Bookshelf: A Short Stay in Hell

2Q==I love Steve Peck for many reasons, one of which is his utter refusal to be pigeonholed. I have read and enjoyed The Scholar of Moab, which is Utah’s answer to Titus Groan, the fragmented saga of an idiotic would-be savant, siamese triplets, aliens, and the ghosts of Gadianton Robbers. I have thrilled to The Rifts of Rime, his joyous celebration of poetic warrior squirrels, and an entirely different kind of thing from Scholar.

A Short Stay in Hell is yet a third thing entirely. The premise is that Zoroastranism is true, and non-Zoroastrians (and perhaps sinful Zoroastrians, though we see none of these) must experience a little hellish therapy before they can move on to better things. Our protagonist is sentenced to pass time in a library, looking for the book that contains the story of his life.

The library (borrowing a conceit from Jorge Luis Borges) contains all possible books 410 pages long, with 40 lines of 80 characters on each page, using the standard characters that can be produced with an American keyboard. The result is a library that is not actually infinite, but may be practically so: as Peck calculates in the Appendix, is 7.16 to the power of 1,297,369 light years wide and deep. In this vast library, food is provided and anyone who dies promptly revives.

Given that set-up, A Short Stay in Hell engages its clever protagonist in seeking his life story, battling tedium, exploring, dodging brutal messianic cults, fighting despair, falling in love, and just plain falling. Thematically, we are drawn to consider the sheer scope of the possible universe and the desirability of eternity.

This is theological-ethical-humanistic fiction at its what-if best, Flatland if written by a skeptical John Donne. Totally worth your time.

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