Friday, March 6, 2009

Escape from Hell

There are several books that I've read well over a dozen times. One of them is Inferno -- not Dante's version, but a modern version written by two science-fiction authors, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle, a fan of C. S. Lewis, says that he got a lot of the "theological stuffing" for Inferno from Lewis's The Great Divorce. Niven and Pournelle have written several novels together, including The Mote In God's Eye, one of the best SF novels ever written (it's a first-contact story, and one of the other books that I've read over a dozen times).

The story of Inferno, for those who don't know, is about a guy who descends to Hell and discovers its levels and punishments. In Niven and Pournelle's version, the main character is a SF author. What's interesting about this is that as their character (named Carpenter, although he calls himself Carpentier) travels around Hell, he realizes that he has committed many of the crimes that he sees other people being punished for. This induces in him some self-examination; and consequently the authors, in writing this story, also go through a level of self-examination that is rare in our day.

One of the best parts in Inferno is when Carpenter encounters the pit for those who invented their own religions. The demon-in-charge accuses him of having committed this crime, and thus implies that Carpenter belongs in this pit. The way he invented his own religions is that, in writing his SF stories, he invented alien civilizations, cultures, and societies; and this involved inventing alien religions as well:

"You never created your own Church, Carpenter?"

Oh, dammit! "Listen, those weren't in competition with God or anybody! All I did was make up some religions for aliens. If that was enough you'd have every science-fiction writer who ever lived! ...

"Take the Silpies. They were humanoid but telepaths. They believed they had one collective soul, and they could prove it! And the Sloots were slugs with tool-using tentacles developed from their tongues. To them, God was a Sloot with no tongue. He didn't need a tongue; He didn't eat, and He could create at will, by the power of His mind." I saw him nodding and was encouraged. "None of this was more than playing with ideas."

The demon was still nodding. "Games played with the concept of religion. Enough such games and all religions might look equally silly."

Again, I'm very struck by the fact that two SF authors had enough self-awareness to recognize the possible negative consequences of their craft. In our society we tend to think that we'll go to Heaven, and don't think of the bad things we've done for fear of having a low self esteem. In other times, people have tended to think that they would go to Hell; or at least they have focused on their bad things so that they could learn and turn away from them. For example, Christians have often focused on their failings in order to recognize the depth of God's love in being willing to forgive them for it. I think the appropriate attitude is to recognize both the good we've done and the bad rather than to focus on one to the exclusion of the other.

At any rate, Niven and Pournelle have just published a sequel to Inferno entitled Escape from Hell. Glenn Reynolds has a brief review of it here. I'm looking forward to it, and seeing whether it also gets its theological stuffing from C. S. Lewis.

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