Through me you go to the grief wracked city; Through me you go to everlasting pain; Through me you go a pass among lost souls. Justice inspired my exalted Creator: I am a creature of the Holiest Power, of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love. Nothing till I was made was made, only eternal beings. And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope — Ye Who Enter Here.
–Dante, from The Inferno
Just this week I was in Dublin, and in my exploration of the city (i.e. Guinness drinking) I learned some things about traditional Irish mythology. For one, did you know leprechauns are cruel little sprites with dreadlocks and unkempt beards? Or that the quaint ritual of the wishing well derives from attempting to bribe sinister residents of the underworld into cooperation? Literally: people screaming into holes in the ground at imagined fairies and demons, throwing money, begging them to relent in their systematic destruction of lives in the human world. As it happened, my discovery of this very literal understanding of the planet’s theological geography coincided with a book I’d just finished reading, Philip José Farmer’s Inside Outside.
Inside Outside is about a place called Hell, the most nightmarish science fiction world I’ve yet encountered. This isn’t to say that it’s the scariest, most imaginative, or exotic: rather, it has the logic of a dream, a strange distribution of detail and texture that gives a half-formed, lucid impression of place. We meet Jack Cull (i.e. Jackal), who lives in Hell. His only food is made of mashed arid desert plants, supplemented by a sticky Manna that falls from the sky. The city he lives in is a cyclopean construction of basalt populated by immortal humans and sniggering, opaque demons. Paper is made of human skin, and Cull works at a weird Borgesian office called “The Exchange,” with sloping walls and tiered rows of stone desks that stretch to the ceiling. His trade is in religious gossip: he barters hope, myths, and origin stories to help Hell’s citizens get through the day.
In Inside Outside, magic is a palliative, religion a technique to allay an incomprehensible reality. But just as even the jolliest human myths have sinister origins (viz. leprechauns, who will make you dance until you drop dead), nothing here is as it seems. A Jesus figure roams Farmer’s Hell in dark sunglasses and white robes, disappearing whenever people glom onto him. The question that hangs pregnant in the air is this: are they dead, or is Hell a real place? If so, why does no one remember how they got there? Jack Cull—incidentally, the Jackal, archetype of cleverness in countless myths–is determined to find out.
As it turns out, Cull accesses Hell’s underworld not by yelling down a well but through its sewers. The technicalities of the Hell-world are manifold and perverse; it’s like a Hieronymus Bosch painting in space, and Cull’s journey as it unfolds is a medieval spirit quest through the physical underworld, owing as much to Dante as it does to fantasy. Cull discovers that he doesn’t live on a planet, or in a protoplasmic afterlife. Rather, it’s a hollow metal sphere with artificial gravity and a sun in the center. Like in some cosmic version of the Poseidon Adventure, Cull tunnels down out of the city, hits the edge of the sphere, and peers out a porthole into space. Then the real implications of his situation echo: he isn’t dead.
Perhaps, though, he never lived.
The novel is a heady allegorical journey from early-career Philip José Farmer, part of the excellent Avon “Rediscovery” series, which incidentally brought me face-to-face with my first Farmer collection, Strange Relations. It’s not really a good book, per se: not one character is likable, anyway, and the story is basically just a woozy set piece until the last ten pages, in which all the truth of Inside Outside is artlessly revealed. It feels more like a hastily scribbled articulation of a dream, like Farmer tried to get it all down before the memory ebbed back into his subconscious. In that sense, it reads like J.G. Ballard; it has the same kind of unapologetic surrealism, the sense of personal mythology.
The conclusion of the novel indicates that a sufficiently advanced alien race might be indistinguishable from God, and a sufficiently advanced tinkering from said race tantamount to Creation. Farmer seems to accept implicitly this fairly advanced esoteric concept: that heaven and the cosmos are the same thing, that the medieval picture of celestial spheres, as jewels nestled in aether, is closer in spirit to the indifferent reaches of outer space than some cloudy, harpy invention of man.