Inferno (novel)

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Inferno is a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published in 1976. Although it takes its inspiration from the first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, it takes an entirely different approach both thematically and in storyline.

Plot synopsis

Allen Carpentier, a mediocre science fiction writer, dies at a convention in a pointless, drunken stunt. When he awakens, terrified, in the middle of a formless silver sphere, he is expelled from it after a terrified utterance calling on God for deliverance. He soon realizes that he is a damned soul in Hell, which is difficult for an atheist such as himself to accept, and meets a man named Bonito who tells him "I know a way out of Hell". After his own efforts to escape into Limbo fail, Carpentier agrees to be escorted by Bonito, on a journey that takes them through the nine circles of Hell, each more horrific and terrifying than the last.

Thematic issues

A large part of the theme of Inferno is an attempt to justify how Hell can exist; in other words, why an omnibenevolent God would punish sinners in such horrific ways. As one minor character puts it, "We are in the hands of Infinite Power and Infinite Sadism", and the point of the exercise is a question the hero finds himself asking.

Niven and Pournelle, like Dante before them, populate their Hell with the types of people who they feel deserve punishment but have no power to punish in life. Although they do not name specific individuals, they do vent their frustration with advertising executives and government regulators. At the same time, they also express frustration with religious principles they felt outdated, with Carpentier expressing dismay that homosexuals (referred to as "Sodomites") are damned with no recourse.

In fact, Carpentier shows difficulty adjusting to the idea of any afterlife, and has a habit of looking at demons and pondering how physically impossible it is for them to exist and do what they do.


Inferno was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 1976, although it did not win either.