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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Inferno (the imaginary one)

No, this is not a post about the southern U.S. in ... 2030?  2040?  It's about an enjoyable science fiction (actually, perhaps more fantasy) novel, Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published a number of years ago.

Inferno is about a science fiction writer, Allen Carpenter (who goes by the name Carpentier to lend an air of sophistication).  Carpentier dies falling out of a hotel room window while trying to impress fans at a convention and finds himself in what turns out to be a large bronze bottle.  He's there for a long time, and ultimately screams, "For the love of God, someone help me!"  Presto, he's out of the bottle and in the vestibule of Hell--or rather, Hell as described in Dante's Inferno.  After a lengthy and entertaining journey through its various levels, he helps a fellow resident make his way out, and vows to stay and help others do the same.

So that's a very brief synopsis. Two points about this book come to mind when I think about global warming.

First, at one point, Carpentier encounters a priest who has been in Hell since the Middle Ages, when he was condemned for selling false "indulgences" (essentially, tickets by which the rich could supposedly buy their way into Heaven).  Carpentier stops to talk to the priest, whose punishment is to wear a (massively heavy) solid gold robe.  The priest says little and starts to walk away, whereupon Carpentier asks why he can't stop and sit down.  The priest answers:

"I could fall on you. But it may be that you do not know what you say.  If I stop, this robe grows hot.  It is too hot now.  It grows hot slowly, and it grows cool slowly.  Now, goodbye." [emphasis added]

That's the thing about global warming--the Earth grows hot slowly (the good news). The bad news is that it grows cool slowly as well--it's irreversible, on a time scale of centuries.  Also, the good news is not really that good, in that it has lulled us into a false sense of security--it's been 25 years since the heat wave of 1988, and we are just now beginning to see the weather extremes pile up.

Second, once Carpentier has figured out that Hell is real, and not just a stupendous feat of futuristic engineering, he focuses on a larger question--why does God allow it to exist at all?  People are undergoing infinite torture as punishment for the finite sins, however loathsome, they committed during their lives.  In the end, he finally decides on the answer:

"There's only one possible excuse for Hell, and I almost missed it in the ravings of a crazy psychiatrist.  It has to be the final training ground.  If nothing can get a soul into Heaven in its life, there's still Hell, God's last attempt to get [its] attention.  Like a catatonic in a hotbox, like me in that bottle, if Hell won't make a man yell for help, then it was still worth a try."

Hell, in Inferno, is like the climate.  We can ignore it, deny that it's changing, lose ourselves in sports and celebrities and politics and ethnic/religious hatred and all sorts of other distractions--but the climate doesn't care.  It's just going to keep getting worse and worse, year after year, until we can't look away any longer.  For all our sakes, I hope that day is soon.


  1. Nice post.

    Let's hope the hell we're bringing down on ourselves proves to be like this hell, and not like Dickens':

    "The misery of them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere for good, in human matters, and had lost that power forever."

  2. There is a novel about climate change in the U.S. in the 2040s: Snakeskin Road.