Lucifer’s Hammer

LucifersHammer

In the late 1970s, Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, became a bestseller. The novel still generates controversy today.

The plot is something we are all familiar with by now: a comet (known in the story as “The Hammer”) strikes Earth, destroys civilization, and forces the few surviving souls to fight to rebuild it. But it is whom they must fight, how, and especially why, that makes Lucifer’s Hammer such a great—and controversial—story. The comet swiftly drags humanity back to a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes. People are both elevated to do great things and condemned to cruel and beastly behavior.

One is struck by how familiar all this is. Where much speculative fiction looks forward and anticipates how people are going to change in the future (often based often on the ideological, religious, or self-serving inclinations of the author), Lucifer’s Hammer takes us back. Imagine Charles Martell checking the barbarian horde at the Battle of Tours in 732. Imagine the Donner Party scrounging for survival in the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Imagine the Titanic passengers fighting over the last open seats on the lifeboats. People in Lucifer’s Hammer are desperate and barely hanging on, just like they were in all pre-industrial societies where food was scarce, enemies and wild animals aplenty, and cities out of reach. The moment the carrying capacity of the planet plummets by two orders of magnitude, the educated, civilized people in our story revert to a pre-industrial mindset with astonishing speed. There is no transition period.

That is one thing I love about Lucifer’s Hammer.

LucifersHammer In the late 1970s, Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, became a bestseller. The novel still generates controversy today. The plot is something we are all familiar with by now: a comet (known in the story as “The Hammer”) strikes Earth, destroys civilization, and forces the few surviving souls to fight to rebuild it. But it is whom they must fight, how, and especially why, that makes Lucifer’s Hammer such a great—and controversial—story. The comet swiftly drags humanity back to a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes. People are both elevated to do great things and condemned to cruel and beastly behavior. One is struck by how familiar all this is. Where much speculative fiction looks forward and anticipates how people are going to change in the future (often based often on the ideological, religious, or self-serving inclinations of the author), Lucifer’s Hammer takes us back. Imagine Charles Martell checking the barbarian horde at the Battle of Tours in 732. Imagine the Donner Party scrounging for survival in the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Imagine the passengers of the Titanic fighting over available lifeboat space. People in Lucifer’s Hammer are desperate and barely hanging on, just like they were in all pre-industrial societies where food was scarce, enemies and wild animals aplenty, and cities out of reach. The moment the carrying capacity of the planet plummets by two orders of magnitude, the educated, civilized people in our story revert to a pre-industrial mindset with astonishing speed. There is no transition period. That is one thing I love about Lucifer’s Hammer. The authors structure the novel into four parts: 1. Pre-Hammerfall (several months) 2. Hammerfall (several hours) 3. Post-Hammerfall (several days) 4. Post-Post-Hammerfall (several weeks) They spread the story across dozens of characters, but concentrate mostly on three: television producer Harvey Randall, amateur astronomer and comet discoverer Timothy Hamner, and Senator Arthur Jellison who is a big booster of the American Space Program. Important minor characters include genius astrophysicist Dan Forrester, militant whitey-hatin’ Black Muslim Alim Nassor, and the four astronauts sent into space to observe the comet. This is a joint American-Soviet effort, and the astronauts get a unique, satellite-eye perspective on the end of the world. It’s a breathtaking view. But before getting to that, let’s first dispense with the novel’s fairly prominent flaws. The language of Lucifer’s’ Hammer, to put it bluntly, resembles that of a screenplay. Its purpose is nearly 100% utilitarian: it gets us from plot point A to plot point B in the literary equivalent of a dusty old 4-wheel-drive pickup. At its best it is mercifully brief. It seems the authors took no joy in its creation. There is certainly no joy in its rendering. The authors also end chapters with italicized passages describing the comet from the perspective of God. Here they take more literary chances, but it amounts to window dressing more than anything else. Then there’s the authors’ annoying habit of beginning each chapter with some obscure quote about the end of the world.

