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Literature / Lucifer's Hammer

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"After its close approach to the sun, the comet was a ghost of its old glory. Most of the volatile chemicals that once made up its mass had long sense been boiled away. But there was hope for it yet. If it could just make it back to the outer solar system, it could live again and become what it was. But it appears there is something in its way..."

Lucifer's Hammer is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The story details a cometary impact on Earth that causes the end of civilization as we know it, as well as the struggle to survive in the face of tsunamis, starvation, disease, a new ice age, and an army of cannibals in order to rebuild society.

The story is one of the best of its kind, and was nominated for the 1978 Hugo Award for Best Novel. A comic book adaptation was published in 1993.

Not to be confused with The Lucifer and Biscuit Hammer, which deals with a different planetary impact.

Tropes demonstrated in Lucifer's Hammer:

  • After the End: Unusually for this type of story, the cometary impact doesn't happen until a third of the way in. The last two-thirds of the book is all about this trope.
  • Almighty Janitor: JPL janitor Al Masterson has lots of vital supplies gathered when the comet hits. His job lets him learn enough about the comet to understand how much damage it might cause, while his lack of scientific expertise keeps him from realizing that there's a strong chance it won't hit (which is why the scientists are caught unprepared).
  • Antagonistic Governor: Lieutenant Governor Montross becomes Acting Governor of California following his boss' death in the chaos following Hammerfall, and while he never appears in person his one known action of note is joining the New Brotherhood Army and ceding all legal authority in the state to them.
  • The Apocalypse Brings Out the Best in People: Way, way averted. For the most part, the people who survive the end of the world do so by being selfish, murdering, thieving bastards. Even the "good guys" quickly realize that they can only survive by ignoring or turning away most of the people who need help.
  • Apocalypse How: Planetary/Societal Collapse caused by a comet strike. And it might've been even worse if the US military hadn't gotten the clarification that the Soviet Union was nuking China instead of the US.
  • Apocalypse Not: The epilogue makes it clear that the survivors are rebuilding.
  • Apocalypse Wow: Niven and Pournelle take about three chapters in the book to describe the utter destruction of the world, each time detailing the effects of the impact on a different region. In addition, they go to great lengths to describe the effect on the impact on individual characters, some of whom don't survive the experience.
  • Author Tract: One of the morals of this story is technology (especially nuclear power and space exploration) is good, while environmentalists, the fanatically religious, and hippies are bad.
  • Badass Bookworm: Professor Forrester. A charming old man who never raises a hand nor his voice. The cannibals learn to fear the survivors because he knows how to make mustard gas and thermite bombs. Unfortunately, making the gas cost him the time and resources he needed to make his insulin, so he's another casualty of the defense of the nuclear plant.
    Trouble rather the tiger in his lair than the sage among his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but toys of the moment, to be overturned with the flick of a finger.
  • But What About the Astronauts?: The multi-national crew of astronauts on the HammerLab (specifically sent up to study the approaching comet) provide a running commentary regarding the approach, and likewise continue to feed information for as long as people keep responding on Earth. When it becomes clear that the space program that put them in orbit is now nothing more than a memory, they decide to return to Earth to see what's left. Not that they have much choice; as their supplies will only last so long....
  • Chummy Commies: The joint Apollo-Soyuz mission to study the comet means two of the four people involved are USSR cosmonauts, General Pieter Jakov and Dr. Leonilla Malik. They get along quite well with the Americans, and for the most part, the four of them are more loyal to each other than to anyone else. When the comet hits, the bond nearly breaks when Rick Delanty sees the Soviets have launched nuclear missiles while Dr. Malik points out there's already a mushroom cloud above Moscow, but Jakov is the one to notice that the Soviet missiles are headed to China, which actually launched first; the USSR requested, and received, an alliance with the US against this unprovoked attack, and dialogue indicates the alliance persists past the very short war. Even after returning to Earth, while there's some initial discomfort about having Soviets in the conservative area in which they land, Jakov remains a committed Communist (though Malik quietly renounces Communism), and "Comrade" is readily accepted into, and a valued member of, the post-impact community.
  • Cold Sniper:
    • The survivors use these to guard their roadblocks. Try to take the guards hostage and Boom, Headshot!.
    • A group of teenagers becomes this after taking over a farmstead, shooting dead another farmer in the process (and nearly killing Harry). They’re eventually captured and executed by Jellison’s group.
    • Marie Vance surprisingly turns into one of these during the defense of the Stronghold against the New Brotherhood.
  • Comet of Doom: The Hamner-Brown comet itself. At first, no one thinks it is going to hit the Earth. But then the margin of error keeps getting smaller and smaller....
  • Covert Distress Code: There are two sentries guarding the settlement at any time: an outer sentry to talk to people trying to enter, and a hidden inner sentry who watches and guards the outer sentry. If the outer sentry raises both hands over his head, this is the signal for the inner sentry to shoot the person at the gate, presumably because that is the one gesture least likely to get you killed if someone is pointing a gun at you. Acts as a Shout-Out to Rudyard Kipling.note 
