Novel * Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle * Comet Apocalypse * 1977
Lucifer’s Hammer is a total disaster. Not the book itself, which is problematic in places but overall is fine, but the comet depicted in said novel. In addition to being bad at just being a comet (it runs into a planet on its first trip into the solar system like a chump), The Hammer also represents a near-total cataclysm for the planet it collides with. Of course, extinction from above is not something we probably want to spend much time thinking about, but Lucifer’s Hammer is a detailed, scientific account of what would happen if the unthinkable happened. What the authors bring into the proceedings is a solid bedrock of science (for the time) in addition to all of the human drama that would surround such a disaster. As it happens, the devastation depicted here is actually a gross understatement. None of the scientist characters in the book, not even the standard weirdo-genius Dr. Forrester (no, not that Dr. Forrester), ever mention an extinction-level event, which a comet strike of this magnitude would be, assuredly. Of course, it is difficult to write a compelling work of fiction where everyone ends up dead and on fire halfway through, so it’s for the best that we get the “light” version of Armageddon.
The novel is split into three distinct sections, each of which are compelling in their own right, each with their own share of problems. The book begins with the discovery of the aforementioned comet, and follows a disparate set of characters through their pre-comet worldly concerns. Many of these folks are well-drawn enough, although there are some people who show up and are dismissed by the narrative almost immediately while others who figure largely into the book as a whole are given little background or characterization before taking significant actions in the plot. That said, the purpose of the pre-comet section of the book is to set up the major players of the post-apocalypse. One of the novel’s missteps is some of the more blatant, near-nihilistic pining for the comet to hit. There are several moments when main characters indulge in monologue fantasies about camping in the Sierras, agrarian lifestyles, and why smog is bad. There are counterpoints to these sentiments voiced by the scientists studying the comet, and these are somehow even more transparent. There are a few impassioned speeches about space travel and nuclear power that read more like manifestos by the authors rather than actual human dialogue.
Whatever, though, because the second part of the book is pretty much just total disaster porn. There are glorious descriptions of the macro-level event which explain what happens as the comet strikes. The narrative continues to follow its various characters as they deal with massive earthquakes and incomprehensible tidal waves and salt rain and hurricanes and all kinds of cool shit like that. I mean, at one point a dude surfs a tidal wave miles inland. Which is great and ridiculous and great. Meanwhile, the very landscape is changing and many harrowing journeys are made in an attempt to find safety. The end of civilization also gives the bad people of the world an excuse to do bad things, and everyone’s frame of reference is thrown askew. Chaos, confusion, survival, and death all play out amidst the backdrop of the aftermath of a comet strike.
The final section of the book is largely concerned with the immediate aftermath and the attempt to organize a society of survival. The major conflict eventually appears as a showdown between two groups of survivors with two different ideas about how society should be rebuilt. On the one side, The Stronghold, led by a former US Senator of indeterminate politics and based in the ranchlands in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The Stronghold is highly organized and comprised of local ranchers and a smattering of other survivors who have shown the necessary skill and resolve to make their way from Los Angeles to the Senator’s compound. The ideological underpinning of The Stronghold is cooperation, survival, and a presumed appreciation for the civilization that was lost. On the other side is the New Brotherhood Army, who begin as a renegade band of Army deserters who pretty much instantly resort to cannibalism and grow into a large, loosely organized band of religious zealots, opportunists, and disenfranchised black people. The Brotherhood is led by one of the former Army deserters, Sergeant Hooker, and a former community organizer-esque figure Alim Nassor. Oh, and a crazy preacher. While Hooker and Nassor are more interested in survival and power, the crazy preacher is more interested in destroying any semblance of high technology (except, as always, weapons) and by the time the final showdown occurs, the New Brotherhood more closely resembles a cult. This book, which is ostensibly about the end of the world, becomes more of a showcase for morality after a cataclysmic event strips civilization down to its core.
There were times while reading this book where I wasn’t sure what it was trying to tell me. I’m still not sure if Lucifer’s Hammer is a pessimistic look at humanity, or a positive one. To further complicate it, I can’t decide if the optimistic side of the equation is gross or not. It’s rather a bothersome read. A lot of what is bothering me is the depiction of women and blacks (and a near-total lack of Latinos, despite taking place in Southern California, like what?) and whether or not some of the questionable aspects are a product of their time or not. I mean, there are strong women characters here. Both Maureen and Eileen are well-rounded, highly functional individuals. They don’t seem to be defined by their gender, nor are they lessened in any way by relationships with men. Yet there is a moment when Al Hardy, the Senator’s highly competent aide and erstwhile organizer of The Stronghold takes a personal moment to revel in the death of “women’s lib,” and it does seem like the semi-feudal shape The Stronghold’s society is taking would hew to that line of thinking. But then it’s made pretty clear at the end that Maureen succeeds her father as the unquestioned leader. So I don’t know. Meanwhile, Alim Nassor comes across as a caricature of Black Power invented to frighten white suburbanites, and he and Hooker represent the bulk of minority representation in the novel. As cannibals. Which, I mean, maybe that’s not intentional, and I hope it isn’t, but man, that’s not a good look. The Stronghold has Rick Delanty, of course, but other than him the post-apocalyptic society they’re building is going to be lily white (I’m not forgetting my American Indian homies, although they do appear as outsiders when they’re introduced into the narrative and while they help save The Stronghold one still gets the idea that they will live on the periphery). In that setting, it becomes possible to read Rick’s presence as representing “one of the good ones,” or an attempt to disguise the fact that humanity’s new beginning belongs solely to white Americans.
All of that stuff is there, but the feminist and racial issues probably shouldn’t be the focus. Despite my misgivings about some of the peripheral issues at hand, the crux of the novel is the decision to be made between resurrecting a technological civilization and building an agrarian, faith-based society. Guess which direction the science-fiction authors advocate? There are a few soap-box moments in the novel, to be sure. Concerns over the dangers of nuclear power are waved aside as irrelevant. The objections made against keeping the San Juaquin power plant operational are given by lunatics and literal cannibals. The very persuasive arguments made against protecting the plant from the aforementioned lunatics are entirely cast aside when Senator Jellison, with his dying breath, implores them to “give my children the lightning again.” Now what can you say to that? Science!
Perhaps one could say something the Senator said not too long before, which struck me as a bit more profound that the lightning quip. There is a key moment after the battle with the New Brotherhood when Maureen is asserting her leadership over The Stronghold. The issue at hand is what to do with POWs. She is struggling with whether or not to kill the prisoners, or to make them slaves. The Senator, ceding the decision to his daughter, says “civilizations have the morality and ethics they can afford. Right now we don’t have much, so we can’t afford much.” In a survival situation, this makes sense. There are only so many resources to support a population, and exile in this case means starvation and death. Eventually, Maureen decides not to kill them and keep them as POWs sentenced to forced labor. Once their society grows past the survival stage, we are told that The Stronghold creates a prison commune which is self-sufficient and escapees are ignored. Yet the decision is also made to risk everything, and it is made clear that “everything” means surviving the winter intact, in order to secure a power plant. The idea being that the nuclear plant is essential to rebuilding a technological society. The authors do everything they can to push the reader towards the conclusion that the correct civilization is the one which strives for progress, both ethically and technologically. I’m inclined to be sympathetic to that sentiment. However, the situation presented at the end of Lucifer’s Hammer is tricky. Were they to fail, everyone dies. And I mean everyone. Essentially, the idea is that extinction is preferable to a society which does not strive for progress. That’s a strong position to take and I’m still not sure if I’m down with it. Didn’t I tell you this book is troublesome?