Okay, okay. I get it.
Okay, okay. I get it.
Characters are equally stock and uninteresting. Anyone familiar with mid-century Hollywood war movies and film noir will pretty much not be taken by surprise by the characters in Lucifer’s Hammer. There are some more modern touches (Alim Nassor: see any Blaxploitation flick. Biker Mark Czescu: see Easy Rider). But one can get away with imagining Harvey Randall being a classic Humphrey Bogart performance. Jellison: an older Marlon Brando or perhaps Rod Steiger. Hamner: Tony Curtis all the way. Astronaut Jimmy Baker: Paul Newman or Steve McQueen in space, take your pick. And the women in many ways are worse. Often (or at least until the Hammer hits), they are little more than men with breasts. Of note are Maureen Jellison, the Senator’s beautiful daughter, and Eileen Hancock, an assistant manager at a plumbing supply store. These two are quite masculine in their feminine qualities, and the reader quickly ascertains that, despite the authors’ efforts to develop them, they exist primarily as love interests of the men the authors really care about. Exceptions include Forrester, who is overweight, diabetic, and has a sick, geeky sense of humor. Marie Vance also sparkles. She’s a housewife who demonstrates keen resolve when searching for her lost son while still looking classy in her fashionable slacks.
Yeah. I'm ready for the end of the world. How about you?
Yeah. I’m ready for the end of the world. How about you?
And then there’s Leonilla Malik, Soviet Kosmonaut and medical doctor. She’s the only woman among the astronauts. I never quite figured her out, but the authors presented just enough of her without spilling the beans to make me want to read more whenever she was on the page. Like most genre authors, Niven and Pournelle dispense with the mystery that goes into a great character. And that’s okay. I have always held that science fiction places boring characters in interesting situations. Lucifer’s Hammer—although perhaps not strictly science fiction….It’s more science fact that anything else—comes through like blazes on this count. And what’s more interesting in a historical sense than a comet striking Earth? In such a crisis, who would pay attention to Holden Caulfield’s duel with decadence? So what if Raskolnikov bumped off his landlady because of a Napoleon complex? People are too busy finding food and not becoming food themselves to pay attention to such things. They can’t afford very many moral scruples, you see. As Senator Jellison points out, “every civilization has the morality and ethics it can afford.” Post-Hammerfall, men behave like men, women behave like women, and kids grow up fast. Or else they die. Really, it’s John Wayne heaven but with more comets. you-john-wayne-pilgrim-punch-demotivational-poster-1244186068 Anyone with a scintilla of critical thought can tell from the title and cover art that the comet will hit. (It would be a hell of a maguffin if it didn’t!) We learn of Hamner’s discovery on page two of Chapter One, and soon have a pretty good idea which characters will survive the impact and which ones won’t based on the amount of time the authors dedicate to developing them. But the characters don’t know this, so the authors must develop them as if the comet were not going to hit.
There. See? Comet.
There. See? Comet.
And without that interesting situation in the first part of the novel, all we have are boring characters. Imagine Niven and Pournelle writing in the tradition of Trollope who derives interesting situations from the mundane lives of mundane people who are not about to be struck by non-mundane comets. No thanks. Still, the authors move the plot along well enough in the first part. Especially interesting is Dan Forrester’s likening the comet to a hot fudge sundae (afterwards, the authors keep reminding us that Hammerfall came on a Tuesdae. Cute, right?). Also, when it dawns on folks that the comet most likely will hit, how they scurry to prepare gives us some gripping reading. In many ways, Lucifer’s Hammer is a lot like the film Titanic. Uneven before the critical event but absolutely virtuosic after. With so much action, CGI, survival tech, and well-researched science, there is little time to fret over language and character once the Hammer hits. Basically, we are watching civilization disintegrate, and it’s horrifying. Niven and Pournelle do very well to stay out of the way rather than poetically pontificate like Vlad Nabokov. Just as critically, the authors serve up a seven course meal of science. Want to know what will happen when a comet strikes Earth? Well, you can attend boring classes on geo-physics and meteorology. Or you could read the decidedly less boring Lucifer’s Hammer. From the widespread flooding, to the incessant rain, to the blackened, Krakatoa skies, to the advancing glaciers of the incipient ice age, it’s all there. History too. Did you know that one of the waves triggered by Krakatoa washed a Dutch gunboat on shore at an elevation of 200 feet? I will bet that you did not. KrakatoaKomik After the impact, the main characters race to the Senator’s ranch in the highlands north of Los Angeles. Randall comes with Czescu and Marie Vance, Hamner with Eileen Hancock. The astronauts decide to land in Southern California for the same reason. Forrester comes on foot and alone, carrying enough insulin to keep him alive and a copy of The Way Things Work Volume 2 by C. Van Amerogen. Forrester has an extensive library, you see. He saved it from destruction before he left. One day he will use it to rebuild civilization.
Quick. Buy. While there is still time.
Quick! Buy. While there is still time.
