It’s time to knock another book off of my challenge list. This time we’re discussing #96, Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle. First published in 1977, this novel looks at what happens when a comet collides with Earth. Spoilers Ahoy!
Let’s get this book’s biggest strength laid out right up front. The authors do an incredible job of setting up the science. I don’t pretend to know if everything presented about the comet and its physical effects is completely accurate, but as someone with a career in the geosciences, it feels plausible. The initial strikes are devastating, but they also set off secondary disasters like earthquakes and tidal waves. These all combine to change the landscape and the weather substantially, and add challenges for the survivors to worry about. The only piece of the science that felt really unlikely to me was the fact that the space station survived and the astronauts were able to return safely, and I can allow that suspension of disbelief for the sake of the narrative. Overall the science felt good, if very depressing.
The story itself follows a whole host of characters for several months before and after “Hammerfall”. There are so many characters that in fact today, about a week after I finished reading, I can’t even recall all of them or their names. The book moves around to different perspectives for each chapter and it does help to give a much wider view of what is happening than a smaller cast possibly could. We get to see the stories of scientists, astronauts, politicians, religious leaders, and filmmakers side by side with those of a mailman, an accountant, and other more mundane folks. The comet starts as a vehicle for self-promotion for the amateur astronomer and the documentary filmmaker, then becomes an object of interest and a means to an end for scientists and politicians. Once it becomes clear that the comet has a chance of hitting Earth, it becomes an object of religious fervor and a scapegoat for moral transgressions. Having so many perspectives let us see all these different angles of the comet first-hand. Once the disaster happens it also lets us see the many different ways that the comet ruined lives.
A few times while reading this one I felt the hopelessness of the situation and considered giving up on the book. After all, the time of holiday stress is not the greatest for reading a depressing book about the end of the world. This hit me the most when reading the perspective of Maureen, the senator’s daughter. She’s very pragmatic about their chances for survival and has a hard time reconciling the fact that she has to be a leader and a voice of hope for the town when she has none for herself. The hopelessness is compounded by sexism that gives the unwritten understanding that she can’t take over leadership when her father dies, so she has to choose a husband that can. I’d like to hope that if this book were written today her situation would be more in her own hands and less dependent on the men around her.
The way women and people of color are portrayed definitely contribute to how dated the novel feels. It is very difficult to disentangle how much of the racism and sexism are the too-real human response in the face of societal breakdown, and how much are the authors’ biases bleeding through. I very much got the feeling while reading that the authors would probably consider themselves on the progressive end of the spectrum for the time, but the results still widely miss the mark by my standards today. For example, in the space station, there’s some interesting discussion and parallels between the woman cosmonaut and the black astronaut and the pressures they face to appear perfect. Unfortunately in the same chapter the woman’s actions get dismissed as part of her “monthly troubles”. I could also rail at length about the lack of agency of all of the women in this book, or about the black characters who start out as criminals and end up cannibals. Suffice it to say that race and gender issues are a problem this book acknowledges but doesn’t deal with very well.
In the end I can see why this one is rated as a classic, and can agree even if I don’t think it holds up quite so well 40 years later. It is a good example of its genre that gives a reasonable look at what might happen in the months surrounding a catastrophic event like a comet impact. Heck, it even manages not to end on an entirely depressing note which was a pleasant surprise. Large-scale disaster stories like this generally don’t work very well for my tastes. I much prefer the chance to get to know a smaller cast of characters, regardless of the scale of the problems they face. That, in combination with how dated it feels in terms of both society and technology, led me to give this one a middling score.
Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Rating: 3/5 stars
Verdict: Excellent example of apocalypse fiction from its time. Unfortunately apocalypse fiction isn’t my thing, and this one in particular feels pretty dated now.
Next up: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.