Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

A comet hits the earth decades before Armageddon and Deep Impact

Lucifer's Hammer

Ballantine, 1977, 640 pages

The gigantic comet had slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization.

But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival - a struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known....

There's this attitude I see a lot among the more hard-core survivalists or "preppers," sometimes thinly-veiled and sometimes barely concealed at all: They talk about how bad it's going to be and how terrible and tragic TEOTWAWKI will be, but they obviously can't wait for civilization to fall so they can start shooting people and collecting wimmins.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle aren't that bad, but they definitely used the opportunity of a comet striking the Earth and destroying global civilization to kill off a few other bugbears of theirs as well, like women's lib and environmentalism.

Lucifer's Hammer was written in 1977. In one respect, it shows. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are hard SF writers, and I have read quite a few of their collaborations, from Footfall to Fallen Angels, and enjoyed most, with reservations. But this is serious White Dude sci-fi, steeped in sub-Heinleinian 70s tropes.

In another respect, Lucifer's Hammer is a great story that, unusually for science fiction, doesn't show its age much where technology is concerned, if only because after a civilization-ending comet strikes the Earth, 1977 won't look a lot different than 2013.

I love post-apocalyptic thrillers. The bigger and cheesier, the better. I liked Armageddon and Deep Impact. I liked The Stand and The Passage and Swan Song and I Am Legend (all of them, even the Will Smith version). Just bring on the end of the world, baby!

So, in this book, Niven and Pournelle take out the planet with a comet. The first third of the book is of course the lead-up to the impact. Astronomers see it coming, a joint US-Soviet space mission (okay, so anything written before the 90s is going to mention Russkies) goes into space to watch it from orbit, and everyone is assured that the chances of the comet striking the Earth are about a billion-to-inevitable-because-what's-the-title-of-the-book? The authors introduce all of their main characters here. It's a book with a lengthy cast list, but the major characters include: Timothy Hamner, a wealthy amateur astronomer who is the first to spot the Hamner-Brown comet; Harvey Randall, a Hollywood producer; Senator Arthur Jellison, who retreats to his central California ranch with his staff and his daughter, "just in case"; Harry Newcombe, a somewhat hippie-ish postal carrier; Alim Nassor, a militant Black Nationalist who sees the panic over the approaching comet as a good opportunity to go on a crime spree and stick it to The Man.

Herein we see the first problem: the major black character is of course the bad guy, and he and his gang are introduced as a bunch of drug-crazy looters spouting violent rhetoric about honkies.

The authors tried to balance Nassor with John Baker, the first black astronaut. Spoiler: Of the three American astronauts and two Russian astronauts who are characters in the book, guess which one dies?

There are also some women, but they're mostly there for the men to hook up with and have rivalries over. Second problem with the book.

Still, the characters are varied and interesting, though one might find the first third slow going — get on with the apocalypse, already!

"Hammerfall" is described with Niven and Pournelle's usual attention to scientific detail, and the unlimited special effects budget of a novel. Tidal waves destroy all coastal areas. The San Andreas fault is triggered. Volcanoes erupt all over the world. And China and the USSR launch nuclear missiles at each other. The U.S. escapes nuclear holocaust thanks to the astronauts in orbit, but in the aftermath of multiple comet fragments striking around the world, no government survives, and the remainder of the book focuses on Senator Jellison's ranch, which becomes a stronghold for survivors. They struggle to rebuild what they can, and the moral dilemmas they face are compelling and believable. They can only support so many people: the people they've got may not survive the winter, and every additional mouth to feed lowers the entire community's chances of survival. So they have to start turning away other survivors, including families, and children.

A couple of weeks after Hammerfall, Harvey Randall is finally reunited with his fourteen-year-old son who was up in the mountains with his Boy Scout troop. They came across a Girl Scout troop which had been captured and enslaved by a biker gang. The boys (and the Scoutmaster) killed the bikers in their sleep. Now all the Girl Scouts have hooked up with them, and Harvey realizes that his son is a man now. 'Cause he has his very own personal Girl Scout. (So does the middle-aged Scoutmaster. No more pesky statutory rape laws after Hammerfall!) The Scoutmaster and the kid won't leave with him... well duh, they've got their own Girl Scouts! Dad would just want the kid to start following orders again, and back in what remains of civilization, they might still frown on groty old guys banging teenage rape victims.

It's not just silly women's libbers who are put in their place by the end of the world: there are a few mercifully brief rants about how stupid environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists are, but the real come-uppance is delivered to the inhabitants of "The Shire," a hippie commune in the valley where Senator Jellison's ranch is located. When a surviving member of The Shire is brought to the Stronghold as a prisoner, weeks after Hammerfall (having been expelled and then subverted by the New Brotherhood Army - see below), he breaks down in a tearful speech about how stupid they were with all their stupid environmentalism and stupid communal living and stupid anti-technology and they were such hypocrites 'cause they used to use washing machines and he just wants electricity again, dammit! Hahahahah, stupid hippies, how do you like your natural living now?

The worst threat to the Stronghold, however, comes from the New Brotherhood Army. This began as the remnants of Alim Nassor's Black Nationalist looting party, but eventually they hook up with another black leader, a former U.S. Army sergeant who has his own band. Sergeant Thomas and his gang have been resorting to cannibalism, and Alim and his men join them.

So... yeah, not only are the black people the bad guys, but while the white folks are trying to plant crops and fix power stations and rebuild a community, the black folks are... turning into cannibal psychopaths.

But Alim Nassor and Sergeant Thomas don't quite have what it takes to become organized. They've got men and guns, but what they really need is a white man to take charge. So Reverend Henry Armitage shows up, a former televangelist who, despite being mocked by Nassor and Thomas initially, has soon become their de facto leader, preaching anti-technology and cannibalism as a sacrament.

So, yeah, not only do Armitage and his followers become nasty metaphors for anti-nuclear and anti-space activists, but we've got an army of black cannibals led by a white guy against the pro-technology, civilized white folks led by senators, astronauts, TV producers, and scientists. God bless America.

(The New Brotherhood Army ends up recruiting everyone in their path - by force - but the leadership remains primarily black ‐ under Armitage.)

There is quite a bit to overlook in this book if you're prone to seeing (not very subtle) subtext. And yes, I'm sure Niven and Pournelle didn't intend to be racist. Hey, they even included a black astronaut! But they really pulled a Farnham's Freehold here. That said, the final battle with the New Brotherhood Army, the fight to restore some kind of civilization, and the debate over saving the last remaining nuclear power plant, makes a gripping last third of the novel.

Poll #1892069 Lucifer's Hammer

Have you read Lucifer's Hammer?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I don't want to.

Have you read anything else by Larry Niven and/or Jerry Pournelle?


Verdict: As a story, Lucifer's Hammer is entertaining end-of-the-world adventure with a large cast of characters and a gripping, believable apocalypse. The science-y bits are interesting without being infodumpy, the drama stays high once you get past the first third. It is fine classic sci-fi. However, it's also full of authorial blindness and resentment: hence, much dumping on anyone who isn't a white male science geek. Read with sense of irony fully engaged.

Also by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: My reviews of Fallen Angels and The Mote in God's Eye.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, jerry pournelle, larry niven, reviews, science fiction

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