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A Short Stay in Hell
Steven L. Peck
read on June 7, 2017

While less than 10% as long as my last fiction book 1Q84, this book as at least 10 times better. More than that. A Short Stay in Hell is phenomenal. Crazy good. I'm not sure where you draw the line between "short book" and "short story" - but I've never really been into either. I always felt (though not from any experience) that short stories wouldn't be engaging enough, or develop enough character or motivations for me to really get on board. Well, I guess I was wrong. This is the best book I've read in a long time, fiction or not.

This book explores the concept of infinity and immortality in interesting ways, from the perspective of a man that has died and is now trapped in (an otherwise very pleasant) "hell", consisting of few other people and a nearly infinite amount of gibberish books, of which he must find a single one, unique to him. The themes I enjoyed:

  • Religion - I like the cute discussion of the "one true religion" being something no one has ever heard of, highlighting the absurdity of our popular beliefs. (I'll note that since having read this book I feel like I commonly encounter Zoroastrianism in other contexts, so maybe jumped the gun on "no one has ever heard of" there). The book was an interesting satire on the nature of what we believe, and why we believe it. Despite religious being very real in the book (they are all in hell, after all), the book subtly also drives home that religion is entirely a human fabrication, a natural consequence of a doomed people seeking a purpose.
  • Physics - Here I just enjoyed the interesting depictions of ordinary items at cosmic scale. If a book is 410 pages long, with 80 lines per page, and 40 characters per page, and each character is one of ~40 (roman alphabet + punctuation), how many possible books are there? How much space would that take up? I've run across similar questions in other physics books when exploring the idea of a unique 'multiverse' for every possible combination of data in our universe. This is a microsim of that, but an interesting example of exploring how quickly exponential equations scale.
  • Purpose of Life / Happiness - The Hell described in the book is actually very comfortable. Everyone speaks english, can move around comfortably, can meet other people, can eat whatever they desire, can fall in love, have sex, etc. They can pretty much do whatever they want... except their entire environment (including their physical bodies, though not their memories) is "reset" every night. I.e., they cannot build anything. Every morning they wake up to the same environment, trapped in a giant library. Why would you be unhappy here? With the fear of death removed from life, what is there to live for? What is there to aspire to? Do we require progression to be happy? Is that the only thing that can even make us happy? If so, why?
  • The Infinite Nature of Time - There is a line early on in the book where one of the characters asks if they're going to be in hell for eternity, and one of the demons in charge laughs at him, and ridiculous his notion of eternity. He goes on to say that hell is not eternal, it is a temporary punishment, and that after hell each person will enjoy an eternity in heaven where they'll someday look back at their tiny stay in hell and laugh. The main character then spends billions of billions of years in hell. The interesting part is that I think the demon was telling the truth. What does that say about life? No matter what you believe, we'll all be dead soon and then we'll (well, presumably) either spend eternity in some imaginary heaven, or nowhere. Either way, there is an eternity of some other experience/nil awaiting us. What does that say about our time now? What is 80/∞?

Author Bio:

Steven L. Peck (born July 25, 1957) is an evolutionary biologist, blogger, poet, and novelist. His literary work is influential in Mormon literature circles. He is a professor of biology at Brigham Young University (BYU) He grew up in Moab, Utah and lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Peck believes that God "only enters the universe through our consciousness." He compares scriptural interpretation to scientific interpretation, in that both nature and scriptures are unchanging, but our understanding of them changes over the course of generations. While the LDS church currently has no official position on evolution, Peck teaches evolution in the courses he teaches at BYU. On the subject of writing, Peck says that it is a way for him to explore the complexities in his life. He stated that anything we do to build our knowledge of the universe helps to build the kingdom of God.