Where This Meets That
In the mid-1990’s, I helped to manage a pizza joint. One of the owners recommended that I read a book called Lucifer’s Hammer that depicted a comet striking Earth. It sounded interesting, so I kept it in mind but never read it.
Then, about a month ago, I took a couple of our kids to their first used book store. The instant we entered the store, Lucifer’s Hammer was the first title I saw.
On the cover was praise from Dune author Frank Herbert, declaring the book “the best end-of-the-world story since On the Beach.” Now, On the Beach is probably one of my favorite novels, so this was lofty praise. And it was on the bargain shelf, at $0.75. Deal!
The novel opens with the the co-discovery of a distant comet by two amateur astronomers. One is socially awkward Tim Hamner, a young and wealthy heir to a large soap company who, by way of his family money alone, is plugged into the upper crust of the Los Angeles social scene.
Hamner’s good-natured boasts at a party draw the interest of documentary producer Harvey Randall. Randall persuades Hamner to participate (and fund) a television documentary series about the comet, and it quickly becomes a big topic for water cooler conversation across the nation and world.
As the comet approaches, though, calculations and speculations begin to place Earth in the comet’s path. The prospect of the comet actually striking Earth becomes fodder for late night comedians, politicians, and religious extremists alike.
The first third of the book introduces a wide cast of characters and does an excellent job of pacing the story toward the strike of the comet. Due to Freudian slip on Hamner’s name by late night talk show host Johnny Carson, the comet becomes known as “The Hammer” by the time it arrives.
Roughly the middle third of the book depicts the comet’s arrival and immediate aftermath. Its final approach and impact is presented from the individual perspectives of many of the main characters, and each accounting is richly visualized, at times both mystical and utterly dreadful. Using a joint US-Soviet mission to Skylab aimed at studying the comet from space, the authors even give us an “eye in the sky” view on the whole disaster.
The collision, dubbed “Hammerfall,” instantly changes world geography, terminates most communication channels, and dissolves civilization. The balance of the book skillfully converges the disparate storylines established before “Hammerfall” into a suspenseful climax in which mankind’s remnant must choose between civilization and primacy as the road ahead.
Lucifer’s Hammer is part Armageddon-thriller and part thought-experiment. In a mathematical universe, ancient trajectories and velocities contrive to spell pre-destined doom. What if, God-forbid, a comet – or other significant celestial body – were to strike Earth today? What geographical, meteorological, moral and political changes would survivors face?
Behind an intelligent and plausible end-of-days portrayal, excellent pacing, and a solid cast of characters, Lucifer’s Hammer delivers a quality wallop of doomsday science-fiction.
Lucifer’s Hammer score: 3.5 Falcone Rings