Category Archives: Summer

Summer reading: Escape from Hell

Back in 1976, I read Inferno, a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which tells the story of an atheistic science fiction author named Allen Carpenter who, much to his surprise, finds himself in a place that very much resembles Dante’s vision of hell in the first book of The Divine Comedy. Carpentier tries to find a rational explanation for what he experiences in his tour through hell, and spends much of the book convinced that he’s in a sort of bizarre amusement park (call it “Infernoland”) created by sadistic aliens with a very high technology. But by the end of the book, Carpenter is finally convinced that he is indeed in hell.

I read Inferno when I was a senior in high school, and I loved the book; I didn’t pay any attention to the theology, I was captured by thinking about what a twentieth century person would do upon finding himself in Dante’s version of hell. Allen Carpenter builds a glider to try to fly over some of the circles of hell, and this is not unlike the heroes of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island using their nineteenth century technology to address the problem of being stranded on a desert island. In my freshman year of college, I went out and bought a bilingual edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (trans. by John D. Sinclair), and started to read the Inferno; I got about three quarters of the way through, but got tired of Dante getting revenge on people he didn’t like by placing them into his vision of hell.

Last year, Niven and Pournelle came out with a sequel to their Inferno, another science fiction novel titled Escape from Hell. At the end of the earlier book, Allen Carpenter learned that you can get out of hell, so he goes back to try to help lots more people escape from eternal damnation. Niven and Pournelle come up with enough new ideas to make this second book worth reading — their depiction of Hell’s bureaucracy is funny and entertaining — but there are major problems with the book. One big problem is that Sylvia Plath is a major character in this book, but Niven and Pournelle’s characterization doesn’t convince me: their character named Sylvia Plath is just another interchangeable female character, and you simply don’t believe that character is capable of writing great poetry. A second big problem is that rather than actually resolving their plot, they end the book with the ridiculous plot device of having a hydrogen bomb explode in hell.

But the biggest problem I had with Escape from Hell is the theology behind the book. Allen Carpenter discovers that anyone can escape from hell, as long as they’re willing to go through a process of confronting the bad things they did in life — there’s a sort of pseudo-psychotherapeutic element in this process. Even though Niven and Pournelle don’t use the psychobabble jargon of “denial” and “acceptance” and so on, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect from mediocre self-help books.

Niven and Pournelle’s understanding of God is about as interesting as their theological psychology. Their God is probably pleasant rather than definitely good, distant and unimaginable rather than immanent and present, and vague rather than awe-inspiring. Their God-concept feels like it’s straight out of the mid-twentieth century when people presented God as either nice or dead, but when God was rarely presented as something compelling enough to believe in. From a literary point of view, if a writer is going to talk about hell as a reality, I’d take the stern yet interesting God of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — or, for that matter, the God of Dante who invents such creative tortures for damned souls — over the the namby-pamby, wishy-washy, exceedingly boring God imagined by Niven and Pournelle. They make hell seem much more interesting and even attractive than God.

Then there’s the purpose of hell, as the authors understand it. When I think of Dante’s conception of hell, I think of a place of eternal torment; if you’re talking about punishment for sins over a limited time, then you’re talking about the subject of Dante’s second book, Purgatorio, purgatory. Niven and Pournelle borrow Dante’s hell, and turn it into purgatory. So then what’s the purpose of purgatory? I admit my bias: I’m a Universalist, and I know hell is a mistaken concept to begin with; nevertheless, within the limits of their theological logic, their conception of hell simply doesn’t make sense.

So I find Niven and Pournelle’s theology problematic. But that was actually part of the fun of the book: I not only enjoyed the adventure, I argued with their problematic theology the whole way through, and enjoyed every minute of the argument. Unlike the liberal Christian apologists who dodge the whole issue, Niven and Pournelle confront hell head on. In the end Allen Carpenter admits that he can’t really make complete sense out of hell; it’s beyond human understanding; but this didn’t feel like a cop-out to me so much as a literary excuse for a pretty good adventure story.


The heat broke today: it only got up to 90 degrees in Palo Alto before the cool air started to move in from the Pacific, and now it’s already down to 69 degrees. It’s supposed to go down into the fifties tonight in San Mateo. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that school has started again, and family vacations have ended. All summer long, the traffic on the freeways was merely miserable; now it’s back to being completely insane.


At midday, my old friend W—— and I packed sandwiches and water, got into his canoe and paddled up the Concord River, and paddled upstream. It wasn’t as hot as yesterday, but it still was in the 90s. Sometimes we’d catch a light breeze, depending on where we were along the bends of the river. The hot sun was straight above us, and there was no shade except over water too shallow for us to paddle in. We saw Daniel Chester French’s statue of the Minuteman, passed under the Old North Bridge, passed the replica of the boat house where Nathaniel Hawthorne had tied up the rowboat he bought from Henry Thoreau,* and at last got to the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers, which is the beginning of the Concord River.

“Which way do you want to go?” I asked Will. He didn’t have an opinion, so I suggested we got up the Assabet River because it was likely to be shadier. We passed some people fishing, and I asked them if they were catching anything. “Nothing,” they said, “just a few little sunfish. It’s too hot.” They were standing waist-deep in the water to keep cool.

The Assabet River is narrow, and just a little way up it we were in the shade. We went up stream just a short way before it got too shallow to go any further. We drifted downstream until we found a bend in the river that was in the shade, and which also caught the desultory breeze. Fish swam under us, and a Spotted Sandpiper bobbed on the opposite bank. It was the perfect place to beat the heat, and we talked about our families for a good hour until it was time to drift back downstream to where we put in.

