Friday, March 7, 2014

Lucifer's Hammer: A Review

Jerry Pournelle, and Larry Niven's Lucifer's Hammer is an apocalyptic novel set mostly within the Los Angeles, California area during the lead up and aftermath of a rather large meteor strike on earth. I read it when it first came out in paperback, and refamiliarized myself with it this time with an audio book.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are both very famous within the science fiction genre.  This novel is probably their most successful crossover into a more mainstream style of novel.  That a science fiction novel written and reflecting the libertarian/conservative beliefs of its authors can make it onto a NPR fan-poll of the top 100 Science Fiction Novels of All Time, is telling of the story's punch.

There is a humorous shot at boring survivalist types early in the story.  The humor is in that Jerry Pournelle was very interested in survivalism.  Along with being the editor of a survivalist magazine(see here), he wrote the introduction to Mel Tappan's "Tappan on Survival" (pdf).

As to a broad outline of the story, I do like a summation by Bart Leahy:
Lucifer’s Hammer is probably the first novel to describe realistically the effects of a comet striking the planet Earth. Rather than a hero story, like the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, Lucifer’s Hammer is more like a 1970s disaster film, such as The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, or the awful Meteor. In a disaster film, the story begins by introducing a large, star-studded cast of characters, often with varying degrees of likeability or ethics, and then threatens them with death from natural forces. Some characters live; some die; the survivors usually learn some underlying lesson; and life goes on.
Note that this also describes a lot of features about a cozy catastrophe, by its narrower definition, which might be summed up as "sorry for all the dead bodies, but we needed to sweep clean up that messy world to build our own cute little utopia".  If you add in the fact that most of the post apocalyptic folks who "matter" at the worlds end are middle class to wealthy, the coziness goes a bit into overdrive at times.

There are many items within this novel that can be seen in later survivalist works: meteors became popular for a while, the defensive berm shows up from time to time (American Apocalypse and One Second After to note just two), even the dangerous boy scouts (Daybreak Zero).
So a wealthy amateur astronomer, Timmothy Hamner, spots a large comet heading in from deep space.  As it gets closer there is a slow realization that it is going to pass awfully close to earth after it makes its swing around the sun. The odds are lottery-sized large against the chance for a direct strike: but still.    The crazies jump in, and the powers that be go into denial mode. Much of the novel is spent in the early set up.  As with the disaster movies of the day, the cast is large, and much time is spent with all sorts of mini love affairs.  This is the 1970s in Los Angeles, and there is a lot of sleeping around: light on the detail but described.  Very few of the main characters are particularly appealing, and only become heroic when compared to the cannibalistic, nihilistic, militaristic religious cult that rises up to become a threat.

There have been objections to the novels methodology:
The novel shares the time periods obsession with a rising up of the black underclass, and even though most of them would have drowned in Los Angeles, blacks are greatly over represented among the bad guys.  The religious are generally portrayed as ineffective and ignored, or as wide eyed lunatics leading cannibals.  Taking in the very loose morals of the good guys, and the make up of the bad guys, you do have to sort of wonder about the authors' world view. 
Harvey's emergence as the next ruler of the valley community is based on his winning Maureen's hand.  And Maureen knows the role that she plays in guaranteeing this new authority...She acknowledges her role unhappily, but does not challenge it.  It is [] important that the women choose their subordinate role just as the black members of the new Brotherhood Army have chosen their membership.  It seems as though Niven and Pournelle want not simply to present a world where equality based on race and/or sex are dismissed as luxuries; it also seems as if they want to acknowledge the readers' potential discomfort and thus explain the subordination (and extinction) as chosen.  Given this, the essential racial genocide of the novel is passed over as a rational protection of the only legitimate community in the novel.  Niven and Pournell are not asking their readers to acquiesce to direct racism, the reader simply has to acquiesce to the rational decision to eradicate cannibals intent on total destruction.
[B]odily security is based on destroying the primary threats to that insecurity: hunger and then the New Brotherhood Army.  But of course this means that security requires the eradication of most and the enslavement of the rest of the remaining black men and women. This happens in the novel as a simple matter of course.  And the reader is not likely to protest- they are cannibals; and in postapocalyptic fiction cannibalism is the sign of total inhumanity, and thus an inability to enter into a contract.  As Maureen notes, "it made so much sense" (536). Claire P. Curtis, Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: We'll Not Go Home Again, p 63-64.
It should be noted that both Harvey and Maureen are multi-cheating partners with comparatively little activity within the novel that would justify their ascension to power.  It is a little odd that so many survivalist/prepper folk love this book, as well as One Second After, as both books involve the small authoritarian state communalizing everyone's stockpiles for the greater good.  Arguably you are allowed to stay outside the system, but it is fairly obvious how things would work in the long run if you don't play ball.  This is not a libertarian contractual society of like-minded preppers on their homestead.
Of course for those looking for an apocalyptic action yarn, or for those who agree with this neo-Hobbesian world view,  it doesn't really matter. 

