Lucifer’s Hammer, originally supposed to be an alien invasion novel, turned out to be something quite different in its final form. The publisher listened to the pitch by Niven and Pournelle and suggested instead they write a story about a comet striking the Earth and the effect it has on society.
The authors ran with the idea.
Two amateur astronomers, Tim Hamner, a millionaire, and a kid named Gavin Brown, discover a comet moving through the solar system. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) determines the two discovered the comet simultaneously and dub it the Hamner-Brown comet. Scientists determine the object will pass close to the planet, but will not actually strike. Enroute, the comet encounters another object that gives it just enough of a nudge to change its path, and cause fragments to calve and take on a new direction.
As the comet comes around the far side of the Sun, a small multinational crew aboard Skylab II note the changes in the comet’s trajectory and warn there will be a strike.
Actually, there are several strikes when the nucleus of the comet hits several locations, throwing everything into chaos around the world. It forces societies around the globe into survival mode, deterioration is immediate and devastating. Governments are destabilized, earthquake faults and volcanos are triggered, and many cities are leveled by tsunamis. It is a grim situation, as millions of people are displaced or killed outright.
While the action of the story focuses a lot on Hamner, there are forty-five additional characters in the story, and the comet is also treated as a character until it impacts the planet. It is the characters that drive the story as they encounter situations that put them in harm’s way. Some survive, some don’t, but they are all well written and developed to a point where a reader might identify with many of them.
There are a few different locations mentioned, but the bulk of the action takes place in and around Los Angeles, California. The valleys are flooded and people are forced to take to the foothills and mountains. As one might suspect, there are those who feel it is an “every man for himself” situation, while others form communities for the mutual benefits of defense and food. One community forms around a ranch owned by a U.S. senator. The senator is as clueless as anyone would be on how to handle the situation, but everyone looks to him as a leader who should know everything. He wisely uses his skills as an orator to bring people together and his ability to surround himself with the most knowledgeable people to form a sort of de facto government in a small area of southern California.
On the other side, there is a large group of ex-soldiers led by a religious figure. They make their way through the countryside, raiding and taking what they want.
In between, there are just people trying to survive as best they can.
Lucifer’s Hammer is one of the best, most compelling, and scariest stories I have ever read. I enjoyed the science and the overall direction of the story line finding very few plot holes. Every aspect of the story was tied up and there were no dangling threads left unresolved.
The characters really drive the story though. Even with the large cast, it is easy to follow who is doing what. One thing that most impressed me was how Niven and Pournelle made the comet itself a character in the story. As the object traveled through the solar system, the descriptions of what was taking place were written as though the comet were narrating its own story.
There wasn’t a thing about this story I didn’t enjoy, but it is not for the weak-hearted. There are some rather graphic descriptions of death and destruction that some may find quite disturbing. I found the story disturbing because it seems so accurate. When society takes the plunge into the dark depths, it happens quickly and without mercy. People turn on each other so quickly.
I highly recommend reading Lucifer’s Hammer for those that enjoy a rollercoaster ride through a nearly hopeless, post-apocalyptic world that rapidly moves from order to chaos in the blink of an eye.
Well, there it is...