There was a time when Larry Niven was one of my favorite authors. Of course, that time was when I was an immature SF geek who didn't read much else. Okay, I still think Ringworld
was kind of awesome. And I have fond memories of some of his other collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, e.g. Footfall
and Oath of Fealty
. But the last few I have read really unearthed things I didn't notice when I was younger, and this one, which was one of their early collaboration, really shows its age.Lucifer's Hammer
is fine plot-wise. In fact, I'd say Niven and Pournelle always do very well with the plots and the hard SF. This is an end-of-the-world post-apocalypse adventure, and I love those like candy. So I enjoyed it despite groaning every now and then at the authors', ah... issues.
Written in 1977, Lucifer's Hammer
is your basic "comet strike kicks the shit out of Planet Earth" scenario. The Hamner-Brown comet is spotted months away by a wealthy amateur astronomer, and as it approaches, excitement turns to apprehension as scientists keep revising the estimate of the odds of the comet striking Earth from "billions to one" to "millions to one" to "thousands to one," and... you get the idea. It is not exactly a spoiler to say that the comet does, in fact, strike the Earth — in fact, it fragments into pieces which land in massive strikes all over the globe. Pretty much every coastal area is wiped out, there are massive weather changes, tectonic shifts bring volcanoes to life, so yeah, pretty much the end of global civilization, as least for a few generations. It doesn't help that as soon as the strikes begin, the USSR and China launch nukes at each other. Thanks in large part to a joint US-Soviet space mission, with astronauts and cosmonauts watching the entire Armageddon playing out from orbit, they are able to prevent the US from launching and being targeted in return.
The remainder of the story takes place in California, where survivors in the San Joaquin valley go about preparing for the coming ice age and trying to rebuild what little civilization they can. Needless to say, this is complicated by both internal tensions and external threats from an army of anti-technology fanatics who practice ritual cannibalism, led by a mad doomsday preacher.
It's very exciting stuff, and also fairly realistic in how it approaches both the social and technological challenges of survival in a post-armageddon scenario.
So why only three stars? Well, for starters, there is Niven and Pournelle's usual problem with women. It was even worse in The Mote in God's Eye
, and I was (pleasantly) surprised that there was not a lot of gratuitous rape to spice up the fall of civilization, but the female characters all pretty much go into instant "Attach myself to the nearest alpha-male" mode, and one of the characters is even referred to (ironically, and with awareness of her role, which she does not particularly like) as the "Princess" because her Senator father is the current leader of the survivors, and whoever marries her will ensure the stability and succession of the dynasty. So there was a little bit of awareness there, and yeah, it was written in 1977, but still, one gets the distinct impression that when the Senator's aide reflects smugly to himself that one of the few good things about Hammerfall was that it put an end to "Women's lib," he's kind of speaking for the authors.
Oh, then there's the part about that cannibal army forming around a group of Black Nationalists who were going on a crime spree when the Hammer fell. The New Brotherhood Army eventually becomes a multi-racial, ostensibly egalitarian organization ("egalitarian" in the sense that anyone regardless of race who steps out of line gets killed and eaten), but the leaders are the Black Nationalists and a black former Army sergeant. Until a white preacher comes and gives them a cause - namely, fighting technology. So, let's recap: when the Hammer falls and ends civilization, white farmers, politicians, and engineers start rebuilding a stable community, while black people turn into rampaging cannibals taking orders from a white guy. Umm, did nobody see any Unfortunate Implications in this even in 1977? I suppose Niven and Pournelle's defense would be that not all of the New Brotherhood Army is black, and there is a black astronaut who's one of the good guys, and a few black farmers in the Stronghold are mentioned. Well, okay then.
There's also an awful lot of "neener-neener, how do you granola-crunching hippies like your 'natural living' now
?" as the survivors of a former commune realize that gosh, they really did like having electricity and plumbing. Niven and Pournelle do this a lot, as in Fallen Angels
, where they spend the entire book poking at environmentalists and anti-space and anti-nuclear activists. In Lucifer's Hammer
, the only surviving nuclear power plant becomes potentially the salvation of civilization.
White people, nuclear power, and the space program = good.
Black people, religion, and women's lib: Bad.
I am being a little snarky here. The authors weren't quite as horribly axe-grinding as, say, certain authors of political thrillers or grimdark fantasy. But still, this is a book that you will enjoy if you like the premise and don't pay much attention to subtext, but will probably annoy you if you do notice things like all the black people become cannibals
Entertaining, suspenseful, a very good post-apocalyptic thriller for hard SF fans, and also slightly sexist and really (if unintentionally) racist.