Review of Lucifer’s Hammer (1977)


Larry Niven (writer), Jerry Pournelle (writer).

Read in 2020.

Fragments of a rubble-pile comet called Hamner-Brown impact the Earth in the 1970s. The novel is two hundred pages of lead-up, followed by the impact, followed by three hundred pages of consequences extending to the scale of weeks and months, especially on US Senator Arthur Jellison’s remote California ranch where his provisional government holes up. Finally, there’s a hundred pages of showdown between the strongest post-apocalyptic factions.

Meaty and fairly serious, with a measured plot and two direct references to Monty Python, Lucifer’s Hammer is one of the best depictions of a fictional natural disaster. It falls into the bucket of hard science fiction simply by its scale. The epic level of the plot is thrilling, but the implementation does go to excess. As a stopgap measure, coincidences are used to keep the long list of characters under control. I did not need a bunch of astronauts first observing the comet from space and then randomly parachuting down on Jellison’s ranch to join the rest of the sprawling cast converged there. I would have preferred that a few characters be cut or killed off in favour of longer scenes from the world outside the US, and even longer discussions of climate effects and economics, especially in the long term.

The biggest problem with the human level of the plot is a certain creeping tendency toward spectacle, and especially reactionary spectacle as opposed to the spectacle of the natural disaster. Despite all the research that went into the super-slow setup and the more immediate consequences, when Jellison’s yeomen leave to scout out the bad guys, the women stay behind, and the male focalizer is powerfully reminded of such scenes in John Ford Westerns! Indeed, the good guys are nearly all white. Their war takes the focus off the interesting environmental problem of the comet, to the point of harming the book.

Most unfortunately, the bad guys are cannibal Luddites with conspicuous concentrations of melanin. Their “New Brotherhood Army” is led by a US Army sergeant out of Vietnam and an evangelical Christian prophet, so it’s not a bland pre-Reagan US conservative fantasy where the Army and the Christian faith would be on the side of good, but the political markers are plentiful: The sergeant is black and the group includes a prominent black criminal who took an “Arab and Swahili” name. The latter used to pretend to be a civil-rights champion, as if the struggle for civil rights had been a criminal enterprise. The group deprecates ethnic slurs (muh free speech!), they seem to share their food equally and in fact shoot those who won’t eat their share (of hunted human flesh), and they implausibly target a nuclear power plant because they prefer solar power, or no power at all, like the mooks of The Omega Man (1971).

A few roaming scavengers would make sense, but an organized army of a thousand cannibal killers going out of their way to break a power plant does not make sense. Ironically, the attack on the power plant comes from an argument by Jerry Owen, a deep-green straw man, that the mere availability of abundant electricity will force society to remain unsustainably complex and rapacious. At the same time, the sergeant leading the Army realizes that the unsustainable momentum of his organization’s growth is what keeps it going for the present. It is almost as if the authors were arguing with themselves (or one another), but in this case they come down on the side of stupid. It is telling that the Army conforms extensively to traditional right-wing fears, even of “political correctness”.

Jellison’s victory over the Army invokes the “cozy catastrophe” trope, where the bad old world is cleansed by disaster and the self-sufficient survivors are happier for it, feeling more liberated than exhausted or nostalgic. There’s nobody in this book like the bitter protagonist of We Who Are About To... (1976), who questions the project of survival itself. Fred Lauren, a deranged minor character, commits a crime expecting to be saved from punishment by the comet, but he is deliberately shot after it falls: A harsher penalty than civilization would have given him, again as if the comet cleansed only evil from human society where civilization could not. The Chinese and Russians battle each other to the death because that’s how evil Asians and communists are, or something. There’s also that one guy surfing the crest of a tsunami; I could have done without him too.

While they aren’t noted for their character writing, Niven and Pournelle did know what they were getting into. In his PhD thesis Carry the Fire: Intersections of Apocalypse, Primitivism, and Masculinity in American Literature, 1945–2000 (2013), Dylan Barth noted that corporate reporter Harvey Randall, a central character, discusses primitivism in inner monologue: “Not only do millions think the world’s going to end, but millions more hope so. It shows in their attitudes. They hate what they’re doing, and keep looking nostalgically at the ‘simple’ life.” This includes Randall himself, who grows to appreciate the post-apocalyptic hellscape for its lack of crime.

In more minor characters, the writers try to present a more balanced and practical view. As in The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), they include unsympathetic knee-jerk sexist men and realistically competent, sympathetic women, and they manage to do this without focusing on the appearance of the women, even if there is more 1970s casual sex than circumstances call for. In a 2017 essay for The Daily Beast, “The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right”, David Auerbach quotes extensively from a scene where the ranching community first meets to decide on a course of action after the comet strike. There are open racists at the meeting. Auerbach implies that these racists speak for the authors. Jellison, the cunning patriarch who ultimately wins the day, does not authorize the racists’ plan to turn away all refugees; instead, the racists are his main internal rivals. The way I read it, the writers’ sympathies—or at least Niven’s—are with the community’s single racified farmer—Lucius—who sits quietly at that first meeting while the racial slurs are flying:

The black man said nothing. He seemed to shrink away from the group, and he sat very quietly with his son.

“Lucius Carter’s all right,” George Christopher said. “But Frank’s right about the others. City people. Tourists. Hippies. Be here in droves pretty soon. We have to stop them.”

I’m losing it, Jellison thought. Too much fear here, and Christopher’s put his finger on it. He shuddered.

To me, the scene is about Lucius being trapped in a nightmare, a counterpoint to the naïve narrative of the world having improved. He’s facing oppression to the point of genocide, on top of the natural disaster. If it hadn’t been for the calling cards of the cannibal army, this sort of charitable interpretation would have been viable throughout. Lucius Carter never speaks, but the most accomplished black character, one of the astronauts, expresses the antiracist point of view: “Poor bastards, Rick thought. He could sympathize: blacks in this shattered world, no status, no place to go, wanted nowhere”. The authors do not add “through no fault of their own”. The fantasy of return to personal freedom and mythical masculinity does not require racism, but the cannibal army is clearly symptomatic of some bad ideas, including racism. Pournelle was apparently racist; Auerbach references a damning statement made outside of his fiction.

If you want something more meditative, try A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), but there is definitely a meditative streak in the otherwise useless astronaut arc of the narrative. By 1977, people had already stopped going to the Moon and would not go back for a very long time. Symbolically, the failure to establish a multi-planet civilization is the tragedy of the book, referenced within it: Harvey Randall figures we’re doomed to repeat these downfalls until “we can get off this goddam planet”. This, too, is something of a right-wing bugbear, but there’s a nice elegiac note to it over the usual 1970s obsession with urban decay. That note is the swan song of the space program as the death of the older SF dream of our civilization transcending the possibility of extinction. This is why the implausible nuclear plant gets the following nostalgic-paradoxic description:

“Oh, but it’s beautiful! It’s like a 1930s Amazing Stories cover. The future!”

Despite redeeming nuances in the mass of text, and these signs of a theme, the wishful thinking annoyed me. The book is surely better than Under meteorernas trumeld (1932) or Farnham’s Freehold (1964) and both shorter and smarter than the full-blown moral fantasy of The Stand (1978), but the good is not concentrated. I wanted its apocalypse to be an illustration of the cyclical downfalls in the duo’s greatest work, The Mote in God’s Eye, a kind of complex and systemic civilization-level fiction, but it is almost as much of a schlocky blockbuster.

References here: “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), Red Storm Rising (1986), Pushing Ice (2005), The Road (2006), “Mono no Aware” (2012/2013), Don’t Look Up (2021).

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