Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Reviews: Inferno and Inferno

No, I haven't gotten my books wrong. There are, in fact, two books named Inferno: one by the medieval poet Dante Aligheri (translated by John Ciardi), and one by contemporary science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Dante's Inferno is well known, starting with his warning above the gates of Hell: "Abandon all hope ye who enter" to its circles and increasingly creative ways of punishing sinners of various sorts. As a work of poetry, Dante's Inferno is one of the legendary pieces of Western literature. Not being able to speak Italian very well, I picked up the Ciardi translation of this piece of the "Divine Comedy," as well as Purgatorio and Paradiso, all of which were dedicated to Dante's great love, Beatrice. All three books, I am told, are written in superb Italian. I cannot speak to that, but I can say that Ciardi has done a master's job of putting these works into well-spoken and rhyming English.

What, then, is the Inferno? It is, quite simply, a travelogue through Hell. Dante, writing as himself, is taken on a guided tour of the infernal reaches by Virgil, the Latin poet he most admired. It starts in lighter realms, among the virtuous pagans, who obeyed the Ten Commandments, but were never baptized into the Christian faith, and moves its hideous way down to the Devil himself. Along the way, Virgil explains to Dante what the various levels or "Circles" of Hell mean, and why people are punished they way that they are. The sins start mildly, with the carnal and the gluttonous, and work their way further down through heresy, violence, blasphemy, and eventually betrayal of benefactors (think Judas Iscariot).

During this tour, Dante also encounters people he knew in life who have since passed on, to make clear to his 14th century audience (he completed the Comedy in 1308) what sorts of people he thought would end up in which circles. Given that Dante was already in exile at this point in his career, it is not surprising that he takes potshots at many who put him into that situation, not omitting a few Popes. The Purgatorio and Paradiso take the reader on similar guided tours through Purgatory and Heaven itself. Inferno is always described as the most interesting of the three works, perhaps because it is the most colorful or pernicious. Individuals unable to control their baser instincts are chased around great circles, whipped along by demons, while liars and bad counselors are forced into rivers of excrement and spout as much whenever they open their mouths. It is grotesquery with a purpose, and the purpose is to turn the reader away from sin. The concerns of the Comedy are mostly those of the Middle Ages, and the description of Hell is as "scientific" as one can make it--it is written about a generation after St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, which attempted to reconcile faith and reason.

What, then, is one to make of a work written by a couple of science fiction writers neary 700 years later? Try to imagine, if you will, a 20th century science fiction writer (who falls from a hotel balcony after drinking too much at a science fiction convention) finding himself in the Hell described by Dante. You might think you're in for a bit of depressing literature. Such is not the case. Inferno is hilarious, if one has a sense of humor tuned to the dark and slightly twisted side.

Niven and Pournelle's character, a man named Allen Carpentier (a fancy way of restyling his actual name, Carpenter), does not accept Hell. Nor is he terribly accepting of Heaven, for that matter. He spends most of the novel trying to understand where he is, and what's going on. He is vaguely familiar with Dante, and so assumes that someone or someones have recreated it for strange purposes of their own. And yet along the way, Carpentier's guide Benito shows him 20th century equivalents to the sinners of Dante's era.

Who would have thought that individuals who prevent bridges being built (environmentalists) might end up in the circle of hell designated for Wasters or individuals offering divinity degrees through the mail might end up in the circle set aside for simony? (Don't chastise Niven and Pournelle too much for conservative-mindedness: they also have a special circle of hell for individuals who destroy the environment.) And yet it's not just this retelling and recontextualizing of Dante's Hell that makes this book enjoyable, it's the way their character reacts to it. Where a religious-minded person might see the terror of demons and furies of Dis, the authors' SF writer sees updrafts, upon which he might build a glider to fly out of Hell. Or, in the circle where one previously found vicious dogs, one now finds self-guiding attack sports cars, which Carpentier and his companions decide to drive to get where they want to go. And there's also some of Carpentier's wilder speculations on where he actually is that make the humor that much grimmer. The SF writer's desire to use what's available to solve problems is so typical, so wonderfully goofy, that one can only admire Niven and Pournelle's chutzpah for suggesting them.

And yet the authors have a purpose here. As Carpentier travels deeper into Hell, he starts asking more and more serious questions--why are people forced to suffer in this way? Why would (a) God allow such a place? What purpose would such a Hell serve?

I fear such a retelling of Inferno will offend believers, and yet the book offers good lessons for the questioners in the SF community. It's a book, oddly, that provides a route through to faith for someone who might be questioning otherwise.

I highly recommend Dante's Inferno, as well as the Niven and Pournelle version (there's a sequel coming out soon). The two books, together, just might scare the Hell out of you.

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