Allan Carpentier escaped from Hell once but remained haunted by what he saw and endured. Partnering with the once-famous poet Sylvia Plath, he is on a mission to return and liberate those souls unfairly tortured and confined.
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About the Author
Larry Niven is the award-winning author of the Ringworld series, along with many other science fiction masterpieces, and fantasy novels including the Magic Goes Away series. He has received the Nebula Award, five Hugos, four Locus Awards, two Ditmars, the Prometheus, and the Robert A. Heinlein Award, among other honors. He lives in Chatsworth, California.
Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) was an essayist, journalist, and science fiction author. He had advanced degrees in psychology, statistics, engineering, and political science. As a science fiction author, he is best known for his many collaborations with Larry Niven, including Inferno, Beowulf's Children and The Mote in God's Eye.
Pournelle was the first ever winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best new Writer in 1973.
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Escape from Hell
By Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
All rights reserved.
Seventh Circle, Second Round: The Wood of the Suicides
When we had put ourselves within a wood,
That was not marked by any path whatever.
Not foliage green, but of a dusky color,
Not branches smooth but gnarly and intertangled.
I sprawled with my back against a thick-boled tree, my ass settled comfortably between two thick roots, my legs and arms splayed out at random, palms to the sky. Hell's hideous charcoal sky showed in tiny chinks through a dense maze of branches and dry twigs. The leaves were black on all the trees. They looked alien, or dead. The dark forest stretched in all directions, as far as I could see.
And this was all very restful, despite faint screams carried on a parched wind that smelled of decay. I'd been lying here a long time. No way to tell how long; there are no days in Hell. I let my head fall back and didn't think about how I'd got here, and the souls who hadn't followed me this far. Where they'd fallen. If they were worse off than if I'd never met them. Rosemary was certainly worse off now. Or was she?
"How can they be worse off?" I wondered. "They know the way now. If they still believe me. But —"
But the screams were coming closer, along with an animal snapping and snarling. I grimaced and considered whether there might be a hiding place somewhere. "Some of these trees might be undercut between the roots. I really should —"
Suddenly, here they were.
Human shapes, too many and too fast to count, a dozen or more, both sexes but more men than women. They ran at impressive speed, using their hands where roots grew thick. Some gasped as if they were dying; they were the slow ones. The dead don't need breath. Two saw me sprawled out in modified savasana pose, and spared an instant of amazement. But the dogs were right behind them.
The dogs were something like Doberman pinschers, but streamlined. They had perfect teeth in red mouths, and red eyes, and glittering claws. The leader locked eyes with me, and charged. He ran right over me, and the rest ran past and over, tearing branches from the trees around us. The last one took a moment to bite me hard on the face. I swatted him good across the ear and he ran on, laughing redly at me.
Scarlet sap ran from broken twigs and branches all about me. Voices cried and complained. An American New England accent yelled right in my ear. "Ow! Ow? I can hear myself! Hello, can you hear me?"
"Phure. Oo —"
A giggle. "He tore you up good, didn't he? Why didn't you try to get away?"
"Uh." Good question.
"Listen, I'm Sylvia, and I'd really like to talk. It's been driving me crazy, I can't talk, I can't move, and these damn dogs — Oh, hell, I'm healing," her voice a rising whine that pinched off.
"Damn dogs," a distant voice agreed, then bubbled to a stop. There was silence.
A long time ago an Italian poet named Dante Alighieri had a vision, and wrote a long poem about it. He described Hell, a vast bowl with ledges. Some of the ledges had pits. The first of those ledges was called the Vestibule, and no one was more surprised than me when I woke up there. I was dead, but I was able to think.
I spent what seemed like years in solitary confinement, alive and well and unable to move. Then Benito busted me out, and I found I was in the Vestibule, the Ditherers' Circle. I soon found that the only way out was down, just as Dante had said. I've been following Dante's map ever since.
In the Wood of Suicides the ones who tasted the ultimate in despair grow as trees. They can't talk except through their own pain. That is, they've got to be bleeding. My face hurt, and I didn't want to talk, but I understood the desperation in Sylvia's voice. She was starved for conversation. People aren't meant to suffer alone.