* For my Unitarian Universalist readers, French, Hawthorne, and Thoreau were all raised as Unitarians, although Thoreau resigned from his church in his early twenties.


At about five o’clock, it had cooled off enough that I was willing to go out for a long walk. I walked out of my sister’s air-conditioned house in Acton, Mass., into the heat. At least it wasn’t unbearably humid; it was merely mildly humid and oppressively hot. When I got off the main road onto a side street, away from car exhaust fumes, I could smell the warm earth, the roadside plants and weeds, the occasional tang of pollen. I passed a hay field that had just been mowed, with all the cut hay raked into rows so the baler could scoop them up, and the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay overwhelmed all the other smells. Then I got back onto a main road again, and once again the hot summer smells were lost under the exhaust fumes. That evening, Dad said his digital thermometer had recorded a high temperature of 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Late July

With all the rain we’ve been having, with constant puddles in all the low-lying places, it almost feels like spring rather than summer. But in spite of the weather, I know

On our walk this evening, we saw Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) growing in a number of places in cracks in the piers and wharves along the waterfront, and the plants were in full bloom: umbels of pure white, gently rounded, looking like intricate lacework.

Other midsummer flowers are also blooming. One of the chrysanthemums that we planted two years ago in our tiny little garden has deep burgundy blossoms. Near the bridge to Fairhaven, I saw some Common chicory (Cichorium intybus) plants about four feet high, each with a couple dozen pale blue flowers.

First-year Herring Gulls are everywhere. They fight each other for food. They call piteously to adult Herring Gulls, hoping to be fed (the adult gulls mostly just ignore them). There is always an injured first-year gull wandering around looking forlorn — today, Carol pointed out one with a broken wing walking up the street. Within a year, 80% of them will be killed off, but right now they are everywhere.

I’m just starting to notice that the days seem a little shorter, the sun is setting a little bit earlier.

The Red Sox have slipped out of first place. They always slip out of first place in late July or early August, and then struggle for the rest of the summer to catch up to the Yankees. They are as reliable as Queen Anne’s Lace.

Summer rain

Our PODS moving container arrived at seven this morning. As I stood outside our building waiting for the truck to show up, the rain came and went — light rain, a quick heavy shower, drizzle, then no rain for a while. The National Weather Service tells us that a low pressure system is moving up the coast of New England. We’ve only had a quarter of an inch of rain so far today, but it has felt like a wet day.

Carol and I walked down to the Waterfront Grill tonight to have a good-bye dinner with Ann and Leo. While we were walking, we admired the lush gardens tucked between the road and State Pier, and the gardens in Coast Guard Park. The hostas were especially remarkable, with huge leaves and big, tall clusters of purple flowers.

“Look at those gardens,” I said to Carol. “They look much better than they did last year.”

“It’s all that rain,” she said. “All the plants are growing like crazy.”

More rain is forecast for Thursday night. The hostas will be happy.


The gulls woke me up at the crack of dawn. Every morning they sit on the rooftops around our building screaming: Auw! Auw! Kee! Kee! Kee! Kee! Kyoh! Kyoh! Kyoh! Kyoh! With an effort of will I tuned them out and went back to sleep. I don’t know when Carol got up.

A cicada wakes me up much later. It must be sitting on the volunteer maple that sprouted up right next the the building behind us and which is now twelve feet tall. This cicada sounds just like the cicadas I listened to on hot summer afternoons when I was a kid. It almost lulls me back to sleep: zzzZZZZZ…. It seems to go on forever.

When it stops, I get up. I happen to glance in the mirror. If I’m not going to kid myself, my hair is more gray than blond now. It’s my day off and it’s still summer, so I forget to shave.

I stand in the kitchen. A cicada buzzes in the tree across the street. I hear a gull screaming in the distance. We bought a blueberry pie yesterday at the farmers market, and there is one small slice left this morning. I know I’m going to eat it for breakfast. There’s one slice of pie left, I say to Carol. It’s yours, she says, and looks back at her computer. I make a pot of tea, and slide the blueberry pie onto a dark green plate.

The last ones of the year

It was 3:30, an hour and a half after the farmer’s market opened. I walked around the corner and saw that there weren’t any lines of people waiting any more. It doesn’t pay to be late at our farmer’s market.

I stopped at the fruit stand. “No blueberries, huh?” I said. Just in case he had a few stray pints hidden away in the coolers in the back of his truck. He had pears and apples and peaches, but no blueberries.

“No, sorry,” he said. “I had a few pints earlier but they sold out quick.”

“Any more coming?” I asked, even though he had already said last week that this week would be the end.

“Nope,” he said, “That’s it, the end of the season.”

After I did all my shopping, I had cherry tomatoes for Carol, squash, Swiss chard, two loaves of bread, two dozen eggs, carrots, beets, and some sunflowers to put on the table at home, and a few other things. It was a lot of food to carry the four blocks to our apartment. It was a lot of food, but even so I kept thinking: I was too late for the last blueberries of the year.

On a busy day

In the course of my job, I sometimes get to do things that might actually make the world very slightly better, in very small ways. I was very busy at work today, and once or twice I might have made the world ever-so-slightly better, so I feel like I actually accomplished something. I came home to eat dinner on the run before I had to head off for an evening meeting, and while I was home I watered the chrysanthemums I planted last week in our tiny little garden. We have had no rain for two weeks, the soil was so dry it was like powder, the plants needed the water.

Of all the many things I did today, watering those flowers was without doubt the best thing I did all day long:– the sun was shining, the air was cool and delightful, and I knew the plants benefited from my actions.