A (Post)Apocalyptic Classic

As a fan of (post)apocalyptic narratives, I’m surprised it took me so long to find out about and read Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. This story, while drawing from other apocalyptic scenarios, has certainly helped shape some of the more popular disaster films of the past few decades like Deep Impact and Armageddon, to draw two quick comparisons. Lucifer’s Hammer also has ethical, moral, and religious implications, especially when we consider contemporary religious folk who long for such events to take place as soon as possible.

Just under halfway through Niven and Pournelle’s story, a several-thousand-kilometers-wide comet hits Earth, effectively shifting the environment as we know it and putting all of life in severe jeopardy. The second half of the book follows groups of survivors as they attempt to make sense of what has happened and rush to set things in motion for their survival and gradually (ever so slowly) build their lives back. The center of the recovery (or one of them) is The Stronghold, a ranch belonging to Senator Arthur Jellison. He is kind but practical, helped along by his right-hand-man, Al Hardy. A local rancher, George Christopher, co-manages the situation with a firmer hand, undertaking all the more difficult tasks and questions that a rapid return to less civilized ways of life require. Among the many inhabitants of The Stronghold are Harvey Randall, a documentary filmmaker who covered the discovery of and subsequent reaction to the comet’s (then) potential to hit Earth; Tim Hamner, the amateur astronomer who discovered the comet; Harry Newcombe, the mailman/messenger for the Senator’s town; and Maureen Jellison, the Senator’s daughter, who is caught in a love triangle with Harvey and George and, eventually, Johnny Baker, the American astronaut who miraculously returns from his mission after the comet hits. The survivors must ward off roving cannibals, claims to leadership from other surviving communities, and eventually a religious/military cooperative that threatens to undo one of the last, and most important, links they have to their former existence.

The book is a page-turner…or a Kindle-clicker. There’s a quick pace here as the authors forego any temptation to have the characters go off on long bouts of self-reflection on the impending destruction of humankind. For the characters, it’s act, act, act. The only drawback might be the sheer number of characters that we have to keep up with, which, at times, can be disorienting. Other than that, it’s a thrilling read that keeps your attention all the way through.

Published in 1977, some of the technological components in the narrative seem dated, but the characters’ reflection on them and their dependence on them do not. If anything, the intervening decades since its publication make Lucifer’s Hammer all the more relevant. Like Earth Abides by George Stewart, this narrative reveals just how quickly everything we take for granted could be taken away from us and, as a result, just how incapable of rebuilding those “luxuries” we would really be. At the same time, it is a none-too-thinly veiled indictment of the disconnectedness of our modern lives, which again, has only intensified in the last several decades. We are disconnected from one another, struggle to connect our work lives to home lives, and desperately search for meaning in what we do. In the book, the comet collision gives all these characters a chance to start over, to find significance and value in their contributions to the recovery of human life.

Of course, there are other characters who see things differently. One character, the Rev. Henry Armitage, is a minister who interprets the comet as God’s punishment of the wicked. His followers must repent but, strangely enough, also continue to destroy any remaining human creations that further separate them from their reliance on God and one another. That means all technology that could help re-build civilization must go. He and his followers build a strange coalition with a group of cannibals and former soldiers in an effort to enact their theological vision. The former military men are more than happy to have the spiritual and emotional propaganda (backing) that the minister and his followers bring. It’s a prophetic parallel to contemporary religious leaders that attempt to interact with global politics in order to bring about conditions “necessary” for the Second Coming.

The situation within The Stronghold raises the most enticing moral and ethical questions. Who do the survivors let into their community? Who do they turn away? What are the ethics of inclusion? That is, how do they behave when settled in? How moral can they be? What do they do with rule-breakers and who makes the rules? As Senator Jellison puts it, “Civilizations have the morality and ethics they can afford. Right now we don’t have much, so we can’t afford much.”

There are drawbacks to Niven and Pournelle’s vision. A re-set humanity is still dominated by a patriarchal system that begins to look like something related to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There is little attention to events outside the United States’ borders, save for references to natural disasters that completely wipe out entire countries and, yes, continents. Nevertheless, Lucifer’s Hammer is still a fun read that could get readers to think about how to live more sustainably and communally, whether they’re worried about the impending end of the world or not.