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Literature / Footfall

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Written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Footfall is an Alien Invasion novel with much more accurate science than usual. Set in a very hard universe, it almost serves as a Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the genre.

The story is set in a slightly alternate 90's period. The invading Fithp are herd animals resembling baby elephants, with bifurcated trunks that end in 8 tentacles. Their Generation Ship, Thuktun Flishithy ("Message Bearer"), coming most likely from a planet around Alpha Centauri, runs on an advanced Bussard ramjet, and their intent is to conquer Earth and subjugate the human race... yeah.

Their rather flawed plan is thoroughly deconstructed at various points throughout the novel, both by humans and by dissident fithp.

Tropes in this work.

  • Alternate History: The novel was written in 1985, when the Cold War between the USA and USSR was still very real. It extrapolates that, in about 10 years, both power blocs will still be largely intact, and that a renewed interest in space exploration will have resulted in a network of laser sats orbiting the Earth, two Moon Bases (one Soviet, one American), and a large, ISS-like Soviet successor to Mir called the Kosmograd.
  • America Saves the Day:
    • The military force at the end is American in nature, but since the USA was the worst-hit country by the invasion, they had to rely on significant outside help to put together the Michael.
    • To eliminate the fithp landing site in Kansas, the President of the US had to ask the Soviet Premier to launch nuclear ICBMs at it, since the US arsenal alone would have been shot down by the alien defenses. Shortly after this the Soviet leadership gets killed by a KGB coup.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • The aliens and humans really don't quite understand each other's psychology, mainly because the aliens have much more of a herd dynamic. They instinctively surrender (by dropping their guns and going belly up) when outnumbered, surprised or separated from their herd. Likewise, being separated from a herd for a prolonged amount of time, or not getting busy with the females during mating season can drive them to a very real form of insanity.
    • Once they surrender, they're instinctively obedient to the new herd, and they expect humans to behave the same. Once human insurrections start in areas that previously "surrendered", they destroy entire townships as a corrective measure, thinking all those who would behave like this insane and dangerous. The notion of "conditional surrender" is alien to them, but they learn quickly that it's a lot more effective for keeping humans under control. Likewise, they don't understand why a battered humanity responds with total war (pretty much an unknown notion to them), rather than taking a Defeat Means Friendship-type submissive relationship.
    • They don't understand how or why you would possibly initiate diplomacy before first fighting to see which party was dominant; for this reason they bomb the sh*t out of the US and USSR as soon as they arrive, ignoring all attempts to communicate.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: The guns from museum-ship Battleships are pulled out of mothballs to fight the fithp, both on the Michael itself and parasite ships built around each cannon.
  • The Can Kicked Him: A character is killed by holding his face in a toilet until he drowns.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Bob Anson, the thinly-disguised avatar of Robert Heinlein, is a member of the team of SF authors engaged by the White House to speculate on the threat of the aliens, but vanishes without explanation halfway through the novel. It's implied in the last chapter that he died at some point, when a couple of the other writers wish he were still around.
  • Colony Drop: Footfall involves slamming a large asteroid into a planet. It's Meaningful because fithp surrender by rolling over on their backs while the victor places their foot on the defeated enemy's chest.
  • Creative Sterility: Fithp science is less based around exploration and research and more based around examining the Thuktun, large granite blocks left by their Predecessors, and covered in writing about anything from making fire and aluminum, to taxonomy and biology and higher mathematics. One of them describes how to build a Bussard Ramjet. The fithp are not stupid, however, and they're quite aware that humans have the advantage of better understanding the stuff they're using. Advisor Fathisteh-tulk is killed by one of the human prisoners when he realizes just how much the fithp don't know about exploiting space, and that subjugating humanity is the only way to enlist their knowledge to the fithp cause — and that, if not subjugated, humanity would eventually subjugate the fithp.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The fithp head honcho, Herdmaster Pastempeh-keph.
  • Death from Above: For most of the book, the fithp use this trope to rule space and air. They use space-based lasers and the 'Rods From God', orbital KKVs, to destroy Earth's military forces and insurgents, as well as dams and bridges (for some reason); later, after Kansas is nuked to defeat their first invasion they land the eponymous 'Foot' (an asteroid) in the Indian Ocean to try to force Earth's surrender. In between, they routinely vaporize any vehicle bigger than a two-seater with rays from space.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: For the fithp, Defeat Always Means Friendship. Defeated herds are incorporated as slaves into the victor herds, their leaders become advisers to the victor's leaders, and the next generation born will hold equal standing in the herd. They expect that this behavior will hold true for humans. The one fi' who surrendered to the humans does everything in his power to help his "new herd", and some of the characters fear for his sanity if he finds out that the human leaders don't trust him without reservation.
  • Dramatis Personae: Pretty much anyone of any importance is listed, by their particular cast grouping, at the beginning of the novel.