Once they occupy what’s known as the Stronghold, the valley surrounding the Senator’s ranch, they must contend with the Christophers, a family of heavily armed farmers which holds real local power. Burly, intimidating, and ultraconservative, these guys think nothing of the shrewdest, most cynical tactics to keep everyone in the Stronghold alive and everyone else the f***k out. For example, within a day of the impact, they blow up every road and bridge leading to the Stronghold in order to stem the tide of refugees. Anyone who arrives who isn’t a physician, scientist, or engineer they simply aim rifles at and send on their way…whether to death by starvation, drowning, or the bottom of a cannibal’s cooking pot is not their concern. They may not have enough food for themselves to last the winter, let alone for strangers. And everyone outside the Stronghold is a stranger. The Christophers, Second Amendment survivalists that they are, were only semi-civilized to begin with. So, transitioning back to a state of nature is less of a stretch for them than it is for others. Oh, and they’re not very keen on black people. Sure, the few already in the Stronghold can stay, but city blacks, the ones who constantly whine about equality and the like, never. The same goes for hippies. The Christophers will kept that kind out personally if they had to. This is one reason why the Christophers are so popular in the Stronghold. Opposing the Stronghold is the even more racist Alim Nassor, renegade army sergeant-turned-cannibal named Hooker (who is also black), and a radical environmentalist preacher named Armitage who believes God sent the comet to blast humanity back to its pre-industrial state of idyllic innocence. And it is Man’s duty to wipe out any pockets of industry not eradicated by the Hammer. These men lead a well-organized army towards the Stronghold, a thousand-plus and bound together by the shame of their not-entirely-ritualistic cannibalism. Truly, a barbaric group. Sure, the Christophers are harsh and unforgiving, but they work within the confines of the government set up by Jellison and can be reasoned with and even overruled. The same cannot be said about Nassor and his group. These people aim only to destroy and conquer and oppress. Prejudice aside, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind whom to root for. Once swords are drawn, the presence of a still semi-functional nuclear power plant raises the stakes considerably. Hooker and Nassor want to take over the Stronghold, but without the charismatic Armitage they won’t have the manpower. Armitage, crackerjack kook that he is, wants to destroy the power plant, but without Hooker and Nassor, he won’t have the weapons and explosives. So they compromise and go after both. Now, this raises an ethical question among the citizens of the Stronghold (and please note that their barbaric enemies never address ethical questions). Do they save only the Stronghold which is necessary for survival? Or do they risk additional lives and resources by saving the power plant which is not necessary for survival? The Stronghold represents civilization as it is. But the power plant represents civilization as it could be. In an amazing speech towards the end of the novel, Rick Delanty, one of the astronauts and the first black man in space, exhorts the Stronghold citizens to save the power plant. Sure, they could survive in the Stronghold, he tells them. But without the power plant they would survive only as peasants. He reminds them that Mankind is capable of so much more. We’ve controlled the lighting before, he proclaims, and we can do it again. Let’s give our children the lightning! Anyone who loves civilization and all the great things it has accomplished will have to choke back tears when reading that scene. Of course, we don’t know what we have until it is gone. With civilization on the brink as it hasn’t been since before the industrial revolution, people in Lucifer’s Hammer begin to realize that the old systems—the political, military, agricultural, and familial systems which seem so cruel and unfair today—existed back then for a reason. And that reason was survival. For example, Gordon Vance, Randall’s middle-aged neighbor, leads a group of boy scouts into the mountains on the day of Hammerfall. Shortly after, they meet up with a troop of girl scouts. Shortly after that, one of these girl scouts becomes Vance’s new wife. It ain’t statutory rape if there ain’t no government to call it that. Plus, he’s keeping over twenty kids alive during the apocalypse. That counts for something, doesn’t it? Another thing people discover: feminism dies nanoseconds after impact, and no one seems to miss it. Without men to do the heavy lifting and to call upon all their farming, engineering, and military expertise, the women—and everyone else—would die, plain as that. Sure women do what they can. Eileen Hancock is a talented driver and administrator. Marie Vance is good shot with a rifle. And then there’s Leonilla Malik, MD. But along with the terrifying risk men take as soldiers and the backbreaking work they must perform (cracking boulders into pieces and transporting them long distances, for example), comes their aggression and need for dominance. No one denies that this need exists and no one challenges it. It’s as real as the rain. The decision makers in the story are all men, except for Maureen Jellison who attains influence through her beauty and the fact she’s the Senator’s daughter—that is, through her feminine qualities. Irony of Ironies. I’m reminded of the Wife of Bath story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What do women want? Sovereignty over the husbands. And when they can’t get it, they love their husbands all the more. But that sure doesn’t stop them from trying. Note, it is not political power women seek. Instead, it is the ancient familial power women wield as wives and mothers that is their Holy Grail. And in the story didn’t one of King Arthur’s knights rape a girl and then pretty much get off Scott free? In fact, he gets rewarded with the love of a beautiful maiden in the end. It seems people in King Arthur’s day (and Chaucer’s) valued able-bodied knights more than mouthy broads who marry primarily for the sex. Another sacred cow that goes down is that of slavery. In our modern, or postmodern, age, we are all taught that slavery is a great evil, a repugnant institution, and so on. And is it really all that? Sure. But what do you do when 41 cannibals surrender after trying to kill you in an unprovoked attack organized by a force hell bent on death, destruction, and, coincidentally, more slavery? It’s been four weeks since Hammerfall. That’s four straight weeks of rain and floods. It’s what? July? Early August? Crops are ruined. Food is scarce. Livestock is dying. Disease is rampant. And it’s getting awful cold. Winter might come in October this year. You can actually see the snow advancing down the mountains, snow that won’t

