Undoubtedly, one of the 20th century’s most inventive world-builders was Larry Niven. He is perhaps most famous for Known Space, the universe where Ringworld (1970) and another 11 books are set. Niven’s inventions are now scattered in the background of much of science fiction, but his invention of Ringworld as a whole still strikes me: a ring orbiting the sun, 3 million times the surface area of Earth (a million miles wide and with a full orbit diameter of 186 million miles). It is a speculative cosmographer‘s interglobal dream.
Perhaps one of the greatest tools of the fantasy writer is the “supposal.” Suppose a world of magic was invisibly intermixed with our own, what would it be like to go to magic school (Harry Potter)? Suppose earth faced the threat of annihilation by a non-personal alien species and a child’s video game skills were more important than a fighter’s battle stance (Ender’s Game). Suppose there was another world beyond the wardrobe wall (Narnia). Suppose all the legends and myths were true–even the ones that contradict with the other ones–and we really did live on a flat world, resting on the back of elephants, flying through space on the back of a great tortoise (Discworld). Once the supposal is in mind, the whole universe falls into place.
Larry Niven, with his authorial partner Jerry Pournelle, talk about their inventive use of the supposal for their fantasy book, Inferno (1976).
“‘Suppose we look at Dante as C. S. Lewis might have? Lewis’s The Great Divorce looks at an entirely different geography of Hell, but it certainly provides a consistent philosophy.’ We continued the discussion, and before the night was over we had the beginnings of a novel, including the main character, Allen Carpenter, a somewhat pretentious but successful science-fiction writer modeled on a composite of several people we knew. We had also determined the theme of the book: Carpenter is dead, and in the Inferno, but he does not believe in Heaven and Hell. The book is about his efforts to discover where he is, and why. Our Inferno would employ Lewis’s theology and Dante’s geography.” (see here).
The supposal allows the authors to explore Dante’s stirring geography with the principle that C.S. Lewis used in The Great Divorce, that if one comes to self-knowledge one can interpret hell as a kind of purgatory. The novel allows them to test a lot of villains in hell, and there are a surprising number of Californians there.
I have heard that there is a second book, Escape from Hell (2012), and that the working title was “Dante vs. Vatican II” or something like that. I may have to check it out, but this Inferno makes me want to go back to Dante.