If some books are rollercoasters, then Lucifer's Hammer is a book that's only the first hill of the rollercoaster, with a brick wall at the end. It started out as a lot of exhilarating fun and then smashed into the ground with a horrific third act.
I haven't read anything by Larry Niven before (no! Not even Ringworld! Oops!), so I'm not sure if this is his general writing style or if it's because he and co-author Jerry Pournelle (full disclosure: no idea who this is) have attempted to tackle an enormous topic with a seething mass of characters in under 1,000 pages. It might even be the time period--this is very 70s. I felt my hair feathering as I read.
Lucifer's Hammer reminded me of a not-as-good version of Carrion Comfort, but instead of soul vampires, we've got a deadly comet. All told, the end of the world is the end of the world. In turn, I think of Carrion Comfort as a not-as-good version of The Stand, which, really, is the holy grail of all post-apocalyptic horror on a grand scale. Something like Jack McDevitt's Moonfall is more akin to the OH NOES SPACE ATTACKS! theme of Lucifer's Hammer, but I think I liked Moonfall more.
So, look, I've just given you three books you could read instead of Lucifer's Hammer. But because I take this seriously, I'm going to actually talk about the book instead of running away, which is what I'd like to do.
Lucifer's Hammer betrayed me. It started out with everything I like in a big, Hulk-smash, boom-goes-the-earth book: characters with petty lives, the amazing discovery of impending doom, humanity's inability to grasp the seriousness of their fate ... heck, there's even a space mission! And all of that was really well done. And then the comet hits (obviously), and the narrative is still moving along, but with characters randomly dying off. But then. THEN. Thanks to guns and old white men, civilization will survive against the cannibalistic hordes of black people and religious fanatics.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Begin at the beginning because it's the best place to start.
At a posh party in Beverly Hills, playboy and amateur astronomer Tim Hamner comes rushing in, excitedly babbling about the new comet he co-discovered (his co-discoverer is a strangely morose kid from Indiana). More people are surprised that Tim is actually on time than they are that he, you know, discovered a comet. However, Senator Jellison's lovely daughter, Maureen, is actually interested, and so we, the readers, find out a bit more about this voyager to our solar system. The authors also open and close sections with narration from the comet's point of view, which is a bit strange, but not obnoxious.
Harvey Randall, a fellow party-goer, thinks that the Hamner-Brown comet would be a great topic for his next documentary series, because the bills for his house in Bel-Air must be paid. I guess in the 70s documentaries were a big deal ...? And made lots of money? And got you on the Johnny Carson show? I fully admit to not even being born then, so this could all be true.
Meanwhile, Senator Jellison pulls some strings so that NASA sends up a manned mission to rendez-vous with the Soviets at Skylab, now informally dubbed "Hammerlab." I also kept forgetting that at this time, the Soviets were the bad guys who would nuke America because communism. Now they have Putin and I don't think things are much better but it seems that the country isn't exactly the "Red Menace" of yesteryear. So the American astronauts, Johnny Baker and Rick Delanty, meet up with two cosmonauts, Leonilla Alexandrovna Malik and Pieter Jakov, and start to study the comet as it approaches. The scenes up in Hammerlab are really well done, despite Delanty's constant worrying about how famous he is as the first black man in space.
I noticed that the Russians weren't addressed properly: Leonilla is referred to as Leonilla Malik, and not Leonilla Alexandrovna, and we don't know Pieter Jakov's patronymic. The Americans find his last name hilarious, but I guess the joke wouldn't have worked if he had been, I don't know, Pieter (which really should be transcribed as "Pyotr;" "Pieter" is a Dutch spelling) Nikolayevich Jakov. I assume that the joke is that "Jakov" sounds like "jack off" or "jagoff." As to the first, clearly the astronauts have the sense of humor of seven year old boys, and for the second, I don't think either of them are from Pittsburgh.
And as far as I can tell, "Jakov" is generally a Croat first name, or with Ben-Jakov, a Hebrew last name. "Malik" is Polish. I understand that at this time, many nations were part of the USSR, but it bothers me when authors don't bother to give their characters names that make sense.
