#64 – Lucifer’s Hammer – Niven & Pournelle

Lucifer's HammerWow. I was not expecting to like this one nearly as much as I did. After unenthusiastically slogging my way through the writing duo’s other book on this list, the first-contact-with-alien-life snoozer The Mote in God’s Eye, I did not have high hopes for their take on the end of the world. Boy was I wrong. Read over a period of 5 days while on a vacation to Paris with my wife, Lucifer’s Hammer is a high concept page-turner about the catastrophic effects of a comet colliding with Earth and the unique challenges (both natural and man-made) that the survivors face as they attempt to rebuild civilization. Although it’s got a huge cast of characters and a whole lot of scientific expository information, it still manages to be both an awe-inspiring examination of the fragile nature of our planetary ecosystem and a tender tale of individual courage and ingenuity in the face of almost certain destruction.

Lucifer’s Hammer Summary: Opening with a series of vignettes about seemingly random people, the novel begins by setting the stage for the disaster as we follow the characters around Los Angeles in the days leading up to the comet strike. Some of the more prominent characters include Tim Hamner, a wealthy playboy and amateur astronomer who co-discovers the comet dubbed “Hamner-Brown,” Harvey Randall, a documentary television producer who is attempting to make series about the comet, and California senator Arthur Jellison, a pragmatic politician who succeeds in organizing a joint space mission between the US & Russia to study the comet. While the scientific community and the media have assured the population that the comet will miss the Earth by a wide margin, there are still people who see the comet as a portent of judgement upon mankind – including a fiery preacher named Henry Armitage.

When the comet does eventually hit, the chain reaction of events end up changing Earth in unimaginable ways. First, the comet breaks up into several smaller pieces, each striking the Earth at a different point. The comet parts that strike land trigger massive earthquakes and volcanoes, releases the pent up energy of a thousand fault lines. Those pieces of comet that hit the ocean cause giant tsunamis which sweep onto land and flood large parts of the landmasses of the world. In addition to tsunamis, the comet pieces end up vaporizing large quantities of water, which then goes up into the atmosphere and comes down in a torrent or rain that lasts for nearly a month after what is dubbed “Hammerfall.” In addition to natural disasters, mankind helps out with the destruction as well. In anticipation of a new “Ice Age” brought about by the dramatic shifts in weather, China decides to nuke Russia in order to prevent the eventual southern migration of its people in search of food and resources. Russia is able to retaliate and ends up destroying most of China in the process, but not before suffering massive losses as well. In summary, everything goes to Hell.

But as the book’s back cover says, the end is only the beginning. We soon realize that most of the people we’ve been following up til this point are part of the random mass of survivors of the cataclysm. After the first impacts of Hammerfall, the book cuts back and forth between their different stories as they try to avoid death at the hands of both mother nature and their fellow survivors. Since most the characters are based in California, we see those in LA try to get to higher ground in order to avoid the flooding and deluge. With almost the entire San Joaquin Valley underwater, that means making their way to the foothills of the Sierras. Each character has their own harrowing story of trying to find food and transportation in a world turned upside down. For the farmers already living in the foothills, the event causes them to create compounds or bunkers to help keep out the incoming masses and protect what little food, supplies, and equipment they have left. With limited resources and room for only those with “useful” skills, the matter of choosing who lives and dies is a consistent theme throughout the book. While some start thinking right away about what it will take to rebuild civilization, others are only concerned about making it through the winter.

Lucifer’s Hammer Review: What makes the book so effective, in my opinion, is how well it switches back and forth between the big-picture descriptions of the global impact of the comet strike and the small-scale battles of the survivors to just make it through each day with their dignity and humanity intact. By doing this, Niven & Pournelle are able to artfully convey the magnitude of the disaster and the futility of human preparations, while also commenting on humanity’s ability to persevere and continue on in the face of such an incredible catastrophe. While some characters comment on the fragility of civilization and the seeming insignificance of mankind in the grand scope of life, others make a concerted effort to help plan for a time when survival will give way to rebuilding (whether that means saving a threatened nuclear power plant or preserving a book on “how things work”). While some die trying to uphold the ideals and customs of a now-decimated world, others quickly revert to survival mode and savagery. In a lot of ways, the novel isn’t just about the external threats that we face as a society. It’s also about the threats we pose to each other when the laws and restrictions of civilization are wiped away and we are all left to fend for ourselves.

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