So I tore a branch off above my head and said, "Phylfia?" My lips and nose were still hanging in tatters. The pain was blinding. I resisted the urge to touch my face.
The branch dripped blood. "Sylvia," the tree said. "I was a poet. What were you?"
"Phyenth figshun writher."
"Oh, you can't talk yet. But you've been talking to yourself, and I've been listening. It sounded like you've been everywhere."
"Mofe." Nope, I was pretty sure I hadn't. Hell is big and a lot more complicated than Dante had imagined. Benito and I had taken the most convenient path down to where he said there was a way out. Later I'd followed a similar path, halfway down from the rim, to here.
"It sounded like you've seen a lot of Hell. You were trying to lead people out. Then you came here and stopped. You've been lying there on my roots like an abandoned corpse, for ages. Why did you just stop?"
"I' wasn' worging."
"Well." Her voice dropped. "Why would it?"
I had been looking for that answer since I got to Hell. What was it all for? I lay there and waited to heal. It occurred to me that she'd gone mute, so I tore off another branch. That felt wrong, as if I were torturing somebody's houseplant.
"Eep! So you've been traveling. Do most souls do that? Or all but the ones like me?"
"Moftly they sday where Minos droffs them. Benido ... a frien' buthted me loothe. He led me oud. I know the way oud, Thilvia."
"But you didn't take it."
"And you wrote? I've seen people torn by the dogs and harpies. They heal. Are you healed yet?" I turned my face up toward the gnarled branches. "Ugh. What did you write? Not poetry. I'd know."
"I think I'm lader than you. I wrode sciensh fiction."
"Never heard of it. No, wait. Scientifiction? Like in Amazing?" She laughed coarsely.
"Bedder." My face was healing. Souls heal here, and I'd healed faster since Benito led me into the grotto outside Hell. There had been other changes, too.
"You mean literature? Like Jack Lewis? Narnia? Perelandra?"
Jack Lewis? "Not like that. Hard science fiction, like in Analog. I had a best-selling novel, too. I called myself Allen Carpentier." Like I was going to impress a poet. "What did you write? Sylvia who?"
Her voice got formal. The New England accent I'd already noticed was stronger. Every syllable was pronounced with inhuman accuracy.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Of course that was my cue to announce that I'd never heard of her; but I had. She'd been married to a man who became poet laureate of England. And of course she'd have known C. S. Lewis well enough to call him "Jack." And I recognized the poem.
"I read your novel. The Bell Jar. But that was from Ariel." The Bell Jar was a self-pitying look at a young and crazy woman poet. Black humor, funny in spots. Better known than most of my books, very well regarded by critics, and I'd liked it even so.
"You read Ariel!"
I didn't have the heart to tell her I'd heard a reading of that one poem on National Public Radio as a commemoration of her suicide, and what they'd quoted came from a book review. "Ooomph —"
"I thought you were a writer. You've been talking to yourself," she said. The Massachusetts accent had stuck. Not quite Bostonian. "If you know the way out of Hell, why don't you go?"
"I watched Benito go so I could say that I saw it. Then I came back to get other damned souls. It hasn't worked out. Sylvia, I have to know that anyone can get out. If there isn't a way out, then this is just an enormous torture chamber."
She was silent.
I ripped a branchlet loose. She said, "Dammit! No, I was just wondering what you could possibly have been thinking. Of course it's a torture chamber. Every church I ever was in teaches that Hell is a torture chamber. You see bad people having a wonderful time in life, but the pastor tells you they'll be tortured after they're dead. You feel better."
"Wouldn't that make me —"
"You'll still be a sadistic son of a bitch. But maybe you won't do bad things, because you're afraid to. Allen, what do you want Hell to be?"
I'd worked on that a long time. "I want Purgatory to be an asylum for the theologically insane. Hell is the violent ward. I want to see some evidence of progress for the patients."
"I wasn't violent."
