Writing Lessons from Reading: “Inferno” and “Escape from Hell” by Niven and Pournelle

It’s a good thing I decided to check out some other novels set in Hell as I started writing Thin Spots, otherwise I might have stuck with the original title, “Escape from Hell,” which is already the name of one of the books I’m taking writing lessons from in this post, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Hey! There’s lesson one already: Check out the genre before you get started, so you don’t repeat exactly what somebody else has done already, in title, content, or some other embarrassing way.

Inferno and its sequel, Escape from Hell, concern the adventures of Allen Carpenter, a writer who falls to his death and, after some time in an urn, finds himself in the Vestibule of Hell. In Inferno, he follows Benito Mussolini (no, I’m not kidding) to Hell’s exit, but instead of leaving, decides to stay and show others the way out. In Escape from Hell, Carpenter learns enough about his own nature to make a try for Heaven, and out of Hell he climbs (up Satan’s hairy old leg, no less).

The Hell described in the book is faithfully based on the one found in Dante’s Inferno. It makes a fascinating setting, from the packed dirt field of the vestibule to the frozen lake at Hell’s very nadir, where Satan sits imprisoned.

And lo! Check out lesson two: A little (or a lot of) creative theft is a wonderful thing, when properly executed. I found the following quote from T. S. Eliot on Keith Sawyer’s blog: “ ‘Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ He then goes on to say that good stealing is usually from someone far away in space and time.”

Niven and Pournelle have gotten creative theft right in these novels. Dante is certainly removed in time from them and they’ve managed to put the setting to a different use. Whereas Dante, in his Inferno, is primarily an observer, Carpenter is a questioner; he wants to know who built Hell, why they did, and why anyone deserves eternity there. Carpenter also has the nerve to try rescuing people from Hell, an angle I’m pretty sure Dante never considered.

There was a gap of thirty-three years between the publications of Inferno and Escape from Hell, and it seemed to me that the second book, while still plenty entertaining and populated by the likes of Sylvia Plath, lacked the energy and originality of the first. Maybe that’s just me—I did read them in rapid succession, after all—but it seemed the authors didn’t bring much new to the setting the second time around except some detail about the Forest of Suicides and the addition of exploding souls (the souls of suicide bombers, don’t you know).

Maybe there are a couple of lessons here. Lesson three: Be careful when you revisit something that you bring real freshness to it. Lesson four: Not everything you write has to be the bee’s knees—write it, enjoy writing it and hope others enjoy reading it. If they do, great; if not, it’s no disaster as long as you’ve been primarily writing for your own enjoyment (part of my personal writing philosophy—maybe not so great if you write fiction for a living).

Finally, lesson five: Do your research. The acknowledgements section of Escape from Hell discusses the multiple translations of the Inferno the authors delved into to ensure they had a tight handle on the setting, which, in books like these, is practically one of the characters.

Whatever lessons these novels hold, they’re both entertaining, not dark in tone despite the setting and great examples of how a classic can be reworked in the modern day.

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