book reviews by Althea

Lucifer’s Hammer – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle *

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Lucifer's Hammer
Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Stop! Hammertime!

The Hammer disregards all pleas not to ‘hurt ’em.’
Please, Hammer! Don't hurt 'em!


There should be a name for the particular type of book that is exemplified by some popular novels published between the late 1950s and the early 1980s. It’s very distinctive, but hard to describe. Some characteristics include: an insistence on referring to men by their last names only, flat characterization which tends to adhere to sterotypical gender roles, a focus on jobs/career as being a key part of identity, and a predominance of loveless relationships and adulterous affairs. It’s more than just that, though – I really have never managed to quite put my finger on it. But it doesn’t take long to recognize. After a few pages, I was like, “Oh, it’s one of those.” (I also thought, throughout reading it, that it was published in 1970, not 1977 – maybe I saw a bit of misinformation, but it feels VERY dated and regressive.)

Still, this started out in the three-star range, and stayed there for about the first 40% of the book. For that section, I was strongly reminded of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves,’ to the point where I suspected (and still suspect) that Stephenson read this book – and wanted to do it better. (Stephenson succeeded, if that was the goal.) Of course, the difference is that in Seveneves, we’re getting hit by moon bits and in Lucifer’s Hammer, by comet bits, but the setup is very similar: We see the discovery of the phenomenon, the media reaction, and start glimpsing the effects on the daily lives of a wide range of people, including politicians, experts, and average joes. There’s also the crew up in Skylab. There’s a huge cast of characters, which meant for me, in this book, that I didn’t feel emotionally invested in any of them, and for a while, the book dragged a bit. (The way the many characters were handled reminded me a bit of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’ books – but those are better-written (sensing a trend here?))

When the comet hits and disaster strikes, things picked up a bit. (How could that not be exciting?) Unlike ‘Seveneves’, we get a more typical ‘aftermath.’ The book focuses on rural California, and a group of ranchers that pull together for survival, initially joined by their dedicated mailman, who insists on continuing his route. (Did this influence David Brin’s ‘The Postman’? If so, again, Brin did it better.) As the small details of survival go on, the book becomes very similar to Pat Frank’s 1959 ‘Alas Babylon,’ in the way it focuses on a small group in an isolated rural location, and the ins-and-outs of how they keep alive. It got a bit tedious – and quite sexist (repeated mentions of man’s ‘natural instinct’ to ‘protect the female’ coming out, and how ‘women’s lib’ is now defunct), with a few dashes of racism. I’m also a lot more inclined to be forgiving of certain attitudes in a 1959 book than in a 1977 book. Throughout this part of the book, my opinion dropped down to two stars.

Around 80%, Niven and Pournelle pull out all the stops. It’s like they figured, “If they’ve read this far, they’re not going to stop now, so we can go all out and pull no punches with what we really think.” This final part of the book is almost like a satire of right-wing attitudes – except that it’s painfully clear that it’s in earnest. I guess that it’s a fascinating glimpse into everything that those of a certain mindset really fear?

(Talking about the end here, so – hiding… but really, I’d recommend reading this spoiler instead of the book): (view spoiler)

Opposing our Brave Heroes is a diverse rampaging army made up of (I kid you not): Trade Unionists (damn commies!), Environmentalists, Black Panthers, Back to Nature types (including Hippies and proponents of organic farming), and assorted City Folk, who are led by a raving preacher who forces them into bloody cannibalistic rituals. (!!!) I mean, it seems like it HAS to be a joke…? But then it’s just not very funny…

To top it all off, there’s a Great Battle to Save the Nuclear Plant from the Mixed-Race Horde. Bear in mind, the reason to save the power plant is not because destroying the plant could result in a nuclear meltdown which would render the entire area uninhabitable. Noooo… this is a VERY SAFE nuclear plant, and that could never happen due to all the Safety Features. No, it becomes a symbol of the Light and Hope of All Future Technology-Based Civilization, which is driven home in a luridly purple death scene, in case the readers missed it.

So, woo-hoo! The battle is won. It is pointed out repeatedly that one should not regard ones’ enemies as human; they’re just ants. Technology will be rebuilt, but until it is, it’s gonna be “A Man’s World.” People will work hard in a manly way, accompanied by their strong yet womanly women. They will be cooperative, but not in a communist way. Justice will be harsh. And as the cherry on top of this fantasy, slavery is reinstated. (Yes, really!) Woo-hoo! (hide spoiler)]

And… down to one star.

Read for post-apocalyptic book club. I guess I’m glad I read it, just because I’ve seen it around nearly my whole life – even physically picked it up in the library on a couple of occasions – but never read it until now. But, hoo-boy, this was quite something. And not a good something.

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