"You don't call leaving two kids to grow up very publicly without their mother any kind of violence?"
She was quiet for a long time. A foul-smelling wind rustled the black leaves of the forest. I reached to break off a twig, but she spoke first. "Did you see Benito leave?"
"Yes." Though he was four thousand miles overhead, a dot when he disappeared, too far away to see where he'd got to.
"So we know that people can leave Hell. Churches don't teach that. But Jack Lewis did. He said that it was your choice, choose to go with God or choose to stay in Hell without God."
"All right. I want to see that everyone can get out."
"Everyone? You can't think of anyone who just plain belongs in here?"
"Maybe there would be conditions," I said. "But everyone who wants to leave."
"No one deserves to be here forever?"
"No! Not forever! Why should there be eternal torture? No other religion does that!"
"So everyone deserves another chance. Even if they have to come back as a hookworm or a pubic louse?"
I nodded. "Something like that."
"Hitler? Stalin? Do you want them to get out? Would you help them?"
Hitler? Stalin? "I don't know."
"I don't, either," she said. "But how would you get me out? Assuming you think I deserve to get out," she asked.
I laughed. "I haven't the faintest idea. You're rooted! Maybe there's a way. But, do you know what's at the bottom?"
"It's a plain of ice. God's own Siberia. Every poet reads the Inferno, Allen. Children are surprised to find ice in Hell."
"There are damned souls buried in the ice. How would I get them out?"
"All right, Allen, how?"
"Maybe they — we can't all be saved. What if the whole setup is here just to get your friend Benito into Heaven?"
"Huh." I couldn't help smiling, remembering a story in which the protagonist turned out to be, not the most important man in the world, but the schmuck who was holding his parking spot for him. That's me, Benito Mussolini's guide dog, my mission in life — death — already accomplished.
"Dante says the suicides can't be saved. Not even at the Last Trump. We'll come back to hang on these trees like dead leaves." Her voice trailed off into silence. There was a faint howl in the distance.
I dared to touch my face. Healed.
Was I ready to move on? Try again? No.
I touched a slender branch. It was too much like tearing off fingers, so I let it go. "I gave up," I said. "I just sat down here and gave up, and I've been here ever since. I lost them all. I wasn't persuasive enough. But I've been outside Hell, and I came back." I ripped the twig off.
"You're an idiot," she said.
I got up.
"Wait. I'm sorry! Tell me more. For the love of God, Allen! Tell me all of it. Maybe you made some mistake, something I can see that you can't. I'm a bright girl, Allen, and there's a lot of poetry in the makeup of this place."
"I've found a lot of the galloping dumbs in this place. Maybe stupidity is how you get here. Don't take it personally. I mean everyone."
"Examples? You spoke of Rosemary. Who was she? Tell it, Allfb." Her words cut off as the wound closed.
"Hah. Where do I start?" It was a familiar question; I'd written scores of books and far more short stories, and every one of them needed a beginning. "The grotto."CHAPTER 2
The Tenth Circle: Ice
Whereat I turned me round, and saw before me,
And underfoot a lake, that from the frost
The semblance had of glass, and not of water.
The grotto looks jeweled; it's brighter than it ought to be. It's not very large. I took a tourist trip to Lourdes once and it reminds me of that. A stream of clean water runs through it. I had a drink from it, the first cool, sweet water I'd tasted since I died.
The grotto is at the very bottom of Hell, through the lake of ice and down. There are two ways out. One is straight up, and if Dante's right, that's a four-thousand-mile climb to the Earth's surface. That's the way Benito took, dwindling to a dark mote on a bright dot, then gone. I went the other way, through an opening walled with coarse black hair.
That's Satan's leg. Satan is covered in coarse black hair. He stands over a mile tall, buried halfway in ice. There's space between the hair and the ice, room enough for a man to crawl and crawl and crawl. Like a flea. Once he shifted and almost crushed me. I'm pretty sure it was deliberate, but the hair was too thick and I just kept coming until I was back on the ice.
