Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lucifer's Hammer

Lucifer's Hammer
© 1977 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
629 pages

The chances that Lucifer's Hammer would hit Earth head-on were one in a million.
Then one in a thousand.
Then one in a hundred.
And then...

The eeriest part of the story of the dinosaurs is its sudden, abrupt, and once-mysterious ending. After nearly 200 million years of domination, the dinosaurs vanished in a startlingly moment.  Although the source of this mass extinction was debated hotly for years, today a general consensus of scientists believes asteroid impact to have been the culprit. The force of the impact shockwave would have been disastrous by itself, vaporizing everything in a wide radius...but the widespread ecological disruption and climate change which followed doomed the survivors, especially those who were adapted for certain ecological niches. Imagine, then, the fate of hyperspecialized humans following a similar impact. What becomes of us, a species most of whose members are far removed from the production of food, who are utterly dependent on an evermore fragile castle of cards called civilization, when that structure collapses?   Such is the setup of the terrifying disaster thriller Lucifer's Hammer, easily the best of its genre I have ever read...or can imagine.

The year is 1977, and the Cold War is about to end...for the participants are doomed. The discovery of a new comet delights the astronomical community and general public, especially seeing as it will pass near enough to the Earth to provide a fantastic light show but not too close as to pose a threat. But no one's data is perfect, and the comet -- dubbed The Hammer of Lucifer -- does fall. Multiple impact points vaporize land and ocean alike, and the force of the hit triggers massive earthquakes and global volcanic activity. Tsunamis and torrential rains follow, and the astronauts orbiting Earth can only watch in horror as chaos engulfs the globe, civilization goes dark, and the Earth itself becomes clouded over -- no longer a 'pale blue dot', the planet is swathed in stormclouds which will deliver a harvest-killing rain of destruction.

On the ground, beneath those clouds,  there are survivors. Those who live through Hammerfall race toward the high ground like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Once they were civilized, and their shoulders bore a thousand petty burdens -- what to wear, which car to purchase next?  -- but now they were reduced to scrounging for food and shelter. Rich and poor, powerful and weak, black and white -- no one is spared from the basic struggle of survival.  As the weeks pass and the immediate damages are over, the scattered survivors form groups and learn that their greatest enemy may be one another, for the disaster's fallout has allowed some of the most base and savage instincts of humanity to express themselves in full. Although readers get hints of what is happening around the world, most of the action is confined to the San Joaquin Valley of California. As in Stephen King's The Stand, the survivors coalesce into two groups, and their interests collide in the fate of a nuclear power plant which somehow survived the catastrophe and may represent humanity's best hope for recovery.

Virtually every natural disaster known to us is unleashed by the Hammer, but I was less interested in the race for immediate survival during the fall itself than by the aftermath. How do people survive the coming winter, let alone the coming ice age? Lucifer's Hammer abounds in characters, and  watching them struggle to regain civilization -- and collapse into depravity -- is utterly gripping. People are forced to assume leadership, to find a place for themselves in this newly devastated world. Death is all around them, and their futures are utterly uncertain. It's an ideal foundation for a novel in which human beings struggle against the elements and the worst of themselves, seeking to overcome it all.

This is one SF thriller I highly recommend; this makes the Mayan doomsday hype look pale by comparison.


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