Interview by: AMC’s Clayton Newman
Author Jerry Pournelle discusses his new novel, Escape From Hell, the sequel to his 1976 novel Inferno — about a writer traveling through the Nine Circles of Dante’s Hell — and explains the special part of Hell reserved for computer nerds.
Q: Why did you and your writing partner Larry Niven decide to return to Inferno after so many years?
A: Because we had a story. We don’t automatically do sequels — it was twenty years before we did a sequel to The Mote in God’s Eye because we didn’t have the story. But it was pretty clear that the original Inferno was not finished. And though it never hit a bestseller list, it has outsold many bestselling books: It outsold Carl Sagan’s Contact.
Q: In the book, Sagan ends up in Hell for being an atheist.
A: Carl was sort of a friend of ours. We had arguments with him and disagreements, but yeah, we put him in there. And I do not think he would have objected to his treatment in the book, or the reason why he is in Hell.
Q: In Inferno, your main character Carpenter partners with Mussolini. In Escape, it’s Sylvia Plath. Why her?
A: She is clearly smarter than Carpenter, and she also knows Dante’s Inferno better than Carpenter — she practically memorized the poem. But she’s also less of a thorough-going rationalist, so the two of them make for interesting conversation. What happened was Niven had in mind an opening scene for this book, and it starts in the grove of the suicides. I’d been fascinated with Sylvia Plath for 20 years, so I thought it would be interesting to weave her into a story. I think most people will be in love with her before they finish the book.
Q: Carpenter meets up with figures ranging from Oscar Wilde to Adolf Hitler. Who was your favorite to write?
A: I have always been highly influenced by Albert Camus. I wanted to put him in there and give him a chance to state his case. But you could subtitle this book as Dante meets Vatican II. That really is the point of the story, to reconcile the Vatican Council with Dante’s more Medieval Catholicism.
Q: Science fiction writers don’t often tackle issues of faith and religion. Why did you?
A: Science fiction writers are generally not Christian apologists — and this is intended to be an adventure story and a good read, not a theological work of apology. But science fiction tends to be rationalist, and to a great deal, atheist. And of course the modern conceit is that no intellectuals are religious, which I think is not true. You start with a concept and you try to stay consistent with what you assumed. It’s like any work of fantasy — the best ones have a hard foundation to them.
Q: Like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books.
A: Very much so. Of course Lewis and Tolkein were good friends, and Tolkein was responsible for Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. At one time that trend was a lot stronger than it is now. It isn’t as if there are no Church member scifi writers, although most of them are not. It’s a question everybody wonders as we all get older.
Q: Which Circle of Hell was your favorite to explore?
A: It was fun trying to create the bureaucracy of Hell. Dante never does — they just go through the gates. But we spent some time inside the actual city of Dis and that was fun to create. Larry’s favorite is down past the Tenth Bolgia of the Ninth Circle — there’s a gap between the Ninth Circle and the Tenth Circle, and Larry thought of something to put in it: The computer nerd solipsist, the guys who no longer believe in the real world and are stuck in virtual reality.
Q: Do you have plans to write another Carpenter book?
A: At the moment no, but you never know. If this sells really well, that would obviously interest us. At the moment, we don’t have anything else to say on the subject.
Q: What’s your next project with Larry going to be?
A: We’re negotiating another one now. Probably the most lucrative thing we ever did was hit the Earth with a great big rock, so we may try that again.