The lake of ice is huge! The air is thick and murky so you can't see all the way across, but it's flat, so there's no horizon the way lakes and oceans have on Earth.
I crawled. The Devil said — Sylvia, the Devil tried to talk to me, but I kept crawling. There's a wind that leaches all the heat out of you in an instant. At first I was crawling over bodies sprawled any which way under clear ice. Their eyes were open. They saw me. Then faces started protruding, ice on their eyes, snow in their mouths.
"Hello? Is someone there? Moving?"
I hesitated. These were traitors. "Here," I said.
"Is there a way out?" He had a long face, dusted with ice.
"I haven't thought of one for you. Who are you? What did you do?"
"I built an atomic bomb," he said. "I do have a solution. Boil the ice."
I laughed. "Will Rogers?"
"That's right, he was going to win the submarine war by boiling the Atlantic. He didn't have a power source."
"Why are you here?"
"Quantum physics would tell us that everything is by chance."
"I don't believe that!"
"Neither do I, but I don't seem to be able to do anything about it. How are you able to move, here?"
"Some of us are loose. Like Benito, or — him." Someone was walking toward me across the ice.
He was naked. No robe. Long black beard and hair. He wasn't crouching against the wind. He shouted something at me, not in English, but I understood him anyway. "What are you laughing at, dog?"
I patted my face. It was frozen in a great wide grin. I understood then that I was still grinning from my triumph. I'd fought my way out of Hell, and I was back of my own will, knowing why. I'd come back to rescue others, like Benito had. Paying the debt forward. I felt good.
I shouted at him, and managed to wrap my words around his speech. "I know the way out of Hell. Follow me!"
We approached each other. He was grinning, too. When he was close enough, he wrapped his arms around me and exploded.
I waited for Sylvia to react, but of course she said nothing until I ripped a twig loose.
She said, "Exploded? Like he'd swallowed nitroglycerin?"
"Just like that. Like a fool, I let him hug me. I thought he was just very glad to find me. Some peoples are demonstrative —"
"I know. Italians," she said. "What was he speaking? Irish?"
"Maybe. I don't know, but I could understand it. I've understood everyone since I came back from the grotto. I've been given the gift of tongues."
"You're a saint? Lucky you. Then what?"
"Bang. He must have blown us both into an aerosol. I didn't know anything until my body congealed again, and I don't know how long that took. I was back on the rim, back where I started, where the undecided are."
She said, "Vestibule. Undecided and Opportunists. Were you one of those?"
"Let me understand. You started in the Vestibule? With those who couldn't or didn't choose?"
"Ditherers. Yes. In a bottle. I don't know how long I was in that bottle, but when I got out, Benito was standing next to me."
I tore off a larger twig.
"God, that hurts."
"Don't be. You can't imagine how good it feels to talk again. And to listen."
"I don't have to imagine," I told her. "I can remember." The memories poured over me. I had just died —
The big surprise was that I could be surprised. That I could be anything. That I could be.
I was, but I wasn't. I thought I could see, but there was only a bright uniform metallic color of bronze. Sometimes there were faint sounds, but they didn't mean anything. And when I looked down, I couldn't see myself.
When I tried to move, nothing happened. It felt as if I had moved. My muscles sent the right position signals. But nothing happened, nothing at all.
I couldn't touch anything, not even myself. I couldn't feel anything, or see anything, or sense anything except my own posture. I knew when I was sitting, or standing, or walking, or running, or doubled up like a contortionist, but I felt nothing at all.
I screamed. I could hear the scream, and I shouted for help. Nothing answered.
Dead. I had to be dead. But dead men don't think about death. What do dead men think about? Dead men don't think. I was thinking, but I was dead. That struck me as funny and set off hysterics, and then I'd get myself under control and go round and round with it again.
Dead. This was like nothing any religion had ever taught. Not that I'd ever caught any of the religions going around, but none had warned of this. I certainly wasn't in Heaven, and it was too lonely to be Hell.
I shivered and fought off the memories. "I was in that bottle almost as long as you've been a tree. Or I think I was. The books about you tell when you died, about ten years before I did. Time's funny in this place, it seemed like I was in that bottle a thousand years, but it might not have been long at all."