But is the criticism completely fair?  One problem is that the criticism misses the final point of the novel.  The novel does not end with the defense of the stronghold.  The stronghold is safe, and yet in a very tense moment, they elect to go continue on and go on the attack to rescue the very precariously located nuclear power plant.  The book, in a slightly ham fisted way, is trying to make the point that unless we embrace the technological possibilities of nuclear power, the space program, et cetera, we are doomed to fall back on a minimalist life style:  a life style that involves slavery, and poor choices for women, and outnumbered minorities.  It is arguable that any of its polemics are effective, but it is not fair to simply ignore one of the major points of the novel.

And yes, the pro-technology polemics get stale.  But unless you are offended by a lack of appropriate multi culturalism, or Hollywood style sexcapades, it all is a very wonderful apocalyptic romp.  The authors have a tons of interesting speculation on what happens in a collapse.  Shoot, they even worry a bit about how the cannibals would go about recruiting, and how they would  get enough to eat if most of the people they run into are turned into recruits - versus food.  So while, I wouldn't say that it is a perfectly delivered novel, and the setup is a bit long winded, it still does a better job of delivering a large frame (versus the man in a cave, or on the road alone) viewpoint for an apocalyptic disaster than most any other novel out there.  Unlike a lot of todays popular scenarios (plagues and zombies in particular) it does not shirk from dealing with all those hungry people:  they just don't go away and die peacefully.  That it sets up any opponents to the author's favored polemics as selfish, or foolish, strawmen is rather unfortunate.
So did I/ do I like it.  At the time I first read it, I doubt I even noticed the social aspects of the book, and while I am more ambivalent now, the action adventure aspects of the story play out interestingly enough to make it a fun read.  It is a bit long, with some amazingly long setups that go just about nowhere.  It is the strength of the reasonably logical combat scenes with the cannibals that make the book.  The cannibals are not strawmen when it comes to combat.  They are better than the amateurish stronghold folks. Except for a little bit of incaution, they would have won the day.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

Is it realistic?  It suffers some from being both a bit dated culturally and socially.  Nobody is building nuclear power plants in California, and the manned space program is mostly dead.  But the portrayal of the possibilities within a collapsing society are realistic.  You may not like that blacks are over represented in the cannibal ranks, but it is hard to argue against the general idea of rogue military units, and cannibals in general.  The book pays a lot of attention to issues of supply, and is somewhat realistic in that many of the preparations (remember people know the comet is coming) pretty much bite the dust in the chaos that ensues.  It is a seven.

Readability is tougher.  It is not overly sophisticated or metaphorical in its delivery.  But there are a lot of story threads to keep up with, and a lot of them don't really go anywhere much.  This makes for a slow, sometimes meandering read.  I put it in the middle: a four.


PioneerPreppy said...

LH was a good bit less communal than OSA but only because most of the resources came from the Senator's holdings I think. As I remember it you also got the impression that after the initial attack situation was over that things would balance out a bit more. OSA never gave me that impression. Then again I have long been one of the few who accuses Forstchen of being a closet socialist.

As for racism the only difference is that back then no one thought it was a sin to tell the truth. Even today the stats show who is doing most of the crime but it is a mortal sin against the cult to admit it. As I remember in the book the White biker gang wasn't nice either and there were more of them than the core black group and plenty of misc. White bad guys as well. Also the Amer-ind allies were painted in a good light.

You can't even have a reasonable mix of bad guys who are Black without being declared racist these days.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: On the communal point, I would have said the same, but in re-reading it is actually not so. I think the socialist (really central control communism) element gets lost in all the fighting.

As for the racism point, maybe. I think it was still a touchy subject. The real reason it didn't make much of a splash is that soi-fi was not taken very seriously until later.

It is a very difficult issue to deal with. In real world terms, the difference between the ennobling tendencies of the PC folks tends to run into the inconvenient wall that most people (ennobled or otherwise)are a rather self serving bunch of ingrates.