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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:

  • 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.
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  • 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.)
  • 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 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.
  • 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 Carpent(i)er to relay the message to Heaven and its offices that they continue to serve faithfully.
  • 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. 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!.
    • 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.
    • A man who was obsessed with health food is condemned as a glutton. 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."
    • 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.
  • Karmic Reform Hell: While never openly confirmed, the ironic punishments combined with the possibiliy of anyone leaving Hell imply that it's meant to reform "theologically insane" souls.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Strawman Political: A number of Hell's inmates are political extremists of various sorts.
    • 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 of the political power his organization 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.
  • 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.