With Inferno fresh in my mind, I set off to read Escape from Hell, the book that initially attracted my attention. I genuinely enjoyed a good deal of Escape from Hell. However, it never strays far enough from the original book's premise to escape Inferno's shadow.
I like Sylvia Plath as Carpenter's companion better than Benito, just because she's a better companion. I'm not sure how well Niven & Pournelle (henceforth known as N&P) portrayed her, nor do I really care. Unfortunately, while she was an interesting conversationalist, that's all she really was. She's there to listen to Carpenter theorize aloud about the purpose of Hell, its functioning, and the rules operating on this plane of existence.
Now that Carpenter has discarded his "Infernoland" theory and believes this is Hell, regardless of what God has to do with it, he's on a mission to discover if everyone has a chance to escape. As much as I liked his musing about "the rules," a lot of it felt repetitive and redundant. Worse still, some of the really interesting stuff is never fully explained. Why are these suicide bombers allowed to run around blowing people up? Do they really disappear forever when they explode—unlike their victims, who reconstitute elsewhere in Hell—or do they also recover? I'm not asking for answers to the "big" questions, such as "Is there a God?" and "What's his plan for all these souls in Hell?" I just want answers to some of this minor ones.
I did enjoy the further look at the bureaucratic aspects of Hell (if you read my Inferno review, you'll know I asked for more of that!). N&P use Vatican II as an excuse to revamp how Hell deals with souls and even what sort of souls end up in Hell. This is a neat way to integrate a real life event as a plot device to shake up the rules of the world they've created.
Carpenter encounters far more people in this book than he does in Inferno, and more of them are people we know. I'm ambivalent about this. On one hand, I like the inclusion of famous people in Hell (although sometimes I disagree with where N&P placed them among the various punishments). On the other hand, the sheer volume of characters borders on overwhelming. It's sort of like a television series trying too hard to bring in well-known guest stars to boost its ratings. Did we really need to briefly run into people like Anna Nicole Smith or Kenneth Lay? N&P don't adequately use the people they include to make any sort of point, so it's just more fluff in a book with a dangerously over-stretched plot as it is.
The plot, in case you're wondering, is that Carpenter's going to gather more people and help them leave Hell. He wants to know that everyone can try, if they're ready. However, he keeps on meeting people who don't want to escape, or people who can't escape yet. The former really annoyed me. If it's Hell, shouldn't it be bad enough that you'd do anything to leave? If you're really enjoying that time in the boiling pitch, exactly why is it considered a punishment?
Again, more questions than answers. Escape from Hell is just as easy a read as Inferno and expands somewhat on the original book's premise. However, it lacks the close parallels to Dante's journey, as well as the sense of revealed mystery that Inferno had—there's plenty of mystery here, but little enough gets revealed. On the whole, I liked Inferno better, because from a technical perspective it's a smoother work. Escape from Hell is interesting but patchy.