Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (book review).

Larry Niven should need no introduction to readers of Science Fiction. The creator of ‘Known Space’, he is perhaps best known for ‘Ringworld’, which won the Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards. Jerry Pournelle is also a successful SF author, although eclipsed by his writing partner, he has also included aerospatial science in his career. Together, they are best known for their well-reasoned and plausible stories of alien contact (‘The Mote In God’s Eye’), near future arcology (design for heavily populated areas) development (‘Oath Of Fealty’) and apocalypse by comet (‘Lucifer’s Hammer’).


Their 1976 novel ‘Inferno’ therefore stands somewhat alone in the body of their collaboration. That novel told the story of Allen Carpenter, a Science Fiction author who dies in the first chapter during a stupid drinking game and is surprised to find himself in Hell. Not just any Hell, but Hell as described in Dante Alighieri’s great poem ‘The Divine Comedy’. As Allen travels through Hell, guided by the mysterious Benito, the novel essentially retells Dante’s work in prose form. ‘Inferno’ was well received, having been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards.

Escape From Hell’ was published in 2009 and forms a direct sequel to ‘Inferno’ and comes as no small surprise but why the long wait between the two novels? The notes at the end of ‘Escape From Hell’ explain somewhat. It would seem that the authors have discovered much more inspiration in their studies of ‘The Divine Comedy’ since the first book was published. Along with this their discussions had thrown up so many suggested further encounters in Hell that there was plenty of material for a second novel.

The author’s prose style is very clear and precise, which has the effect of rendering their subject matter in a very factual fashion. This is certainly an advantage in harder SF, but can be disconcerting in what is essentially a work of fantasy and originally a poetic one at that) The overall effect can feel a little dislocated, but is technically up to the standard you would expect from the authors.

The story itself once again winds its way down through the various levels of Hell, encountering many of the inmates on the way. Carpenter continues to exhort the various inhabitants to leave by following him, as he certainly knows the way out. Often the reasons implied for why most inmates can’t even escape their specific punishments are never directly described, but hinted at so the reader draws their own philosophical conclusions. This is probably the best aspect of the story, as it allows the reader’s mind to fill in its own blanks.

However, Carpenter’s second journey through Hell so heavily reflects the first that ‘Escape From Hell’ often simply feels like a repeat of ‘Inferno’ with a few name changes. Granted there are some new and highly fitting concepts but, overall, the newer novel does not seem to add a great deal to the original. Many of the new encounters feel a bit like a who’s who of well-known historical villains.

The main characters are well-portrayed, the descriptions polished and evocative and, overall, the book is very competently written. But this doesn’t stop it from feeling vaguely like what it is, which is to say a bunch of new ideas the authors had that they wished they had included in the first novel.

I found this book to be an enjoyable enough page-turner. The authors are so accomplished it should hardly be less but ‘Escape From Hell’ is simply not on par with their great novels. Readers who enjoyed ‘Inferno’ will most likely enjoy ‘Escape From Hell,’ but maybe not in the same measure. For readers new to either Niven or Pournelle, I cannot advise starting here. For the established fans only.

Dave Corby

(pub: TOR/Forge. 329 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $27.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1632-5)
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