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melt for centuries thanks to the darkened skies. You can almost feel the glaciers creeping south to crush everything you’ve built. So what do you do? Setting them free is out of the question since they will only rejoin the cannibals. Killing them all is even more repugnant than slavery. What’s left? Imprisonment? Rehabilitation? Who has the resources for that? And what about the families of the men they’ve slain? Are they not allowed justice? So the Stronghold leaders take a real close look at the only other option available: slavery. The protagonist in Lucifer’s Hammer, more than any single person, is civilization. Western Civilization, to be precise. It is a good thing. What makes Niven’s and Pournelle’s story so special however is the way in which it identifies the enemies of western civilization. These enemies spring from very recognizable elements of modern society, namely religious kooks, radical environmentalists, and thuggish Afro-centrists who shake down whitey in the name of racial justice but who are really only lining their own pockets and consolidating their power. Doesn’t this all sound familiar? The authors even liken the rapid rise of the cannibals to that of 7th century Islam. Talk about controversy. Talk about balls. The final battle between pro-civilization and anti-civilization forces reminds me of the Romans after being defeated by the Carthaginians at Cannae as described by Victor Davis Hansen in his inestimable book Carnage and Culture. You’d think Rome was done after Cannae, right? They lost 50,000 to 70,000 legionnaires in a single afternoon; Hannibal, military genius that he was, was on a bloody rampage throughout the Italian peninsula; and his army consisted of a “who’s who of the old tribal enemies of Rome.” But instead of surrendering or joining their enemies, Roman citizens opted to fight on. Why? Because they had more to fight for. Carthage could only offer its soldiers money and the promise of plunder and revenge. Rome, on the other hand, offered citizenship in a republic of laws and the right to govern one’s own affairs. Most importantly, Rome offered the promise a great future that only a great civilization can provide. It is precisely this future that Niven and Pournelle have in mind when the citizens of the Stronghold opt to save the power plant and give their children the lightning again.

Author: rcspeck

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I'm a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I'm finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don't be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

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