Jacob's Reviews > A Short Stay in Hell

A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck
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's review
Feb 10, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012, short-fiction, i-own
Recommended for: You!

March 2012

Hell is a vast, immeasurable, nearly infinite library--and you can only check out one book.

Bad news for most of the human race: there is only one true religion, and it's Zoroastrianism. The good news: Ahura Mazda is a merciful god, and nonbelievers are not condemned to hell for all eternity. But they will be there for a very, very long time. For faithful Mormon Soren Johanssen, hell manifests as a library of nearly infinite proportions--a library, inspired by the story "The Library of Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges, that contains every book ever written, every book that could possibly be written, and every variation thereof. To escape this hell and to enter heaven, Soren has one task: find the book that contains the story of his life.

But which book? As another denizen of the library points out, "There's a second by second account of our lives, probably in multiple volumes, a minute by minute account, an hour by hour, a day by day. There's one that covers the events of our lives as viewed by our mothers, one by our fathers, one by our neighbors, one by our dogs. There must be thousands of our biographies here. Which one do they want, I wonder?" The rules are not specific, but it hardly matters: the library is billions--trillions--googols of times larger than anyone can possibly imagine, and to even find a coherent sentence on a single page of any particular book becomes a daunting task. Phrases like "sack it", "lightbulb ocean left", and "the bat housed again four leaves of it" become celebrated texts. Everything else, for light-years of books, is gibberish.

But Soren tries to make the best of it. With much of eternity ahead of him, he drinks coffee (forbidden by his religion) for the first time, explores the shelves, finds love, fights, falls (for tens of thousands of light-years without ever hitting bottom), makes friends and loses them, witnesses the rise and fall of alliances and cults, and searches--searches--searches for his book.

Eons later, after hundreds of billions of years, he is still searching.

Did that sound boring? Sorry. I'm in a reviewing slump, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around this book, but you're going to have to take my word for it:


And did I mention it's only 104 pages long?

Ahura Mazda damn it, this book is too short. But at 104 pages, it also contains a trillion years of sorrow and hopelessness, so anything longer would be dangerous to read. Soren's impossible quest to find a single tome among several billion universes worth of books, and his other impossible quest to find the one woman who fell to the bottom of the library before him, is bleak, heartwrenching, disturbing, frightening--and impossibly beautiful. Gah. Bluh. But don't take my word for it. Go read this thing yourself.

Faced with an eternity of torment promised by some of the other, lesser religions, or a not-quite-eternity on a single impossible quest, which would you choose? Another reviewer said that they were going to have to check out Zoroastrianism "just in case." Me, I'll take my chances. Hell is a vast library? C'mon, it can't be that bad...

I'll probably regret saying that in about half a million years.

(ARC provided by publisher)
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Reading Progress

February 10, 2012 – Shelved
March 13, 2012 – Shelved as: 2012
March 13, 2012 – Shelved as: short-fiction
March 14, 2012 – Started Reading
March 14, 2012 – Shelved as: i-own
March 14, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-28 of 28) (28 new)

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karen man, that sounds like a lot packed into a tiny little book.... i am intrigued...

Jacob It's really just a handful of little vignettes--his first day, his first week, a few other points in his first few thousand years--but the story is told so well, it feels like the perfect length. Although part of me still wishes it was bigger.

karen twss

Jacob I knew you would catch that. Too easy?

karen LGM

karen man - these are just wonderful softballs

message 7: by Jacob (last edited Mar 15, 2012 05:08PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jacob Should I make it harder?

No, that's just too much.

Jacob I would offer to share my copy, but not yet. Need to reread it a few more times.

message 9: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry Sounds really cool. I enjoyed that Borges story.

Jacob Elizabeth wrote: "It sounds great but I was three sentences into the review when I started wondering why the library wasn't cataloged..."

It is! Somewhere inside the library is a book that lists the location of every other book. The hard part is finding it.

Jacob Dulac3 wrote: "Sounds really cool. I enjoyed that Borges story."

I only just read it last night, after this one. Now I'm reading his other work. It's all a bit mind-boggling.

Jacob But this library contains more books than there are electrons in this universe, many billions of times over. How would you catalog that?

Jacob Laws of physics do not apply in hell!

Abandon all physics, ye who enter here.

Jacob More fun than fire and brimstone and pitchforks.

