Wednesday, August 17, 2011

47. Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

When I was younger, though some of my friends were reading the books of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, I always thought they were going to be too hard and dry, so I never read them.  Perhaps Lucifer's Hammer is not totally representative, but if it is, it's a shame, as I would have loved it as an adolescent and the simplistic politics would have mostly gone right over my head.  The authors do have the reputation of being hard sci-fi authors, but I think that must have been a title that was easier to learn back in the 70s as the science in Lucifer's Hammer seems to be about as good as all these reports debunking climate change.  And it reads like a giant soap opera with lots of crazy action.

It's the story of an asteroid that hits earth and it centers around a large cast of characters in southern California.  It takes place in the mid-70s and it shows.  The first quarter of the book feels like a written version of Knot's Landing or some boring "adult" novel from that period.  It isn't until society starts getting a bit freaked out about the comet that things get interesting.  Then the comet hits and the fun starts.  The middle section is very satisfying as we get to see all the various forms of destruction it causes and the various characters trying to save themselves.  The last part of the book is those characters trying to rebuild a society and struggling against the challenges of resources and the destructive factions, notably an army of cannibals.  The super blatant theme of the book is that science and technological progress is good and any form of resistance to that is bad and naive.  This is sprinkled lightly throughout the book at the beginning and then made obvious at the end and finally basically shoved down the reader's throat in a final secondary climax that kind of ruins the satisfaction of the ending.

I've run into many nerds in my travels who espouse this kind of faux-tough, pseudo-science based anti-environmentalism.  This position disguises itself as a rational, political stance when it is primarily an emotional one.  The basic tenets are that 1) environmentalists are naive and their ideas would never survive a second in a non-civilized world and that 2) science and technology will always find a solution to man's needs.  There is a lot to both of those tenets, but there is also a lot to question there.  Of course, the nerd anti-environmentalist position leans heavily on the logical fallacy of the excluded middle.  And ultimately what it really is is a justification for one being allowed to do whatever one wants without any kind of interference or having to make an effort to think about how your behaviour may impact the rest of society, the planet and the future.  It's a kind of technological libertarianism and very appealing to the male adolescent who can't get laid.

Here, for example, is a throwaway line when the reporter decides to get some stuff ready for hammerfall (the name given to the time when the asteroid hits, even though it is not predicted to hit):

Solar heat: the simples and most efficient solar system known to man.  Hang your clothes out to dry, rather than use an electric or gas dryer. Of course, not many "conservationists" did it: they were too busy preaching conservation.
Have you never read the Whole Earth Catalog, Jerry and Larry?  This kind of nonsense is peppered throughout the book but really gets retarded when, in the final pages, after the organized good people have beaten off the cannibals and are celebrating.  The team that was sent to protect a surviving nuclear power plant comes back with the bad news that the remnants of the cannibal army are in a position to destroy it.  This sets up an impromptu debate with all the main characters deciding whether they should hunker down, enjoy their win and survive the winter or go and save the nuclear power plant to ensure a long-term future.  What is so stupid about this, in the context of the book, is that this argument was already had and won by the long-term faction, which is why the team was sent out to protect the nuclear plant in the first place.  So not only are you thinking, "okay, yeah, yeah, we get it, having power is awesome and the future of mankind" but you are also trying to figure out why the pivotal character who comes in and forces the trip out to the nuclear power plant is suddenly nowhere to be seen in this final debate.  Oh yes, we also learn that not only is chemical warfare necessary, but it (and the bodies of its victims) are excellent fertilizer.  And for a supposed hard science book, there is some shocking ignorance about nuclear power (such as blowing up a nuclear power plant is not the same as a nuclear bomb so therefore there won't be any radiation or fallout).

I'm harping on the political stuff, but the bulk of the book is actually just people surviving the craziness and that stuff is quite enjoyable, once you get past the stupid '70s soap opera crap.  (Just for one example, the main character goes out to the country in one early episode to interview a senator at his ranch and ends up hiking with his hot daughter. when they get home, she offers to make him dinner and I kid you not suggests microwaving the steaks and this is treated like some awesome advancement; this probably offended me more than any of the nerd politics. How utterly retarded were the 70s.)  Lucifer's Hammer felt like a mix of a bunch of post-apocalyptic classics.  You've got your Alas, Babylon, your Earth Abides, The Postman, even The Stand comes to mind at points (which came out a year later).  It's good fun for the most part with a couple of really cool characters (Harry the country mailman who never gives up doing his rounds and ends up as a messenger in the post-hammerfall world and Dr. Forrester who lovingly wraps up all his books and buries them in the front yard).  I guess I would consider it a best-seller type of PA book, kind of a mess, but quite entertaining for the most part.  If you are a fan of the genre, you need to read it at some point.

No comments: