Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer is, quite rightly, considered to be a classic of post-apocalyptic science fiction. There are two distinct strands in post-apocalyptic SF. The pessimistic strand sees even mere survival as just barely possible and usually assumes that once civilisation has been wrecked the descent into barbarism will be unstoppable. Lucifer’s Hammer belongs to the optimistic strand that assumes that perhaps civilisation might eventually be rebuilt.
This is also a novel that has much to say about politics. The authors are interested in the scientific implications but they’re at least as interested in the social and political implications of catastrophe. If this book has one really major theme it is that in the face of global disaster we’re not going to need group hugs and we’re not going to be able to indulge in emotional posturing. Feelings will have to be subordinated to reason and tough decisions will have to be made. This is a very politically incorrect book indeed. In fact at one point one character remarks that the one good thing about the catastrophe is that feminism was dead milliseconds after the disaster hit.
Lucifer’s Hammer was published in 1978 but it had a distinguished (and equally politically incorrect) predecessor in 1923 in J. J. Connington’s Nordenholt’s Million. J. J. Connington was the pseudonym used by British scientist Alfred Walter Stewart and not coincidentally it can be considered as an early example of hard science fiction (a sub-genre to which Lucifer’s Hammer most certainly belongs). Nordenholt’s Million and Lucifer’s Hammer have something else in common - in both novels the authors accept that saving enough of civilisation to form a basis for rebuilding will come at a cost. It will require a leader willing to make very tough decisions in a clear-sighted rational and even brutal manner. It will not be possible to save everyone. Trying to save everyone would mean saving no-one. As Senator Arthur Jellison remarks in Lucifer’s Hammer, “every civilisation has the morality and ethics it can afford.”
Lucifer’s Hammer begins with the discovery be amateur astronomer Tim Hamner of a new comet. It’s a very exciting discovery because the Hamner-Brown Comet is going to pass very close to Earth. Scientists will have an unprecedented opportunity to learn about comets. It soon becomes clear that the comet will pass very close indeed to Earth. There’s very little chance it will actually hit us of course but we’re going to get an extremely close-up view.
Initially astronomers dismiss the chances of the comet hitting our planet as billions to one against. As the Hamner-Brown Comet approaches ever closer they revise the estimate to one in a hundred. This is just a tiny bit worrying. It’s not entirely surprising that pretty soon people are stockpiling food and survival gear. This provides one of the most interesting elements of the novel, as Harvey Randall discovers to his amazement and horror that a lot of people actually seem to be hoping the comet will hit. Niven and Pournelle have in this instance put their finger on one of the more disturbing aspects of modern western civilisation - our tendency to develop a kind of collective death wish, driven by a mixture of disillusionment, guilt and what can perhaps be best described as self-indulgent adolescent despair.
The enthusiasts of doom get their wish and the comet does hit the Earth.
The first half of the book introduces us to a huge cast of characters most of whom seem to have nothing in common but all of whom are destined to play important parts in the struggle for survival after the comet hits. The second half deals with that struggle for survival. Interestingly enough those who survive are not necessarily those who made elaborate preparations. The end of civilisation poses so many varied and unexpected challenges that it is impossible to prepare for them. Survival has more to do with grit and a stubborn refusal to give up in the face of apparently hopeless odds than with careful preparation. Interestingly enough those who contribute the most towards survival are not necessarily those with obviously useful skills. It is obviously vital to have a few doctors, engineers and scientists but you would hardly expect an accountant like Hamner’s new-found girlfriend to be useful in a post-apocalyptic world. In fact she turns out to be a brilliant administrator, a very handy commodity in a world threatened by chaos.
Although this novel has plenty of action, excitement and adventure Niven and Pournelle have bigger fish to fry. Their overriding theme is that if survival means living as subsistence farmers in a world without hope of progress then survival is simply not worthwhile. There has to be hope. Hope that things will get better, that civilisation will rise again from the ashes. If you don’t have that hope you have nothing.
Niven and Pournelle being very much hard science fiction writers there is naturally a wealth of fascinating and presumably fairly realistic speculation as to what exactly the results of a comet strike might be. Equally interesting though is their focus on the social, psychological and political implications of catastrophe. Their conclusions are likely to be extremely unpalatable to devotees of the cult of political correctness.
Lucifer’s Hammer is a passionate defence of science and technology, of the necessity of clear-headed rational and courageous leadership, and of human indomitability. Most of all it’s a plea for optimism - civilisation might have its faults but it’s worth fighting for and it sure beats barbarism. Highly recommended.