By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Published by Books on Tape, Inc.
Read by Conner O’Brien
I first read this classic of science fiction back when it hit the book stands in paperback in 1977, according to my somewhat ragged, yellow-paged copy. I have to admit it seems strange to see something I read as a new book considered a classic… I’m not that old! (or else in denial), but it is and deserved to be considered so.
It’s a long story, but not one that bores although the authors resorted to the trick of weaving together several story lines, involving a large cast of characters in order to make it a long story. I have never been one to truly appreciate a story that jumps and skips from one set of characters to another repeatedly, I generally find myself wanting to skip ahead to the next time the characters I just read about appear. In this case of a global disaster caused by a comet striking the Earth, perhaps merely following one smaller set of people may not have done the situation justice. Different people react in different ways and cope with their situations by their own standards. If anything, we did not get enough variety in this book since most of the post-comet action gravitated to California with only occasional mentions of what is happening elsewhere in the world (as reported via shortwave radio).
We are told that Soviet Russia and China have destroyed each other in an all-out nuclear war just as the comet falls, and we hear about mega-tsunamis in both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – so goodbye Hawaii, Japan, Cape Verde, the Azores, Canary Islands, Tahiti, Tongo and a lot more, but I kept wondering about Australia, New Zealand, South America and southern Africa. In short, the southern hemisphere is only briefly discussed as a possible place to land by some stranded astro- and cosmonauts (Spoiler: they also go to California).
Unlike a lot of books, made long by following multiple groups of people (NB sometimes a group is only one person), the survivors all eventually meet up and interact so it is a well-planned story without the usual loose threads that can occur when authors use this technique. BTW, I especially see this used when a book is part of a very long series (of long books) – it doesn’t count if you have to go three or four books before two character finally meet for a day or two. But Lucifer’s Hammer is a finely woven story that works.
I’ll admit that I disagree with a lot of the character’s solutions to problems, but I did not at the time I first read it. I suppose time passes and one tends to gain new perspectives along the way.
Another thing that time affects is the novel itself. The story has become badly dated. The physical results of a comet striking the Earth may still be accurate, but this story was written when the Soviet Union was still intact and the Cold War was not as cold as it should have been. That makes the political background of the world rather different. I think the authors used some imagination having the Soviets and Communist China lobbing nuclear missiles at each other in the hope of using the comet to cover their attacks and at the time it was not inconceivable that they might do so, even though an American’s first thought might have been that the Soviets would fire them at the U.S. (a possibility that is mentioned in the book). These days I’m not sure who would be shooting at whom. It might be Russia vs. USA or China or Ukraine or North Korea or a mix of the above and every other nation with nuclear weapons. With the “Nuclear Clock currently set at one hundred second before midnight, all of those sound realistic. I suspect a lot of sworn enemies would take the opportunity.
Fortunately, most of the story is about normal (more or less) people trying to stay alive and specifically those in California. We hear of conditions in other parts of the country, both coasts have been scrubbed clean by mega-tsunamis and a similar set of waves were pushed up the Mississippi valley by strikes in the Gulf of Mexico. An example given was that the wave was forty feet above flood level as it passed Memphis… goodbye, Graceland! So, the coastal cities are all gone as are a fair number in the center as well. Early on it is reported that the President is dead, so now various political figures are declaring themselves his rightful successor, although in some cases the local leaders are claiming kingship.
In California, a senator and his people are trying to re-establish a civilization, but in their way is a fanatical religious group that has been absorbing everyone they can with the goal of finishing off the last of the old world personally.
It is a complex story and an engrossing one and well worth the read.
I hate to put it this way, but Conner O’Brien does a horrendously bad job of reading this story. My first impression was that maybe this had been recorded with a text-to-speech program, because the intonation used when reading the introductory quotations and other matter sounded a bit robotic. The descending note in the voice of the reader was not quite right, but then he got to parts where there was dialogue and it got worse.
There is something about the speech mannerisms that make nearly everyone sound like they are whining. I recall a set of skits on NBC’s Saturday Night Live some years ago in which a couple of characters spoke like that. The skits were supposed to be funny, but they just made me cringe and feel sorry for the characters. That’s the way these characters speak and they do so no matter which accent Mister O’Brien tries to ascribe to them. Some of the times I wondered why he chose a particular accent as it seemed out of place, but that would not bother me much. I’ve listened to readers with Deep Southern, Vaguely European, Cajun, Australian and a host of different British accents using accents that are wrong, or at least odd, for the characters and it did not bother me, but with everyone whining it does not really matter what the accent is.
The only positive things I can say about this reading are 1) It is better than I can do (I’m a terrible narrator) and 2) he is very consistent – I might not like the way he does it, but he is not all over the place as some bad readers are.
I did, for a few minutes, listen to the Audible Books version of this book and it was like night and day. It was far better and if you want to listen to this book, I would recommend that edition. I might have reviewed it, but I only review books I have listened to all the way through. Well, I least I listened to this one all the way through… another point in its favor.
So, a good book; indeed, a classic of science fiction, but I seriously recommend listening to another edition.