  • Cozy Catastrophe: At the end, one of the heroes is celebrating the fact that he and his family (and his friends) have survived the winter, everything's rebuilding, and the future looks bright. Never mind that billions of people are dead and the good guys have effectively organized themselves into a feudal holding... it's about the best that could have been hoped, really.
  • Cult Defector: Hugo Beck, who is forced to join the New Brotherhood Army after being ejected from the ranch community, eventually manages to flee — though not without having to kill his lover in the process. He’s still a pariah among Jellison’s group, since he ate human flesh to be indoctrinated into the New Brotherhood.
  • Dangerous Deserter: The former U.S. Army unit led by Sergeant Hooker. They killed their commanding officer and deserted when the comet hit; later, they turned cannibal and formed the beginnings of the New Brotherhood Army.
  • Dare to Be Badass: The story ends on a good one that's directed at the reader as much as the opposing characters; they can go home and fortify their feudal holding at the cost of the world's last nuclear power plant, or they can fight to protect and rebuild the civilization the comet destroyed.
    Delanty: Those are the choices. Go on and be good peasants, safe peasants, superstitious peasants — or have worlds to conquer again. To control the lightning again.
  • Depopulation Bomb: The tidal waves caused by the initial cometary impact wipes out most of humanity. In addition, any geological faultlines near an impact site let go completely, causing massive earthquakes and volcano eruptions (and for the purposes of the story, "nearby" means "within a thousand miles") killing many of those who survive the tidal waves. The water vaporized by the oceanic impacts condenses back into rains, causing massive flooding and destroying pretty much any dam still standing after the earthquakes, thus drowning many people too far from the coasts to be killed by the tidal waves. When you add to this onset of a new ice age caused by nuclear winter conditions, plagues caused by lack of modern medical technology and a shortage of medicine, famine, and the constant danger of bandits, it's a wonder anyone survives to the end of the book at all.
  • Divided States of America: The survivors, living in and around California's San Joaquin Valley, all make jokes about the five announcements they've received over short-wave radio, each proclaiming a different person President of the United States. The only one they give any level of credence to is the group in Colorado Springs because a) the person making the proclamation is the former Speaker of the House and thus might actually have legal authority and b) apparently NORAD survived and they still have nukes and working bombers. As far as they are concerned, Arthur Jellison (former US Senator and leader of the effort to organize and rebuild) is their leader. One person jokes that Jellison is "the Duke of San Joaquin." In the epilogue, after Jellison's death, Tim notes that Harvey and Maureen "would have to come to terms" with the Colorado Springs group, implying either that either they do have that authority or that they're powerful enough to be respected anyway.
  • Dramatis Personae: This is a Niven/Pournelle novel, so it has a cast of hundreds. Naturally, there is a list at the beginning of the book in case you get lost.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Where surviving the apocalypse is just the first step.
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: The Reverend Henry Armitage, former radio preacher and post-apocalyptic authentic whack-job, preaches against the evils of trying to rebuild a technological society rather than just accepting God's righteous punishment and allowing humanity to die. Oh, and being a murder/slaveholder/rapist/cannibal is okay, if you're on God's mission. The New Brotherhood believe him, mainly because they've all committed unspeakable acts and want to believe they've been forgiven.
  • Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex: There are several instances throughout the novel, which is unsurprising when it involves the survivors of an apocalypse.
  • Gold Digger: Marie Vance decides she's going to marry one of the most politically powerful of the survivors, and that she will convince him that she loves him for his whole life.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The manner in which Air Force General John Baker saves the nuclear power plant from the cannibal army.
    • Taking You with Me also applies to the same scene: "At the Academy, they taught us there was one sure way not to miss..."
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • A theme of the book. About the only "prepared" survivors, good and bad, who don't have part of their initial schemes blow up in their faces are Senator Jellison and Dr. Dan Forrester.
    • The Chinese government gets one of these, mixed with a massive Darwin Award. See Nuke 'em below.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: With a rapidly climbing threshold as conditions deteriorate. By the end of the book, one generally nice character is justifying slavery. One of the themes of the novel is that the good guys can only be as good as they can afford to be. They have to turn many survivors away from their fortified valley because there just isn't food to feed them all through the winter.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: They started doing it just because they were starving and there was nothing else to eat, but eventually the New Brotherhood starts using forced cannibalism as an Initiation Ceremony. "Eat or be eaten."
  • Jive Turkey: Most of the African-American characters sound like they stumbled out of a 1970s blaxploitation film. The novel was written in '77.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Tim's assistant Marty Robinson gleefully steals Tim's home and forces him back onto the road at gunpoint (while sinisterly offering to let his female companion stay) and gets away scot-free.
