Lucifer's Hammer
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Review by
Ron Grube

Fawcett Crest: New York, 1977

840 pages April 2002

The rock on the way?

There has certainly been no lack of end-of-the-world stories, some very far-fetched and others, such as Nevil Shute's classic On The Beach and this book, Lucifer's Hammer, quite believable and downright scary.

As we spend more time in space exploration, it seems clear that the Earth as well as other bodies in the Solar System have had some serious collisions with large, heavy objects. Informed speculation has it that perhaps asteroidal collisions were responsible for some of the drastic climactic shifts in the distant past, perhaps a major factor in the extinction of the dinosaurs and variations in the size of the polar icecaps.

Immanuel Velikovsky started a firestorm of controversy by his theories of far more recent collisions, first proposed in 1950 in Worlds In Collision. Velikovsky's books are an interesting read in themselves, whether or not you are persuaded by his ideas.

James P. Hogan also refers to Velikovsky and catastrophism on his website, and has in fact written a book, Cradle of Saturn, based somewhat on Velikovsky's theories. The New Solar System, also reviewed at Troynovant, has some updated information on related topics.

In the days of the comet

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, both excellent "hard science fiction" writers themselves, have also been perhaps the best collaboration team in recent years. Lucifer's Hammer is the story of two amateur astronomers discovering the existence of a very large comet that promises to pass very close to Earth. Tim Hamner, a wealthy manufacturer who has a private observatory in the Sierras, and Gavin Brown, an Iowa schoolboy who ground his own lenses for his homemade telescope, are credited with near-simultaneous sighting of the comet.

As the story progresses, the Hamner-Brown comet becomes the subject of a network news series and brings a U.S. Senator, Arthur Jellison, on board with proposals to fund a space mission for studying the comet. The mission turns into a joint US-USSR (remember them?) effort using leftover Apollo and Soyuz hardware (pre-Shuttle times, obviously).

Further study shows a very close pass coming, maybe even a collision, and as the news gets out, a new religious cult, the Comet Wardens, starts up in Southern California. Their leader dubs the comet "The Hammer of God", much to Hamner's consternation, and Hammer Fever is on!

Scientists are drawn in for help on the network documentaries, and this leads to some black-comedic dialogue as some Jet Propulsion Laboratory people try to explain the possible effects of a collision:

"When the mass is above a certain size, it stops being important whether Earth has an atmosphere or not."

"Except to us," Forrester said, deadpan.

Sharps paused a second, then laughed ... "What we need is a good analogy. Um ..." Sharps' brow furrowed.

"Hot fudge sundae," said Forrester.


Forrester's grin was wide through his beard. "A cubic mile of hot fudge sundae. Cometary speeds."

Environment & society take a hit

Time passes. It looks like the Hammer is going to be very close indeed, and people begin to make survival preparations. The Apollo-Soyuz mission is launched, and the astronauts are watching as Earth takes some hits.

I'm sure this isn't really giving away the plot. To me, there was never any question of a major strike, just looking at the title and dust jacket of Lucifer's Hammer.

Actually more than half of the book is taken up with the period following what became known as Hot Fudge Sundae (which fell on a Tuesdae this week). The authors paint a detailed and highly believable picture of the destruction, but temper it with hope for the survivors and the world. The plot is full of interesting characters and loads of action. This has to be one of the best-thought-out disaster books ever done, full of "can-do" people facing panicked mobs, weather, earthquakes, all the consequences you might imagine from another body striking the Earth.

It also has some background political commentary, built well into the plot, about environmentalism, nuclear power, radical religious cults, good and bad things about government .... Niven and Pournelle can make socio-political statements without simply hitting the reader in the chops with it. The characters speak for the issues without ever sounding preachy. The amount of information presented about catastrophic natural events is impressive in itself.

Lucifer's Hammer: great characters, a highly involved plot, a bit of politics, a lot of information, and a book that really grabs you from the start. What more can you want?


© 2002 Ron Grube


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