  • Drawing Straws: At one point in the fithp's past, a war between two rival herds threatened to ruin their planet's biosphere (again...). To break the conflict, the heads of the two herds met and had a wager. They would cooperate in building a starship and the losing herd would have to board it and fly to Earth, leaving the winners to rule the planet. Thus the Traveler Herd began.
  • Energy Weapon:
    • The humans have a few on the ground and in orbit, but the fithp ones are massively more powerful and efficient, and make human air travel essentially impossible during the war.
    • The fithp Space Planes, the digit-ships, are lightcraft, meaning that they run on a pulsed fusion torch ignited by a powerful laser beam fired from their ship in orbit.
    • The Michael uses bomb-pumped gamma ray Death Rays that run off the excess energy from its drive ignitions, effective at many, many kilometers away.
    • Notably, given the hard sci-fi setting, lasers are treated realistically—in the space battle scenes, they are effectively long-range lamps shone on a target to heat it up (which the target copes with using cooling techniques) rather than bolts blasting explosively through armour at short distances like in soft sci-fi settings.
  • Excessive Steam Syndrome: The spaceship with an Orion-class nuclear engine that is indeed cooled by and powered by steam, also using jets of steam for attitude control. At one point one of the characters has to work to repair battle damage in an area made uncomfortably hot by a burst steam line.
  • Generation Ship: The ship the fithp arrive on is a very long range generation ship that operates with a Bussard ramjet.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Thrice. The aliens first land in Kansas (assuming that the US wouldn't attack their own breadbasket), and fortify their foothold so well that the US asks the Soviets to atomize it for them in a concerted attack. This forces the fithp to perform Footfall, dramatically messing up the planet with a Dinosaur Killer, before landing in force in Southern Africa. In the end, the US puts the Orion Drive ship Michael in orbit, nuking the coastal town of Bellingham a hundred times over during launch - and they were unable to evacuate it first.
  • Heroic RRoD: During the climactic space battle, construction worker-turned-spacecraft-repairman Harry Reddington stays to fix a leaking steam shunt despite the fact that the steam escaping around him is raising his body's internal temperatures up above the point at which the human brain shuts down. He gets the job done, and manages to die shortly thereafter from exhaustion, just before a leak in his pressure suit would have killed him anyway.
  • Humans Are Insane: The fithp quickly come to this conclusion. Humans maintain their old allegiances after surrender, and withstand isolation from their own kind for many weeks, and generally act in ways only a "rogue" fi' would.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes:
    • The fithp reflexively remain submissive once they've surrendered to an opponent. They find it difficult to understand beings that will pick themselves up after a defeat and come back for a rematch.
    • Being herbivores, the fithp think of a human's mouth as being filled with "wicked-looking teeth." One wonders how they'd react to the teeth of a great white shark.
    • Breaker 2 is utterly baffled by the humans' need to cover their bodies with cloth, when it offers no obvious protection. He wonders if their skins are so fragile they'd be injured without cloth coverings, and whether the solitary dark-skinned man they've captured is suffering from such injuries.
    • Being rather squat, massive beings, they're amazed at the humans balance. When a very tall, skinny black african warrior gets up on tiptoe (in preparation to hurling a spear), they wonder how he can avoid falling over right away.
  • Humanity Is Superior: It comes as quite a shock when they realize that humans, with fingers more dexterous than fithp digits, lower body mass, food, air consumption and technology they actually understand, are a threat to the aliens if left unchecked. It's how the fithp dissidents lose their argument against the war on Earth.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Aliens: Fithp technology is much more advanced than the humans', including automated robots, fusion reactors and laser weapons galore, but they skipped a lot of steps getting there. If they hadn't had a Predecessor artifact telling them how to build basically anything, they probably would still have been at the hunter-gatherer stage of civilization.
  • Intelligent Gerbil: The Fithp have some particular resemblances, both physically and with their "herd" culture, to Earth's elephants. This is even lampshaded when the Fithp observe elephants in Africa and wonder why they haven't become Earth's dominant species.
  • It's Raining Men: A mass paratroop drop by invading aliens who looked like two-trunked elephants flying hang gliders and wearing platform shoes (designed to absorb the landing impact). The characters witnessing it start laughing when they see it... and promptly stop when they spot the guns.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: The primary weapons of the fithp are described as "crowbars dropped from orbit". For that matter, the personal weapons used by them are just scaled up versions of ordinary machine guns. However, they still use powerful lasers in their most logical application, as anti-missile and anti-aircraft weapons
  • Language Equals Thought: The fithp language makes extensive use of inherent plurals, for example fithp (which means tribe or group or herd) and fi' (which means a person). This fact reflects a lot about basic fithp psychology. (i.e., the individual is incomplete without the group.)
  • Macross Missile Massacre: During the attack by the fithp, one of the main characters explicitly comments that the barrage of incoming alien missiles reminded him of a Japanese science fiction cartoon.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Footfall.