Tatiana I thought about how it would be implemented, this hell, in the universe, and came to the conclusion that it's definitely a computer simulation, or something of that sort. That's the only way that everything in such a vast space could be instantly repaired overnight, with no sign of how the repairs take place. Also, like you say, not enough particles in this universe to make it work, though some other possible universe might have enough, might contain it. Oh, also, gravity is the same, and universally pointed "down" in such a vast library, showing that it can't really exist on a planet or anything. The lines are straight parallel lines for light-years, so gravity has to be just conceptual and not physically real, there, it seems to me.

Jacob, Borges wrote lots of very cool mind-blowing stories. Check out "The Circular Ruins" and "The Lottery in Babylon".

Jacob Not to mention, if Soren managed to make it to the bottom--and work his way back up--then he didn't have to deal with billions of cubic light-years worth of atmosphere pressing down on him.

But wouldn't a computer that simulated a library many times larger than the universe and containing every possible variation of a book of certain length be, I dunno, kind of impossible? I'm an atheist, but I prefer to just think "God did it."

Reading more Borges right now. I think "The Lottery in Babylon" is coming up soon.

message 17: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jacob wrote: "More fun than fire and brimstone and pitchforks."

Dude, some of us would rather face pitchforks than an uncatalogued library.

Tatiana The computer could be much much larger than our universe, just in a different universe, perhaps. But I didn't even think about the enormous atmospheric pressure you would get. I wonder how you would get around that? I mean, I can imagine setting Pressure to some constant everywhere, but it means you don't really have air that acts like air, at all. This is going to have to be more like one of those brain-in-a-vat things with signals being fed in. You think?

Tatiana I can see the characters coming up with experiments to test how real things are around them, and getting weird and inconsistent results, since someone like the FSM would have to be fiddling with their instruments, assuming they could figure out how to build any.

Tatiana Everything you jury-rig to build an instrument gets put back to perfect overnight. You'd have to get very fast at building instruments every morning and making measurements with them all day. Then you can't write the results in a form that lasts overnight, either. So you'd have to have a system of memorizing them and repeating them without errors the next day. Science would be hard under those circumstances. But it would still be possible. And, hey, what else is there to do? Read gibberish books?

Jacob Tatiana wrote: "Everything you jury-rig to build an instrument gets put back to perfect overnight."

Not always: anything you're physically touching at the moment of reset stays with you. Books, weapons, even the turkey-bone flute Soren kept with him for about a year. Paper is easy--you just have to write in the margins if you can't find any blank pages (and the person who comes across the library's sole blank book is very lucky indeed), and the notes last as long as you keep the book on you.

Jacob Although I still think we're thinking about it too much. God did it! It's hell! And I would still prefer this hell over any of the hells the other people in the prologue are sent to. Especially the evolutionary biologist. It sounds like she got bees.

Jacob "As a confirmed atheist, Julia Hanson has always believed noting would happen after death. Then, she dies. Julia wakes to find herself cast by a God she has never heard of into a Hell whose dimensions she can barely grasp: a vast beehive she can only escape from by finding the bee that contains the story of her life."

Tatiana I had forgotten that rule. It's been a while since I read it. That makes science a whole lot easier! One of the things I loved about the book is how the library is such a strange and marvelous place. It cries out for more exploration of its properties, and for follow up novels in which the characters actually figure a way out. To do that they'll have to understand how it is they're imprisoned and what their surroundings are made of. Overthinking, in other words, is half the fun!

Jacob Overthinking, in other words, is half the fun!

Ok, yeah, good point. I hadn't considered it that way. I would love to read more, of course, especially to see how people come together and what kind of communities evolve. 'Sides, I imagine if you can organize a fairly large group of people to work the shelves in shifts, maybe they could find more than just a handful of sentences each year.

Tatiana It makes sense that hell would be a place that practically forced us to learn a lot of important stuff we never understood during mortal life, like how to cooperate among each other to root out cancers (like the killer group), and accomplish higher-order goals like finding all the books that have real content, figuring out the environment, understanding how things work and making "life" easier and better, generating meaningful occupations for ourselves, etc. Immortality with all our needs met shouldn't be torture. It ought to give us a chance to learn a whole lot more than we were able to learn during our brief mortal lives, I think. It ought to be fun.

message 27: by Jacob J. (new)

Jacob J. The gods have seen fit to allow me another chance to win this book! Your review ups the ante on my expectations. If I don't win it this time, I'll have to go buy it.

Jacob Jacob wrote: "The gods have seen fit to allow me another chance to win this book! Your review ups the ante on my expectations. If I don't win it this time, I'll have to go buy it."

Make sure to sacrifice at least two goats per god--you'll need all the help you can get to win a book these days.

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