ANYWAY. We spend a lot of time with these astronauts in the first third, and in the last third, they're relegated to prop background figures, which ticks me off profoundly. I guess the idea is that, "Oh, the world has ended, you astronauts should totally forget what you know about physics and come water these corn plants." These are the people who can help you find power sources and develop transportation and improve medical care. Instead, they're expendables.
Back to pre-Hammerfall: Harvey, the documentary dude, and his trusty sidekick Mark Czescu (a biker dude) continue to churn out the footage because dear old H is worried that he'll lose the house in Bel-Air and that change in circumstances will make his wife, the vapid but harmless Loretta, super-depressed. They also have a son, but he's usually out hiking with the Boy Scouts, whose troop leader is Randall's next door neighbor. Who is an embezzler and plans to walk off a cliff on their next outing, thus sparing his wife and ... abandoning a bunch of kids in the wilderness. Look, don't tell me that my generation isn't mature. That man's level of adulting ability is negative. Negative adulting.
Meanwhile, Tim Hamner meets a charming secretary named Eileen, but because she is an Emancipated Woman, she doesn't want to marry him because that ... would ... make her a woman? This is called, "When ignorant macho dudes try to explain feminism."
There's also a serial rapist, a very enthusiastic fire-and-brimstone radio preacher, a peculiar mailman, and a thief who's constantly on a tear about the "honkies" and who sees Hammerfall as a time for sticking it to the man by stealing all of his stuff. The honky man. I honestly don't now how many times Alim said "honky," but it was a lot. I guess it was supposed to be ... offensive? Like, I don't care if someone calls me a honky. It's just ... not a big deal to me. But the authors clearly intend the usage to mark Alim as being a Very Scary Black Man who hates white people and will kill them all. Late in the book, one character even equates the word "honky" with the n-word.
Nope. Nope. That is not how that works.
Anyway, as the Hamner-Brown comet draws closer to Earth, scientists realize that their million-to-one calculations of an Earth impact are dwindling rapidly. Charlie Sharps, an astrophysicist, and Dan Forrester do a fun analogy with a hot fudge sundae hitting the Earth (you have to read it to get their drift). And then, as you may have guessed from a) the amount of pages to go in the book and b) the title of the book, the Hammer hits.
The multiple POVs at the moment of impact and minutes later are really fascinating. There are volcanoes and earthquakes and tidal waves and just straight-up flooding and it is everything you could want in a disaster story. Meanwhile, the astronauts can only watch, helplessly.
Those who survive Hammerfall can't exactly be called lucky. Tim and Eileen, reunited, drive like fiends into the mountains and cross rivers and ride on train tracks and pull all sorts of crazy stunts. Harvey finds Loretta murdered by a band of thieves (wonder who that is?) and has a mini-nervous breakdown. Senator Jellison and his aide, Alvin Hardy, start a-roundin' up the neighbors and creating their own fortress in the mountains. Oddly, for playing such a large part in the last third of the novel, the rather power-mad Al Hardy doesn't show up in our cast of characters. Quibbles, I suppose.
Once the ranch gets up and running, with its REAL MEN rulers and baby-making women and tendency to shoot people, then the novel burns like an meteor entering the atmosphere. There are cannibals, rogue Army units, wild preachers, angels of God, more cannibals, Boy Scouts taking Girl Scouts as their "women" and having the sexytimes with them, and an ex-commune leader. Oh, not to mention that guy who is completely bonkers and still delivering the gosh darn mail. But everyone thinks he's rad for delivering messages so the idea of sending this guy out with no comms and no set route is hunky-dory, even though at any moment he could be set upon by any number of threats.
The worst thing about the big battle at the end is how it is basically a battle between whites and blacks. There's like two black people (total!) at the Jellison Ranch, while the Cannibal Angel of God Army has, at its core, Alim and his friends. But thank heavens the nice white people prevail over the animalistic black people so that the world can begin again! Pardon me while I go throw something and scream.
I didn't really understand the ending, either, as it felt really rushed and there were a lot of Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah cheers about "controlling the lightning" and so forth. Yay? I was just glad it was over.
If you do decide to read this, I'd stop after people start successfully escaping from the valley. Or is it the Valley? California appellations always confuse me. You'll skip all the icky sexist racist bits and pointless character deaths.