Niven and Pounelle are both respected SF authors, who sometimes collaborate. This fantasy novel is a exception to their usual ‘hard SF‘ style.
It is a reworking of the most famous work of the great Italian poet Dante. In Dante’s “Inferno” the (thinly disguised) author takes a guided tour of hell, courtesy of the Roman poet Virgil.
In Niven and Pournelle’s version a (fictional) SF author – Allen Carpentier – attempts to upstage Isaac Asimov at an SF convention. Unfortunately, he is dead drunk at the time, and only succeeds in falling (unnoticed) out of a window. He wakes up in hell, and takes his tour as an inmate.
On his travels, Carpentier meets a variety of historical and contemporary figures. His guide describes how their surreal punishments are designed to complement the sins which for which they condemned. These include Epictetus, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bob Ford, Henry VIII of England, Vlad Tepes, Aimee Semple McPherson, William M. Tweed, Al Capone and, of course, L Ron Hubbard (whose appearance is very brief, but telling).
According to Dante, hell is a series of concentric circles. In each circle of hell, a different type of sin is punished. As you approach the centre, you also descend – and the offences become more serious.
Carpentier encounters L Ron Hubbard in the 8th of the 9 circles of hell – the pit of evil counsellors, dedicated to those who commit fraud. His punishment is to exist as a bizarre mixture of living animal parts, retaining only a human head. A handy demon explains this fate:
He founded a religion that masks as a form of lay psychiatry. Members try to recall previous lives in their presumed animal ancestry. They also recall their own presumed past lives… and that adds an interesting blackmail angle, because those who hear confession are more dedicated than honourable.
Carpentier who, as a science fiction writer, invented fictional religions for alien cultures now has to justify himself to the demon. He pleads, “He [Hubbard] played the game for real, for me it was just a game”.
From the point of view of science fiction authors and fans, this is Hubbard’s sin. He deliberately blurred the line between popular, healthy, fantasy and reality in order to gain power over others – a point of view which is persuasively argued in this Masters Thesis.
Niven and Pournelle are popular at science fiction conventions – one of their novels “Fallen Angels” was written as a tribute to SF fandom, and is packed with obscure references to delight the hard-core. Their depiction of Hubbard, and the reason for their contempt, would not be lost on readers.
Neither are they alone in this – Greg Bear wrote his novel “Heads” to comment on “The cults of true believers who try to have science and religion mixed into the same cocktail”.
In “Heads”, ‘Logology’ stands in for Scientology and L Ron Hubbard is replaced by one Kimon Thierry whose cult creation the protagonist describes as “[..] puerile hypothesis , and even outright fantasy masquerading as revealed truth”.
There are other examples. The last word should go to two respected writers and historians of science fiction – Kingsley Amis and Adam Roberts.
Amis published “New Maps of Hell” in 1961 (when the Hubbard bandwagon was still rolling) and describes Hubbard as a crank “who seem bent on getting science fiction a bad name”.
This opinion had not changed with the passage of years. Roberts writes in “The History of Science Fiction” (2005) that Hubbard’s ‘space opera’ stories, which form the basis of Scientology doctrine, are not only unbelievable but also very poor writing:
It is the banality and cliché of of these sub-Pulp adventures that is most interesting: to capture the hearts of so many thousands it is not even necessary, it seems, to write poetry of the calibre of the Koran or the Gospel of St John; all that one need do is plunder the traditions of second-rate Pulp SF of the sort that Hubbard himself was writing (at one cent a word) in the days before he found a more remunerative income stream.