You want it in a nutshell, here it is. This book is fun to read. High cheese factor, shallow plastic characters, and hugely problematic depiction of women and anyone who isn’t white, but page turning.
But maybe you won’t think its cheesy. Maybe you like electricity so much that you’d be swept up in the calls to “Give my children the lightning,” by the images of a hero on his death bed croaking about how important “the lightning” is before biting it in a dramatic public scene. Ummm, “the lightning”? What a romantic way to think of electricity. Which brings me to the crux of this book: defending industrial civilization. But let me back up.
Lucifer’s Hammer is a big fucking comet, and it hits earth. Earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and floods destroy most of civilization. A lot of people die, food is scarce, people start eating people—you know, the familiar backdrop and props of post-apocalyptic fiction. We follow an almost George-Martinian number of characters as they flee from cities, looking for a safe place to bunker down, and most of them end up on Senator Jellison’s Ranch where a large group has organized in hopes of surviving the winter.
Meanwhile, a group that I thought of as Cannibals for Jesus believe that they have been called to complete God’s work and destroy the small pockets of civilization that have come through the crisis. They attack the ranch, and then go after a nearby nuclear power plant that is, miraculously, still running. And the people say, hark! What devils are these that would dare attack the sacred nuclear power plant! We shall band together, though it may mean the death of us all, to fight for the right to nuclear power! Not only do Niven and Pournelle make nuclear power detractors (and environmentalists) completely unsympathetic, devilish lunatics, he makes sure to mention that even the hippies on the local commune change their back-to-the-earth tune once faced with the realities of a truly off-grid existence. “Let me tell you, it doesn’t work,” says one ex-hippie character of the commune life. Wa-waaah.
“It’s too much, don’t you see that?” Owen demanded. “Atomic power makes people think you can solve problems with technology. Bigger and bigger. More quick fixes. You have the power so you use it and soon you need more and then you’re ripping ten billion tons a year of coal out of the earth. Pollution. Cities so big they rot in the center. Ghettos. Don’t you see? Atomic power makes it easy to live out of balance with nature. For a while. Until finally you can’t get back in balance. The Hammer gave us a chance to go back to living the way we were evolved to live, to be kind to the Earth.”
It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? I happen to agree. But I’d bet that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle don’t, as they have one of the madmen Cannibals for Jesus saying it to ring in their unholy war on technology. What the sympathetically portrayed characters say is, “Give us that electricity plant and twenty years and we’ll be in space again.” Because the most important thing to consider when fighting for survival is getting the space program started again. Religious zealotry and mania aside, I bet you can guess which side I thought the real lunatics were.
a feminist reading
And as for you, ladies, you’re just going to love living in the world of Lucifer’s Hammer. There’s a lot of rape, and then, get this (says a largely respected and sympathetic character):
The only good thing about Hammerfall, women’s lib was dead milliseconds after Hammerstrike.
Wow, I’M SO GLAD. That pesky women’s lib. Umm? Later a female character says: “It’s a man’s world now…So I guess I’ll just have to marry an important one.” This book is a total feminist fail. There are a number of female characters (though we only ever hear about the beautiful ones, and the women are always described in terms of beauty whereas the men are not), though what we see them doing most is having sex. A few of them manage some heroics, but we never get to see this world through their eyes.
The only female perspective Niven gives us is Maureen, a beautiful (duh) woman who is thrust into the role of prize princess in the new group. She battles with depression, particularly when she realizes that she is the trophy whose possession will determine the next ruler of the ranch once her father, the Senator, passes. She is unhappy about it, but her criticism is fleeting and in the end she picks a mate and dons the new throne without complaint. And did I mention the couple who didn’t get married before Hammerfall because the lady wanted to focus on her career? But who get married and start having babies as soon as the world ends? At the end of the story, it seems, marriage is a woman’s highest priority in this new, nuclear-powered world. How very civilized.
and as for the characters who aren’t white
The place Niven and Pournelle give black people (he doesn’t mention any other non-white races) is strange and baffling. Some professional thieves (all black) survive and rape and pillage and join the Cannibals for Jesus. There are a few sympathetic black characters, but racism is everywhere in the new world, as if everyone had been waiting for a disaster to allow them to really get down with their racist selves. Sheesh, Niven/Pournelle, just because you published this in 1977 doesn’t mean you get to be assholes. Minus twenty thousand points. Worse are the reviewers all over the internet who chalk this up to “1970s politics.” So Niven/Pournelle’s racism (NOTE: A commenter recently thought it was too much to call them racist, and maybe he’s right. I do not know where that particular line in the sand should be drawn, nor do I feel particularly qualified to be drawing it. I will say though, that Niven and Pournelle have written a white-centric book here, which makes me assume that they too see the world this way.) is ok to ignore because everybody was doing it in the 70s? Umm, right.
read it or burn it?
Despite Lucifer’s Hammer’s many failings, I enjoyed reading it. The post-civ scenario is one I haven’t read before, as is the look into a mind very different than my own. It is pop-y and cheesy and totally ridiculous over and over again, but I enjoyed spending time between the pages and the title would make a great name for a metal band. But a fun read does not a good book make, and if you were to use its pages to start your wood stove, I would totally understand.
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