Lucifer’s Hammer – Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven – 1977
When I saw this on a used bookstore shelf, I recalled I hadn’t read it since the seventies. Something about a comet hitting Earth and the struggles of the survivors in California trying to save civilization. Feeling the need for a hard dose of pure science fiction and inspired by the recent news of the European Space Agency’s spacecraft landing on a passing comet, I bought a copy to reread and was surprised how timely it was.
We travel along with a myriad of folks, the senator who sends up an Apollo capsule to observe the comet close up, the astronaut who comes out of retirement to fly it, the funny little man who discovers the comet, the scientist who insists it has a million to one chance of hitting the Earth, the documentary filmmaker who films it all, the hippie mailman who refuses to give up his route after the comet hits, and many other people who allow us to see the world (and society) through their eyes.
After Lucifer’s Hammer hits, Earth is pretty well decimated. Millions are dead in Europe, Asia, and coastal America from tidal waves. Russia, realizing a new Ice Age is coming for the survivors, nukes China. China nukes Russia. Volcanoes erupt from the shift of mantle plates, the polar caps melt, and it rains for months. There’s no power, no food, and plenty of carcasses for the fish to eat when the waters do finally recede.
It’s a dog eat dog world, or, in some cases, a man eat man world. Two factions have established themselves as rulers in the post-apocalypse – the senator’s Stronghold on a mountaintop, where most of the good guys we’ve met up manage to congregate (even the astronauts!), and the Angel’s Army, an odd combination of religious zealots and a group of US Army soldiers who have had to resort to cannibalism to survive.
When the Angel’s Army discovers a working nuclear power station nearby, they go insane. To them it is the last symbol of man’s ignorance of God’s wrath and must be destroyed. The Stronghold, struggling to feed too many people and trying to defend themselves from desperate survivors, must decide if the power station is worth saving at the possible loss of Stronghold.
There’s a battle at the reactor, and an even bigger one at Stronghold, but a dying scientist shows them how to make mustard gas and enables them to save Stronghold. But at what cost? Are they going back to their warlike ways? Are their children doomed to be illiterate rat catchers and pig herders?
The characters are plentiful and interesting, some of them brilliantly so. The women stand solidly in the background, observing and silently running things. The lady cosmonaut, the under-utilized office manager, the senator’s daughter, and the ten-year old who lives on her horse all contribute to the reweaving of society. The senator’s daughter is the real power behind the throne, and she juggles three lovers (the astronaut, the filmmaker, and a no-neck farmer next door) to ensure the security of Stronghold.
A lot of the science and sociology is surprisingly timely: asteroid mining, Y2K, conspiracy theories, race and gender relations. Don’t think the entire lengthy novel is science – although there’s a hefty chuck of that. People periodically drag each other into tents to deal with their death compulsions in a very physical way. Relationships come and go as each person struggles to do what they have to in order to survive.
There are good guys doing bad things and bad guys doing good things. The world view gets skewed when the world itself seems to be upside down. Unlike George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones where each character has their own tale, Niven and Pournelle use the characters – good and bad – to tell the story of Lucifer’s Hammer from start to finish.
Lucifer’s Hammer – fiction or prophecy? (Close-up of tumbling rock; insert Jaws music here.)