REVIEW Fast Times in the San Joaquin: Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

We’re closing out obscure disaster and dystopian novel week with what may be the least obscure title. I was torn between this and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but I covered nuclear holocaust already war with the Alas, Babylon spot and had yet to include a book representing one of my favorite sub-genres:  the “cometpocalypse”.

Nominated for a Hugo Award in 1978, Lucifer’s Hammer is what movies like Deep Impact  involving a civilization-ending comet or meteor striking Earth should be.

While it takes a little too long to get to the actual comet strike and ensuing action, in this case that is a pedantic criticism because the character development and multiple story lines are not only well-crafted and strong, but also maintained and relevant to the action post-strike and to the larger story being told.

In short: the length is necessary given the novel’s scope and ambition.

More than a solid apocalyptic action story–and it is that–the novel’s portrayal of how the lives of people from various socio-economic classes and niche groups in California prepare for and are impacted by the comet’s disastrous strike, and how they ultimately interact with and impact each other afterward.

It is not pretty and the authors don’t pull punches. The horrors typically found in survival stories are all here: cannibalism; rape; murder. If the reader takes it as gratuitous then he’s missed the point. This is no B-movie, simple throwaway story. Most of the main characters are complex and realistically drawn, and the authors use their behavior to reveal how human nature changes as individuals shift from a generally abundant society to one of scarcity and survival as uneasy alliances are made and survival groups begin competing and fighting over resources, both man-made and natural.

In one storyline, a middle-aged scout leader on a campout with his troop up in the mountains when the comet hits ends up with a teenaged girl as his domestic and sexual partner with his surviving campers pairing up with a group of girls they encounter. In another, two somewhat weaker young men in their twenties each pair-up with the same young woman in an arrangement that each of the three tolerate and come to prefer. Still others form a cannibalistic religious cult intent on destroying all remaining technology and merge with a group of well-organized, brutal members led by former military members who take women in chattel slavery while a group led by a wealthy former Senator forms to stop them.

Details on survival challenges that would make a preppier proud abound, and those intricate storylines gradually merge until everyone has chosen sides and a final battle between two de facto armies to determine who will control and lead survivors in the San Joaquin Valley concludes the book.

Yeah, it could be a little shorter, but most novels could be. This one, however, is worth the time.