    • Several of the New Brotherhood's leaders (including Armitage and the cannibalistic Sergeant Hooker) survive the final battle. Though Armitage’s fate is left unknown, Hooker is revealed to have been captured in the epilogue.
  • The Last Dance/Dying Moment of Awesome:
    • Gil the Surfer. "If death was inevitable, what was left? Style, only style." And so he decides to surf on the tsunami about to destroy Los Angeles.
    • He would have been able to ride that wave as far as it took him (several miles inland) had it not been for an inconveniently placed apartment building. Niven has since stated that, if he was writing the novel now, he would have had Gil the Surfer survive the ride.
  • Love Triangle: One of these forms between Maureen Jellison, Harvey Randall, and George Christopher, the latter two of whom are in love with Maureen. Later becomes a love square when Maureen’s longtime lover, astronaut John Baker, enters the picture. Senator Jellison's aide, Al Hardy, also doesn't deny that he's in love with Maureen when confronted by Harvey, but admits freely that it means nothing; Maureen's husband will be the Senator's successor, and Hardy knows that can't be him. It resolves itself by the end: Baker is killed defending the nuclear plant, and Christopher is wooed by Marie Vance, leaving Maureen and Harvey together.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: One of the survivors is a novelist who writes science fiction. Whether he's based on Niven, Pournelle, or a combination of the two is up to the reader to decide.
  • The Night That Never Ends: In addition to the dust and debris thrown into the upper atmosphere, the massive amounts of water vaporized by the ocean impacts cause a perpetual 100% cloud cover (at one point in the book, it rains for a month) and thus a perpetual twilight. By the epilogue, the skies are beginning to clear again, though it still rains once or twice every day.
  • No Healthcare in the Apocalypse: Dr. Dan Forrester has Type 1 diabetes, so he needs a regular supply of refrigerated insulin to survive. After the title comet strike ends civilization (and electrical power for refrigeration), he has only a few weeks' worth to get by until someone will have to start making fresh insulin. Forrester actually has the know-how to be able to do it, but even when he makes it to Jellison's ranch, defending it and the power plant from the New Brotherhood means he has no time to do so at first. Tim mentions in the epilogue that Forrester died over the winter, a direct result of those events being higher priority than manufacturing insulin.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: The remnants of a National Guard unit start off only killing and eating people because they have a hard time finding anything to eat. Later, they descend into I'm a Humanitarian territory, and use forced cannibalism ("You can eat it, or you can be eaten. Your choice.") as a sadistic recruiting tool, since cannibalism "indelibly marks a person, on their soul," making said persons permanent pariahs to any "decent" folk.
  • Nuclear Weapons Taboo: Averted heavily due to Author Appeal.
    "People who wouldn't go near an atomic plant lived downstream from dams."
    • It's repeatedly referenced that if humanity had been just a bit more advanced - that is, just that much better at nuclear physics (and space development) - they would have been able to prevent the impact.
      "In ten more years we'd have been able to push the damned thing out of our way!"
  • Nuke 'em: The Chinese conclude that the Soviets that survive Hammerfall will need to migrate south to avoid future glaciers, and launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The Soviets are also aware that an impact will lead to an ice age and are thus not completely surprised by the attack, immediately using their own Nuclear Option and dropping their entire Cold War arsenal on China. The USA gets in on the action when the USSR asks for the US's help in nuking China. It's the Only Way to Be Sure.
    • Another "nuclear" option shows up in the climax of the book when the main characters resort to homemade poison gas to stop the cannibal army. The idea is roundly considered horrific, but saturating the completely exposed and surprised horde with mustard gas certainly does work...
  • One Degree of Separation: The novel focuses on characters who all know each other or are related in some way. This helps explain why they are all accepted inside Jellison's ranch when the majority of people who try are turned away. The heroes even know (or at least have met and have some knowledge of) the villains.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: In the face of a tsunami, the Burbank jail releases all prisoners except for rapist and murderer Fred Lauren. The trustee is content to leave Lauren to drown. When officer Eric Larsen, who'd arrested Lauren the night before, arrives at the jail and realizes all the other prisoners have already been freed, he just shoots Lauren and leaves.
  • The Scapegoat: Rather realistically subverted, as no one blames Tim for the comet’s impact. The closest anyone comes is Senator Jellison idly musing that Tim "wasn't lucky for the world," but he immediately adds that "discovery isn't invention."
  • Shown Their Work: Extensive and very impressive research means that the cometary impact and its aftereffects are described in brutal, loving detail.
  • Unstoppable Mailman: Not even Hammerfall is going to stop Harry the mailman from the completion of his appointed rounds.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • A number of characters disappear after the comet hits; many are never mentioned again. It can be assumed many of them died in the tsunamis and earthquakes following the strike.
    • The fate of Charlie Sharps and the JPL staff that followed him is left unknown.
    • In universe, Harvey Randall never finds out what happened to the looters using the blue van who killed his wife and stole all of his food and supplies, though the readers are told. They ran into Alim's group, who killed them all and torched the van with a Molotov cocktail before they knew what was inside it
    • The mouse? It was eaten, of course.