    • Project Archangel produces the Orion warship Michael, explicitly from the verse "The Archangel Michael cast Satan out of Heaven". Once it "goes public", a character who hadn't been in on the project places the reference within moments of hearing it and comments that it's a great name.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Several sci-fi authors, including clear Author Avatar versions of both authors as well as one of Robert A. Heinlein, brought together by the government to help think up ways to fight an alien invasion.
  • Neglectful Precursors: They were... well, kind of assholes. They trashed their home planet in one way or another, most likely through over-pollution, and either up and died off or bailed out, leaving behind granite blocks with inscriptions detailing their entire body of knowledge for whoever came after them.
  • Nuke 'em:
    • Kansas is hit with a massive nuclear bombardment to destroy the fithp base there.
    • The humans build an Orion Drive spaceship named Michael to combat the invading aliens. And since it runs on nuclear bombs, why not bring along nuclear-tipped missiles, nuclear cannon shells, and just for fun, nuclear-pumped Gamma lasers running off of the main drive's wasted energy.
  • Orion Drive: Project Archangel, the last ditch effort to win the war, as the fithp hold the orbitals. Whenever the main engine was in operation in the ensuing space battle, the onomatopoeia "WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM quiet" was used. One of the crew describes it as "God was knocking, and He wanted in bad."
  • Possession Implies Mastery: Subverted. Although the fithp have a great deal of advanced technology, compared to the humans, it turns out that they are a young race who found a cache of technological knowledge left by another, older species and built their entire civilization around it. But they never developed any kind of science and have a cultural tunnel-vision centered around the technologies in the cache; not only are they unable to analyze or extrapolate base principles from the ancient knowledge, but they cannot imagine or cope with a technology not laid out in detail for them in the cache. They know how to use it and that's all they know about it.
  • Precursor Worship: The Fithp gained all of their scientific knowledge from artifacts left by the Predecessors, a race that lived on their planet long ago. The Fithp worship the Predecessors as deities, with priests studying the artifacts to gain more information.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The fithp are Designated Villains here, having come from across the stars to conquer Earth, but to their defense they're bound by mentality, circumstance and sheer herd inertia. The Traveller Fithp don't really have the option of returning home, since they left it after losing a wager against an enemy herd that they were locked in a Cold War with, leaving their enemies to rule the planet. There is a dissident faction among them that sees the War for Winterhome (Earth) as unnecessary, since they could just as well colonize the Solar System ahead of the humans, but even they realize that they need human help to do it in the end, and they are mentally incapable of even conceiving of just asking for help - you need to subjugate someone to even consider getting something from them.
  • Ramming Always Works: In the final attack on the alien mothership, the shuttle Atlantis rams it, damaging the alien's main drive, allowing Michael to catch them. This was also explicitly always the final attack option for the Michael as well, as it was, literally, the last chance for humans to win the war. The crew all signed on with the expectation that they would likely die this way and take the enemy mothership with them.
  • Shoot the Dog: Bellingham, in order to disguise the Michael's construction and launch. In order to build the Orion Drive craft in secret, they disguise it as a giant greenhouse painted with a surrender symbol, then suspend habeas corpus and secretly turn the town into a prison, with no one permitted to enter or leave. CB radios are confiscated and used to broadcast false communications. They can't even spread warnings of the Fithp's incoming Colony Drop, because that would make people evacuate coastal communities, and they couldn't draw attention to the one town that would keep functioning. And when the time comes to launch, they can only evacuate those who can be trusted to keep their mouth shut - military personnel and their families. Everyone else in town is only warned half an hour prior to launch. And because the sheriff shoots his mouth off, they have to slice twenty-five minutes off of that. All in all, the entire town is sacrificed save less than three hundred people who can fit in a fallout shelter, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder.
  • Shout-Out:
    • At one point the narration uses the "FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE, AWAKE!" alarm call of Buckland from The Lord of the Rings.
    • "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred." A clear reference to Super Chicken.
    • Likewise, "Shep is big gray peanut-loving doggie!" is straight out of George of the Jungle.
    • The character stand-in for Robert Heinlein greets another character with a phrase sometimes attributed to the man himself: "Come In. This is Liberty Hall; you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard!"
    • Harry defuses the oppressive silence before the launch of Michael by yelling "Sancho! My armour!"note 
  • Space Whale Aesop: Environmentalism/Luddism is treason against the human race, because it means even the dumbest aliens imaginable could enslave and/or exterminate us from orbit without even trying. However, Niven/Pournelle do provide lots of evidence for this, summed up as, "Control the orbitals, control the planet."
  • Stock Star Systems: Lampshaded by the Robert A. Heinlein stand-in, during the discussion of where the aliens came from. At first "Bob" didn't like the theory that the aliens were coming from Alpha Centauri, but then "It's trite. But, you know, it's trite because it got used so much and it got used so much because it's the best choice."
  • Stupid Evil: The KGB would rather negotiate with the (herd-minded, so obviously communist) alien invaders than with the capitalist dogs of the US. Fortunately, the Premier is a bit smarter.