lucifer’s hammer by larry niven and jerry pournelle

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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Monday April 08th 2013, 8:00 am 9 Comments
Filed under: apocalypse now,books,conspiracies

9 Comments so far. Please leave a comment.

I like your review! My partner is a huge Larry Niven fan and owns this book, but it isn’t one of the ones he rereads constantly–I’ll have to ask him his opinion of it. I haven’t read it. The only Niven I’ve read and liked is Ringworld and a couple of the stories in Convergent Series, but I didn’t like them *enough* to start reading more of the stack of Niven in our bookcase.

Comment by 'Becca 04.08.13 @ 8:24 pm

I’ve had this one on my too read list for a while but I certainly won’t go out of my way to buy it now I’ve read your review. Though it would make another interesting addition to the why is there so much rape after the apocalypse series.

Comment by fishinthewater 04.09.13 @ 3:15 pm

‘Becca: Sweet! I just downloaded the whole Ringworld series because it seems like something I want to have read. But I am wavering about thinking about this book and all. Care to share a few more thoughts about it?

fishie: Yeah, I can email you a file if you feel like reading it on your computer. But I assume you woudln’t want to. I e-read it, but I still wish I had it for my collection of PA books because all my marks in it will disappear once I delete it from my phone (def negative for the e-reading thing). I of course would love to hear your opinion of it. I wish you had more reading time. We could start a PA reading club. Because that is almost all I am reading lately. And it is totally fascinating and would be even more so if someone were reading along.

Comment by nikki / click clack gorilla 04.09.13 @ 3:56 pm

Niven isn’t racist – at least there’s no reason to believe so based on anything I’ve ever read that he’s said. You’re mistaking his impression of the level people will descend to as his personal beliefs translated into fiction. Also, the book is a collaboration between Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. But, Pournelle isn’t a racist, either.

Comment by David 04.09.13 @ 9:49 pm

I liked Ringworld enough that I plan to read more books in the series someday when I feel like reading more Niven. What I don’t like about him is that his characters seem caricaturish: some parts overdone and other parts not really there. (My partner says this is a gender-related preference and thinks a lot of the books I like are too much about People And Their Feelings with not enough “plot”. Meh.)

Mostly I was interested in the concept of a Ringworld and the mystery of why it seemed to be deserted. There is one female main character, who is about as much of a person as the other characters, so that’s good. But she *is* the lover of the male lead, who is many decades older than she is. I think there’s no rape, but it’s been about 2 years since I read it.

Basically, it held my attention well and gave me things to think about while I was reading it, and I’m glad to be familiar with it because a lot of my friends refer to it occasionally. But I’d be more likely to read another in the series than to read the first one again; it wasn’t *that* great.

Comment by 'Becca 04.09.13 @ 9:56 pm

‘Becca: Yeah that problem was def apparant in this book. Good to know. Also: I know plenty of dudes who like books about People and Their Feelings, so I would have to say, isn’t that just a personal preference and not a gender-related preference?

Comment by nikki/clickclackgorilla 04.10.13 @ 11:20 am

David: Oops, just saw your comment was waiting for approval. Sorry for the delay. Anyway.

Well it is a fine line I think though, isn’t it? Please note that I do not call Niven (or his co-author who I totally spaced on putting in, gah, thanks for reminding me I will add him in again after I finish writing this) racists. But the portrayal is problematic (what did I say? “strange and baffling”). I think it is safe to assume that he is portraying the real world as he sees it in a fictional situation and that that reveals that his view of the world is very white-centric. Does that make him a racist? Like I said, I don’t really know where that particular line in the sand should be drawn. But I do think that his white-centricness isn’t particuarly nice (let alone astute, and I like my authors with a very fine sense of the world and its contents), thus my use of the word “asshole.”

Comment by nikki / click clack gorilla 04.11.13 @ 10:42 am

Putting on my social-scientist hat: My hypothesis is that there is a correlation between gender and preference for character-driven vs. plot-driven fiction, which will appear stronger the more you define “character” in terms of an individual’s feelings and traits rather than her actions and “plot” in terms of large-scale physical events rather than subtle interactions and changes in self-perception. However, the presence of a correlation still allows for a substantial proportion of outliers–the dudes who like to read about feelings and the women who think a movie is a waste of time if nothing explodes. A book that is strong in both plot and characters is probably more likely to draw a gender-balanced audience, but there are a lot of other factors involved, too.

Comment by 'Becca 04.11.13 @ 4:27 pm

I stumbled across this review and took issue with many things, not the least of which being the racist angle. I felt I needed to respond, but then I recalled something the author had said years ago and realized I couldn’t put it better.

“There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot’.”
Larry Niven

Comment by Joe 03.04.14 @ 11:50 pm

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