Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Synopsis: A comet hits Earth, post-apocalyptic survivalism ensues
Brief Book Review: /sigh
I’m going to get a bit off track here. I’ve long felt that all fiction is contemporary. Sci-fi is ostensibly about the future, but really it’s just a way of examining current issues under a different lens. You can often get a feel for what decade a SF/F book was written as you’re reading it. And for that reason, fiction really doesn’t age well. I think it can be “good for its time” and respected as laying the foundations of what we have today, but it’s often not good by current standards. Much like the Founding Fathers. It’s one of the reasons I dislike and distrust “Top 100 xxx of All Time” lists. They often list things that were influential or foundational, but not actually good.
Lucifer’s Hammer often makes these lists, and the people who read it when it was published (the 70s) say it was great. But this book is crap. Sci Fi has always had its progressive side (which it’s known for) on the one hand, and it’s old boys club (who are well-known) on the other. This is very much an old-boys-club book. The white male characters (and the only ones who matter are white males) are all entitled full-of-themselves pricks who are absolutely insufferable to read. The book is sexist – women are primarily valuable for their baby-making ability and should stick with that. The men take care of running society. It’s also racist – the black people are animalistic cannibals, who are organized and led by a white man (of course). The one good black person only associates with other white people. The douche-baggery drips from every page. I abandoned it before reaching the end.
If that wasn’t enough, the writing is flat. None of the imagery is evocative. Somehow they even managed to make a comet smashing into the earth boring. And it wasn’t until literally 1/3rd of the way through the book that the comet actually hit. It was like being forced to sit through hours of Real Housewives of New Jersey to get to Armageddon. Except comparing this book to Armageddon would be an insult to Armageddon. Vigorously Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: It’s actually not awful as a book club book. There’s a lot to be said about seeing how far we’ve come as a society. About reading what was considered “normal” and discussing the casual sexism and racism of that era. (Incidentally, I couldn’t read this book for the same reason I can’t watch Mad Men, I don’t need that kind of blood-pressure spike. People who can stomach that, in the interest of historical perspective, hated it less than I did.) The insight that fiction brings into how people of a certain age thought is hard to understate. And let’s be honest – it’s always fun to rip on bigots for a while. So I can’t say this book is a complete loss. If that is the sort of thing you want to discuss, this book would be perfect. However to me that feels like more of a directed study than a club activity. It would feel much more appropriate for a gender-studies or racial-studies class, than for a casual reading-SF/F-for-pleasure group. So – Not Recommended, but with less vigor.
I share your frustration with those Top-Lists that only list milestones instead of the best movies/books/etc by current standards.
On the topic of these unsympathetic main characters: the problem for me arises, if it seems the like the author/the text itself is unaware of the flaws of the characters. If it’s supposed to be racist, I have less of a problem with the story, than if the author apparently didn’t even notice the racism. (…or sexism, or homophobia, etc.)
Antiheroes are quite popular nowadays and I’m not excluded here. I even read a story with an SS-soldier (who didn’t have an anachronistic moral outlook) and liked most of the story, because it was obvious that the author was aware that he was writing a very flawed character. It probably would have been quite different, if the character was supposed to be the good guy, the white knight.
Although my tolerance for these kinds of characters depends on the genre. If it’s supposed to be about friendship and character development, I have less tolerance for that. How can I care a lot about the characters if they are mercenaries and just got done killing a couple of “heretics”? This happens quite a lot in the fantasy or post-apocalypse genres where I’m just supposed to accept that this is something perfectly reasonable to do. If I take a step back and come to the conclusion, that the world would be a better place if our heroes got killed in their next fight, you’re doing something wrong as an author. (Although maybe not, because lots of people disagree with me on that particular point. They can just sort of accept the moral framework of the story for the duration of it. I get values dissonance on the other hand.)
I really liked this book. I didn’t catch the racism on the bad guys all being black, I saw that through the lens of classism. The black people were the ones used to living outside of society so when society left they were better off. I liked that the characters were flawed and unlikable. Perhaps I am a misanthrope but I feel like that is just more realism. I didn’t see this as the story of the persons involved, I saw this as the story of a real world, that is real broken, and what would happen if the lines in that place got all mixed up. The people just happened to be there.
hey thanks for this review, I just read this book for the first time, because I was scrounging on my book-sale shelf for something to read this weekend… I thought the ‘brothers’ were laughably stereotypical, and I wondered if it was just me.
I read Lucifer’s Hammer in 1978, and I think your review is spot on. It was offensive to me then, and I still remember it as one of the worst sf books ever written.
Mad Men was good. It doesn’t glorify the sexism or take it for granted, it addresses it.