Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Christian mythology is a rich source of fiction. It's a great deal of fun to re-interpret mythology and add a new twist, a new perspective. This isn't a new trend either; it's been going on since there was a Christianity to mythologize. Few figures have drawn as much attention as the Devil, also known as Satan, Lucifer, What Have You. In the Bible, he is a serpent and a trickster. Milton made him sympathetic (although I suspect he was copying the Rolling Stones). Although Dante's Inferno from the Divine Comedy is more about Dante's journey through Hell than it is about the Devil, the same idea applies: it's one man's interpretation of a mythology that has shaped entire societies.
Now we have Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's take on Inferno—a re-interpretation of a re-interpretation of Christian mythology (at least, the Hell part). Niven and Pournelle (I'm going to call them N&P from hereon if that's fine; I don't know which wrote more of if that's applicable here, so I'll laud and lament them collectively) draw heavily from their source material. However, you don't need to have read the original before tackling this Inferno. I haven't yet tackled the Divine Comedy, but I'm aware of enough of the basic plot to see the parallels here: a writer dies and finds himself in Hell. He ventures deeper and deeper into Hell's concentric circles, each one featuring punishments for different types of sinners. The narrator receives a guide—in Dante's case, Virgil; in Carpenter's, Benito Mussolini. The goal of this journey is an escape from Hell found at its very centre. The ending of the book, as well as in some of its particulars, differs from the original. This is more a work "inspired by" Dante's than a straight "updated" version.
The Hell of N&P's Inferno is one of horrors and punishments that seem just but, as Carpenter puts it, "much too late." At first, Carpenter can't believe he's in Hell. As a science fiction writer and an agnostic, Carpenter tries to rationalize Hell. He calls it "Infernoland," a sadistic amusement park created by advanced humans or aliens. As he goes deeper into this setting, however, he encounters stranger and more unsettling sights that call this theory into question. The problem is not that Carpenter is unable to believe in God (and thus in Hell) but that he can't reconcile a God with a "private torture chamber" with the largely benevolent God depicted in Christianity. In fact, any Inferno is somewhat of a deconstruction of the Christian mythos, since attempts to depict the nature of punishments in Hell inevitably evoke this sort of reaction: why would God do this? By the end of the book, Carpenter believes he has arrived at an answer, one that requires him to stay in Hell and help others escape while Mussolini goes on to the next stage (presumably Purgatory).
N&P break the monotony of Carpenter and Mussolini's relationship with several transitory characters, including Billy the Kidd, an astronaut named Jeremy Corbett, and for a moment, Jesse James. As much as the idea is a good one, I have to question the choice of companions. Really, Billy the Kidd? Maybe I'm just a bag o' no fun, but these people aren't examples of what I'd call interesting historical personages (now Mussolini is definitely on that list). And these companions are with the main characters for such a short time that it's hard to develop any attachment to them. Just as I begin to warm up to Corbett, N&P pull him back to his place in Hell, leaving Carpenter and Mussolini alone once again. Almost all the characters save these two are underdeveloped, more one-liner jokes ("What are you in for?") than actual people.
My problem with the bureaucratic episode is similar. I loved the parody of bureaucracy—I love parodies of bureaucracy in general, and N&P include a good one here. It's just too short (although maybe this is necessary in order to keep such parodies fresh and funny). All of these short sketches of punishments in Hell give Carpenter the opportunity to reflect on his past life, but without much of an idea of Carpenter's life, there's very little in the way of pathos.
In addition to the bureaucracy parody, there are plenty of lighter moments in Inferno. N&P make plenty of references to popular science fiction authors at the time, delivering tips of the hat or vaguely disguised mockery to Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, etc. Carpenter as a character and his entire Infernoland theory is as much a comment on the cult of science fiction as it is a deconstruction of Christian Hell. A good deal of what we know about Carpenter we learn from how he describes his relationship with his fans. He feels like he's a more approachable, more open author than some of the more prestigious authors who are winning Hugos and, like Asimov, publishing far more in a year than he'll output in a lifetime. As Carpenter speculates about the fantastic mechanisms that must operate Infernoland, we get the idea that he clings to this theory long past its expiry not because he genuinely believes in it because it's all he has. He has spent so long being just a science fiction writer, with few if any other attachments, that science fiction is all he has left of any sense of "normal" (and Infernoland is certainly not normal).
Inferno is at times very much a piece of genre fiction, almost meta in the way Carpenter interjects with his interpretation of Hell. It has elements of both satire and seriousness in it, but in this instance they don't mesh satisfactorily. Part of me really liked it, but overall I feel … underwhelmed. This is a usually a sign that a book has lots of little good ideas (like Benito Mussolini as the guide to Hell) but never really coheres.