by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Review by
Ron Grube

Pocket: New York, 1976

237 pages April 2002

The fat's in the fire

People have the craziest reasons for picking a favorite book, or scene, or story. In my own case, one small scene in Inferno is enough to make me re-read it many times. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote an interesting update / rewrite / maybe spoof? of Dante, and their fantasy is a lot of fun to read, but ...

I've fought weight problems all my life, been on diets, avoided sugar, hated some of the awful substitutes that came along. In the 1960s came cyclamates, the best artificial sweetener ever, and apparently the least toxic, especially compared to saccharine, with its godawful aftertaste. The various do-gooders banned cyclamates, on the theory that the stuff caused cancer. Well, in the quantities they used on their lab rats, water would probably cause cancer. I, and others like me, were willing to take the chance, but others knew what was best for us poor misguided fat people.

Niven and/or Pournelle must have had a weight problem, because one of the early residents of Hell we meet is a lady who led one of the groups to ban cyclamates. I won't tell you what they did to her, but I re-read the scene a couple times and was chuckling so insanely that my wife asked me what I was reading, and promptly got the same reaction when I showed her.

Now look at all the space I wasted on one little scene, but remember this is a really small part of an interesting story.

Sins of the bookmen

A science-fiction writer drinks too much, showing off for fans at a convention, and falls out an eighth-floor window. He wakes up in a brass bottle in the vestibule of Hell, and Inferno details his adventures trying to work his way out. A lot of Dante is recalled, but these authors have more fun with the damned than Dante, and invent a few newer sins to bring the tale up-to-date, including such things as a book collector who kept hoarding beyond the capabilities of his storage, and lost priceless books to mildew, rats, and insects — a hoarder and a waster at the same time.

The writer, Allen Carpentier, is released from his bottle by a big guy named Benito, who assumes a role as guide and helper to move Carpentier through the depths of Hell, and promptly gets the shaft from Carpentier when the writer figures out who he really is.

Allen and Benito's journey through Hell is difficult, to say the least, but the authors hold out hope for the final salvation of the book's characters. Not an easy road, but possible anyway. I never got clear through the original Inferno, but Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle made it a faster-moving, more interesting story (at least to me) than Dante's book.

Can a trip to Hell be fun? Yep, if Niven and Pournelle are the guides. A fast read, very entertaining, maybe educational if you're planning on trying out some new sins ...


© 2002 Ron Grube


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