
    • One woman is condemned for her campaign against cyclamates, an artificial sweetener whose harmful effects were overblown by flawed study. Allen is very blunt about pointing out the stupidity of that particular cause.
    • 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.
    • One man shut down a nuclear fusion power plant he knew was completely safe because he did not wish to give up the political power that his organization had amassed. In the afterlife, he's stuck riding on a bicycle to power Hell for all eternity.
    • 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.
  • Translator Microbes: For the most part, the sinners in Hell speak and understand what they spoke and understood in life. However, certain souls are selectively granted the gift of tongues, the ability to understand and be understood by all. As a rule, it seems to be granted to those souls who choose to dedicate themselves to the task of saving others. It can even grant the ability to pierce Nimrod's unintelligibility.
  • Trauma Conga Line: None of the characters have a good time in Hell, but Carpenter's tribulations get an especial first-person focus. Over the course of the novel, he breaks most of his bones on a number of occasions, is pelted with fire from the sky, has to wade through boiling blood, has his belly sliced open, burns off his own hands, and has his eyes frozen shut and then open. Every time, the Healing Factor of the damned in Hell fixes him back up so that he can be hurt again. The narration is very graphic about this, describing his sensations, such as the all-pervasive agony of immersion in boiling liquid or the feeling of smelling your own burning flesh, in some detail.
  • A True Story in My Universe: Dante's description and maps of Hell are accurate, and have been used by other visitors. Phlegyas, boatman across the swamp in the fifth circle, is particularly annoyed that Dante gave away the phrase that means he has to transport the speaker to the City of Dis.
  • 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 a teacher damned for carelessly diagnosing problem students rather than put in the effort to help them.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Carpent(i)er interprets his situation as a story like the ones in the science fiction novels he's used to, and 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. However, he's actually in a work of allegorical religious fiction, and as such his explanations always fall short.

Alternative Title(s): Escape From Hell 2009