Escape from Hell
By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Published by Blackstone Audio
Read by Tom Weiner
Once upon a time, two well-known science fiction authors (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) decided to collaborate on several stories. One of them was an updated version of Dante’s Inferno (aka Book One of his Divine Comedy. Whereas Dante’s version involved himself being given a tour of Hell by an equally well-known author of Ancient Rome – Virgil. Their updated version starred a fictional SF author who called himself Allen Carpentier, although it later turns out that his real name was Carpenter. To this date I’m still not sure if the French version of his name was worth the bother, but I suppose it helped to establish aspects of his character.
Anyway, Carpenter thinks he is in some sort of evil theme park which he refers to as “Infernoland” until it finally sinks in through his thick skull that it’s the real deal as he is guided downward by a likeable and powerful soul who calls himself Benito. Eventually the obvious is explained and Carpenter learns that Benito is actually Benito Mussolini, and along the way they meet a lot of people who Carpenter either knew or had heard of in life (similar to Dante’s adventures in Hell). Among the cast of notables is Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Aimee Semple McPherson, Al Capone. King Henry VIII of England, L. Ron Hubbard and a number of notables from Greco-Roman Mythology.
In the end when Benito finally leads Carpenter to the very bottom of Hell, Carpenter allows Benito to proceed onward to Purgatory while he, Carpenter, will go back and continue Benito’s work of helping reformed souls to escape.
The book was another of my favorites although I think I figured out who Benito was just about the same time he introduced himself. It was also a greater success than anyone anticipated and it is credited with a resurgence of interest in Dante among college students. It was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1976.
This is not about that book (although I recommend it highly)… I suppose it is to be expected in the modern world of writing that no work of fiction is so perfect that it can stand without an automatic sequel.
And so thirty-three years later we got Escape from Hell. This time around Carpenter rescues Sylvia Plath from the Wood of the Suicides (by burning her tree…) and they set out, once more for the center of Hell as Carpenter describes some of what has happened since the last book. Well since the first Book word of Vatican II has finally reached Hell and all the souls are supposedly being re-tried according to the revised rules. Hell has been updated to include suicide bombers as well, so this is not quite the same Hell we saw in the first book, although since Hell is so large it is easy to accept these merely as aspects we had not yet encountered. In this second book, the authors were even more determined to parade out 20th and 21st Century celebrities and we meet, Anna Nicole Smith, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leon Trotsky, Melvin Belli, Carl Sagan, George Lincoln Rockwell, Albert Camus, Peter Lawford, J. Edgar Hoover, Ken Lay and a lot more. Oh, and Aimee Semple McPherson is back on her motorcycle out saving souls in her own way.
In the end, Carpenter is labeled a troublemaker and is kicked out of Hell rather unceremoniously. Man, just what does it take to be an undesirable troublemaker in Hell? Well, for that you will just have to read or listen to the book. If you liked the first one, though, you will probably enjoy this as well. If you have not read the first, though, it is probably a good idea to find a copy and read it before you start this one.
I have said before that Tom Weiner reads well, with a well-polished voice and perhaps more than his fair share of vocal talent. Those same qualities I have recognized in the past apply to this reading as well. He is easy to listen to, does not resort to “Funny voices” to differentiate the characters. Adds just the right amount of emotion for impact without going over the top and that is rather important in a story like this in which it would be all too easy to go overboard.
So, all in all, this is a pretty good book and a pretty good reading of it. Enjoy!