Excerpted from Escape from Hell by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle. Copyright © 2009 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Tor Books by Larry Niven,
1: Seventh Circle, Second Round: The Wood of the Suicides,
2: The Tenth Circle: Ice,
3: The Vestibule: Opportunists,
4: Charon and the Acheron,
5: First Circle: Virtuous Pagans,
6: First Circle: The Palace of Minos,
7: Second Circle: The Winds,
8: Third Circle: The Gluttonous,
9: Fourth Circle: The Hoarders and the Wasters,
10: Fifth Circle: The Wrathful and the Sullen,
11: Fifth Circle: The City of Dis,
12: Sixth Circle: The Heretics,
13: Sixth Circle: More Heretics,
14: Seventh Circle, First Round: The Violent,
15: Seventh Circle, Third Round: The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art,
16: Seventh Circle, Second Round: The Violent Wasters,
17: Seventh Circle, Third Round: The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art,
18: Seventh Circle, Third Round: The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art,
19: Seventh Circle, Third Round: The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art,
20: Seventh Circle, Third Round: The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art,
21: Eighth Circle, First Bolgia: Panderers and Seducers,
22: Eighth Circle, Second Bolgia: Flatterers,
23: Eighth Circle, Third Bolgia: Simoniacs,
24: Eighth Circle, Fourth Bolgia: Fortune-tellers and Diviners,
25: Eighth Circle, Fifth Bolgia: Barrators and Grafters,
26: Eighth Circle, Sixth Bolgia: Hypocrites,
27: Eighth Circle, Seventh Bolgia: Thieves,
28: Eighth Circle, Seventh Bolgia,
29: Eighth Circle, Eighth Bolgia: Evil Counselors,
30: Eighth Circle, Ninth Bolgia: Sowers of Discord,
31: Eighth Circle, Tenth Bolgia: Falsifiers and Counterfeiters,
32: Eighth Circle: Beyond the Tenth Bolgia,
33: Seventh Circle: The Cliff Edge,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had some high hopes for "Escape from Hell, Niven and Pournelle's sequel to Inferno, originally published in 1976. I thoroughly enjoyed the character in Allen Carpentier and his view of Dante's classic hell as "Infernoland" in the original book and looked to see his character developed further. However, "Escape from Hell" left things a little lacking. The authors basically did a "flashback" to Inferno in the first third of the new book, somewhat tiresome for those of us who read the original. Then, they went back and found a number of characters from Inferno and continued *their* stories after Carpentier had met and then left them. Interesting, but again, not great. Carpentier also seems to have gotten a bit more "dense" in his understanding and quest for the reason Hell even existed in the first place. He becomes somewhat dull and predictable and downright dense in some aspects. The final disappointment for me was the development of a "love interest" with one of the new characters that, at the end of the book, just stops. Carpentier shows no interest in discovering what happened to her and just goes on woodenly. As a read, it's fine and it's enjoyable. I would have preferred to see the authors spend more time on developing "Escape from Hell" a bit more, but we have what we have.
Well worth the time, great plot, and flows well.
The short version: The first part was better.The slightly longer version: Some original ideas, funny, deep and creative retelling of Dante's inferno. The truly novel and innovative approach to the old plotline is though stays with the first book.
Very similar to Inferno (obviously), mostly read it to complete the series.
Sequel to their "Inferno," another trip through hell with a science fiction author who is now out to show people the way out (as you might have guessed from the title.) I found this one a little more irritating in that there were more discussions about hell and its purpose than in the first book and so my disagreements with the authors (which I knew were there) were made more evident. I can't imagine that Sylvia Plath or Albert Camus would enjoy their rather comic-book depictions, but I digress. I admire the authors for taking this on, renewing interest in Dante's Divine Comedy, and risking the theological speculation...but doesn't hell (with an escape hatch) end up being Purgatory? And can they really think, as they say in the afterword, that their picture is in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church? I'd love to see the Vatican response.