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Escape from Hell
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Narrated by Tom Weiner, unabridged
Blackstone Audio, 7 Hours

Larry Niven
Larry Niven has authored or co-authored more than 40 novels and short story collections. His 1970 novel, Ringworld, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, while his short stories have earned him four more Hugos. His collaborations with Jerry Pournelle include The Mote in God's Eye, an intense first-contact yarn, Oath of Fealty, a blistering tirade against liberal values, and the #1 bestseller, Footfall. He resides in Tarzana, California.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Inferno
SF Site Review: Ringworld
SF Site Review: Rainbow Mars
SF Site Review: Best of all Possible Wars
SF Site Review: Destiny's Road

Jerry Pournelle
Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D., earned his Bachelors in Psychology and Mathematics, his Masters in Experimental Statistics and Systems Engineering, and his Doctorates in Psychology and Political Science all from the University of Washington. His public service includes chairing the Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy and The Lunar Society, Inc. He has served as Advisor on Space Policy to the Republican Congressional Leadership and as a Board Member of the L-5 Society. Jerry Pournelle was born in Shreveport, Louisiana but now lives in Studio City, California. Married in 1959 to Roberta Jane (nee Isdell), he has four sons and one daughter.

Jerry Pournelle Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Starswarm

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ivy Reisner

Escape from Hell In 1976, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle released Inferno, a reworking of the epic poem by Dante Alighieri. That review can be read here. Now, they have returned to that world and to the hero, Alan Carpenter.

The narrator, Tom Weiner, is the same, which provides a welcome continuity to both works. He is a tremendous voice actor, switching accents from Italian to New Orleans to German all with ease. He gives Sylvia a beautiful New England voice, and the dialog tags are not necessary. We can tell who is speaking by the voice he gives them. His performance greatly enhances the work.

The plot is relatively simple. Alan teams with Sylvia Plath, who has been condemned to the wood of the suicides in the middle ring of the seventh circle, to get out of Hell. Hell is going through a shakeup of its own because of Vatican II. The rules have changed. The condemned are all scheduled to be tried anew.

This work runs far closer in tone to the original, while trying to account for some of the issues that have been raised against Dante. The modern reader may find Dante's references to men like Farinata degli Uberti obscure, and would wish for more detail. In response, Pournelle and Niven treat the audience to a summary of 9/11 and Katrina, in the form of dialog. That throws off the pacing a bit, but if this work survives the long centuries as Dante's did, far flung generations will appreciate the effort.

Where Dante put his contemporaries in various circles of Hell, so too does Niven and Pournelle. We meet Lester Del Rey in the first circle of Hell, Limbo, amidst the virtuous pagans. Later we meet Carl Sagan, condemned further down. We also encounter Oscar Wilde, J. Edgar Hoover (in the form of a pink demon, a poetically grand touch) and Ted Hughes.

This is a charged political work, as was the original poem, and not all of the condemnations will appeal to all of the readers. I was surprised at an incident with a 15-year-old boy condemned to the inner ring of the seventh circle (the burning desert) for sodomy because he'd had sex with a priest from the ages of 10 to 15. He was told he was at risk of becoming trapped in the first bolgia of the eight circle, to be whipped in an eternal circle by demons, for being a seducer. Or perhaps sent to the tenth circle (the lake of ice) for betrayal, because he reported his abuser.

From a symbolic point of view, it's not as straightforward as it first appears. We have a character named Carpenter, an obvious allusion to Jesus. He has the gift of tongues. He is in Hell to rescue the condemned souls. But his decisions at the end throw the easy analysis off. Without spoiling the book, I'll say that his actions produce a situation that makes Hell, for some, more Hellish.

It's a thoughtful work, and points will have the reader questioning things like Divine Justice, Divine Mercy, and the eternal consequences of the kind of ogre's choice Oppenheimer faces (he'd have been condemned to the same torment no matter what he decided).

This is not a stand-alone work. Ideally, one should read Dante first, then the Niven/Pournelle Inferno, then this work. At the very least, read Niven/Pournelle's Inferno first, though any reader who deprives himself of Dante's poetic vision does himself a great disservice.

Copyright © 2009 Ivy Reisner

Ivy Reisner is a writer, an obsessive knitter, and a podcaster. Find her at

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