Lucifer's Hammer by Larry NivenLucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle science fiction book reviewsLucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

When bored millionaire Tim Hamner discovers a new comet, he’s excited to finally accomplish something without the help of his family. Harvey Randall, who’s producing a TV documentary about the comet, expects his show to be wildly popular. And the American and Russian astronauts who are chosen to study the comet are proud to be chosen for such an important international mission.

All the experts said there was no way the Hamner comet would hit the Earth. But there are always plenty of people who are ready to panic — the type who start hoarding guns, ammo, and canned food. Then there are the types who are ready to prey on the panicky folks — doomsday cults declaring it’s the end of the world, or burglars waiting for the rich people to flee their expensive homes. When the comet does hit the earth, all those weirdos and the normal folks who are left must figure out how to survive on a destroyed planet. Faced with the stress of just trying to stay alive, will they become selfish and greedy, or will they work together to try to recreate their lost civilization?

Lucifer’s Hammer is an exciting post-apocalyptic story first published in 1977. It takes a while for the comet to hit as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle introduce us to a large cast of characters — Tim Hamner and his girlfriend who doesn’t want to marry him because she has career ambitions; Harvey Randall and his dumb wife who prepared for the end of the world by stocking her freezer and packing nail polish; a senator and his beautiful daughter;  a sociopath who’s stalking a young woman; a man who runs a nuclear power plant; two Russian astronauts and two American astronauts. And there are others. Though none of these characters are particularly interesting or likable, Niven and Pournelle do a good job showing us how the possibility that the world is ending affects each of them in different ways.

Once the comet finally hit, I was riveted. The action never let up. Natural disasters, the threat of world war, the fast decay of civilization — it all seemed so frighteningly possible. The catastrophe affected characters differently, seeming to strip off all the “civilization” they pad themselves with — the way they want to be perceived by others — and revealing the essence of who they really are. In Niven and Pournelle’s version of the end of the world as we know it, most humans immediately become selfish and cruel, unwilling to share food or shelter, and ready to kill those who may have something they want. Perhaps I have too much faith in humanity, but I had a hard time believing that we’d so quickly stop grieving and so quickly start turning on each other. Maybe I’m just naïve, but I’d like to think that, for most of us, such a huge tragedy would bring out empathetic cooperation rather than egocentric competition.

The authors do, however, make a good case for situational ethics, especially when dealing with such issues as biological warfare and slavery. As one character puts it, “A civilization has the ethics it can afford.” Even if I found it hard to believe, it did make me think about how our ethical standards might depend on the condition of our society, and it made me appreciate the society I live in.

Written by two middle-aged white men in the 1970’s Lucifer’s Hammer has some distasteful depictions of women and blacks. I suspect that the authors would say “but one of our astronauts is a woman and another is a black man!” and indeed they were probably the two most admirable characters in the book, but that wasn’t quite enough to make up for the ugly bits, especially the gang of black “brothers” who were the villains of the story.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version which is almost 25 hours long and is read by Marc Vietor who was excellent, as he always is. Though I have some complaints, the basic truth is that I was caught up in the exciting story and would recommend this audio version of Lucifer’s Hammer to anyone who enjoys post-apocalyptic disaster stories.

The gigantic comet had slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization. But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival–a struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known….


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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