Mon, 07 Mar 2005
Put very simply, Lucifer's Hammer is a book about a comet hitting Earth. The book takes 640 pages to do this; there's a lot of detail to the story. The first couple hundred pages are all pre-comet and set the stage, introducing all of the characters. (There's a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book; I found myself referring to it frequently to see which characters were which.) The strike itself occupies about another hundred pages, with the balance of the book dealing with the aftermath.
As might be inferred from the spacing of events, the book proceeds at a somewhat slow pace, ramping up so gradually that I didn't notice the tensions in some scenes until I had to put the book down and realized that I was nearly breathless wondering what would happen. The aftermath is where the meat of the conflicts occur, but the preceding half of the book is pretty necessary to lay the groundwork for later developments.
The science in the book is also good. Niven and Pournelle spent a lot of time working out the details of a comet strike such as the one presented in the book, and it shows; the science is very thorough and believable. This was somewhat surprising given how long ago the book was written: 1977. Much other SF from that far back tends to be very dated, a fate Lucifer's Hammer seems to have escaped, for the most part.
There were some instances where I was reminded that the book was taking place three decades ago. Racial tensions in the book are a lot higher; while the civil rights movement had succeeded, many people still weren't accustomed to it, and a couple of the black characters have to deal with some uncomfortable situations. The technology isn't as good as that which we have today; while I can't remember any specific examples, there were some things that I noted would have been different if the story had taken place in our present. And someone makes reference to NASA's perfect record of not having any deaths during their missions, a record that, sadly, has been broken a few times since then.
All in all, it's a very good book, especially for fans of either SF or disaster stories.
Postscript: The copy I read was one I got from a used book store. It's the third printing of the Ballantine Books paperback edition, printed in 1985. The inside cover has the following written on it:
Dec. 21st, 1990
To: Mr. Senior
After I saw that film on meteors I remembered this book. You can look it over during the holidays.
I haven't found any more information about who the people named are.