I just read Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s novel “Lucifer’s Hammer,” an apocalyptic epic first published in 1977. It’s haunting how accurately the end of the world is portrayed. History, in many ways, has eerily mirrored “Lucifer’s Hammer.” From the Rodney King/LA riots to David Koresh to the 911 terrorist bombings, Niven and Pournelle have done an extraordinary job in creating an account of what could happen if modern society was confronted with a complete end-of-the-world scenario. This book, while dated in many ways, has withstood the test of time.
A comet is discovered and as it comes closer to earth, it becomes apparent it may strike our planet. When the comet does indeed hit the earth in multiple places, causing gigantic tidal waves, earthquakes and destruction, “Lucifer’s Hammer” follows 20-plus characters’ lives as they attempt to survive in a society without law enforcement, electricity or adequate food. As pandemonium strikes, these characters do whatever they can to survive. Cars are stolen, people murdered, and everyone scrambles for high ground as the tidal waves and incessant rain drown everything in sight.
The final third of the book deals with the pockets of civilization that slowly form. Small strongholds are built, roving groups resort to cannibalism, everyone looking for safety and food. Like castles in the Middle Ages, these groups form warrior-like bonds, with leaders forced to make tough decisions, fighting off stragglers and armies.
Much of the criticism of “Lucifer’s Hammer” has dealt with its portrayal of black people, most notably that of Alim Nassor. A former Black Panther and a full-time thief, he gathers his friends together after the comet strike, adorned in a full-length “Super Fly” mink coat, spouting ghetto slang and doing whatever he can to make sure his people (from Watts) survive. He bonds with a band of cannibals, eventually led by a Jim Jones-like prophet. They begin sweeping the countryside, raiding, looting and murdering. It’s uncomfortable reading these passages, as society has not only become a huge class war, but a race war. The stronghold they lay siege to is made up almost entirely of Caucasian residents, educated, wealthy and determined to survive.
The criticism for “Lucifer’s Hammer” deals with its portrayal of religious leaders and black people as villains. They seek to destroy any form of modern civilization, so that when society is eventually rebuilt, they will have a higher status within it. They are murderous, they are frustrated and they are deadly. Like the LA riots, people are victimized due to race and cultural standing. Frustrations left over from modern civilization inspire their actions.
When attempting to understand human culture (I grew up in south Dallas, an area which could be termed the wrong side of the tracks, so my upbringing was Howard Stern-like multicultural), all one has to do is view a normal high school cafeteria. The pockets are abundantly clear as people bond by class, by status, by culture and by race. If earth was faced with the kind of disaster so realistically portrayed in “Lucifer’s Hammer,” undoubtedly pockets of survivors would form in such a fashion. The groups would bond with people of similar race, similar class and similar status. In today’s politically-correct society, it is uncomfortable reading a book like “Lucifer’s Hammer.” But there is no doubt the wars which take place in this book would indeed happen.
I’m not sure if a book like “Lucifer’s Hammer” could be written today, as most works tend to have a token black man, Hispanic man or Italian man in the wings, following a great, flawless Caucasian leader, performing great deeds, while admiring da man. Most minorities in such works are portrayed in an almost Colin Powell-like fashion, comfortable, acceptable, one of us, always with an amusing street-wise sense of humor. Even in the recent “28 Days Later,” there’s a token black woman, quick to take action, attractive to young Caucasian men (“28 Days Later” in many ways is a hip remake of the 1971 film “The Omega Man,” which also had an attractive black woman getting it on with Charlton Heston). The recent film “Deep Impact,” which mirrors “Lucifer’s Hammer,” completely skirts this issue by having a black man (Morgan Freeman) serving as President of the United States. I suppose this is what “politically correct” means.
Alim Nassor is anything but one of the majority. Lower income, poorly educated, he is an uncomfortable cliche. What would happen to his class if the end of the world was upon us? According to “Lucifer’s Hammer,” they would probably die.
I don’t know if I would call “Lucifer’s Hammer” a classic, but it is thought provoking.