Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Lucifer’s Hammer - Run, the Cannibals are Coming!

Sharon July 21st, 2008

Ok, I’m not going to try and pretend that I think this is a good book. In fact, I think it is a really, really dreadful novel.  Sufficiently so that sometimes it is funny.  So why am I making you read this? 

The thing is, if this was the “Post-Apocalyptic Novels Sharon Loves” book club it probably wouldn’t take us a whole year ;-).  A lot of the books are problematic, in part because it is really difficult genre to work in, in part because it is genre fiction - and even if genre writers are good (and some of them really, really are), they also come with genre audiences, and the *perception* of those audiences - particularly for older science fiction, we’ve got to remember that the widespread perception well past the 1970s was that the audiences were all teenage boys.  That means an enormous amount of pressure to write to teenage boys. 

But there’s more - Jerry Pournelle (who a friend of mine says “contaminates everything he writes”) is a serious survivalist - he edited a survivalist journal and a military technology person.  This novel doesn’t just represent an exploration of the issues, it represents advocacy for them - the idea that a disaster is going to be like this.  Because of this, I’m pretty ok with making fun of this book - besides the very 70s elements (which are funny), the messages are just downright appalling. 

I picked this book because people mention it a lot, which means a lot of people have read it - and I see it referred to periodically as evidence that “they” will come pouring out of the cities to eat us any time now, and thus we need to stock up on ammo and small personal tactical nukes.  I think the impact of this book has been far larger than it merits, and thus, I think it is worth talking about.

Ok, before I get serious, a brief interlude to make fun of this big wad of badness:

Now my own take is that my favorite part of this novel is the “genius astrophysicists will save us all” bit - which actually shows up in a couple of other novels. Now I actually had the foresight, when planning my bunker, to make sure that it contains an astrophysicist, and I recommend that all of you include one in your stocking up plans.  I often tell Eric that I married him primarily because of the Ph.d in Astrophysics, which means that he’ll be able to fend off marauding hordes and explain how to make everything - because, after all, we see in the novel that farmers are too dumb to realize that you can make bombs with fertilizers.  Woah - it is amazing what sciencey guys know!  Who coulda figured that out?

Other useful things you can learn from this book, if you are planning your bunker:

1. It helps a lot when you are trying to survive to bang a powerful person’s daughter.  Fortunately, this isn’t hard - the powerful person’s daughter is widely available and more than willing to spread it around - thus she can act as a pawn between the male elks banging their horns together and smile a lot.  Of course, you are most likely to get to do this if you are a tough journalist who can fly a copter, an astronaut, or a major local landowner.

2. Black people are very, very scary, unless they are in space.   Ideally they’d all be there, right?  They turn to cannibalism nearly instaneously - pretty much “Ok, we’re running short on cheetos - who do I eat first?”  They also like to set fires, torture people and do drugs, unless, of course, they are conveniently floating in space.

3. Women are good cooks.  They are also good at sex and having babies.  Occasionally one can ride a horse, drive a truck, go into space or do secretarial work - but these things rarely get in the way of their cooking, screwing and birthin’ babies.  Most of everything that happens after the apocalypse will not involve women much - fighting the cannibals is not a girlie job.

4. Chemical weapons and slavery are bad, of course, but because the enemy is going to be so totally, perfectly evil that they’ve passed humanity, it justifies what we do to them.  So mustard gas is definitely a good thing, and slavery is just what you gotta do - plus, with the slavery, they are mostly black anyway, so they’ll be used to it.  Definitely be prepared to use any means necessary, because the hordes will be inhuman.  Don’t worry about the morality issues.

5.  Farming is humiliating.  It would be worth any price to keep “the lightning” around, because otherwise, well, you’d be a farmer.  It would be wise, along with your astrophysicist, to keep a nuclear power plant in your yard, so that you don’t lose the lightning.  There will be, of course, no technical issues with keeping it going after a major asteroid strike. 

Ok, beyond mocking the book, I’m curious as to why people find this vision of the future so compelling - other than it looks like tv?  That is, it isn’t enough for there to be a disaster, there have to be clear “bad guys” to fight, and all the moral lines have to be unambiguous - if you are a good guy, you can enslave people, murder them, use chemical weapons and still be a good guy, because, well, you gotta.  And the bad guys where a giant flag that says “bad (very convenient when the flag is their skin color) guy”  Even when things do degrade into violence and war, which does happen, and is a legitimate scenario, it is rarely so clear cut.  Why are we so compelled to imagine that there will be actual wars with cannibal hordes? 

I have to say, I think this book and Heinlein’s _Farnham’s Freehold_ which both imagine African-American populations reverting rapidly to cannibalism are an example of just how terrifically *afraid* a lot of people are - that is, the idea that the people in cities are one disaster from coming out and eating us, literally devouring us is really just one step further from the widespread sense that we are one disaster away from people with guns coming to take our food.  I think the sheer level of fear of people in cities, especially non-white ones is really, deeply disturbing.

Margaret Visser, in her wonderful book _The Rituals of Dinner_ which is an exploration of the history of food sharing and table manners (totally fascinating book, btw) starts her discussion with an analysis of the rituals of cannibalism.  Cannibalism is a concept that we’ll see arising over and over again in these novels, so I think it bears some thinking about it.  And one of Visser’s central arguments is that cannibalism always lurks beneath the surface of our meals - that is, we are almost unaware of the degree to which our table manners and culture are constantly a reminder “I do not threaten you this way” - that is, much of our whole food culture is organized around NOT being cannibals.

 She says of the literary use of cannibalism:

Just because cannibalism has been so very successfully rendered taboo, it has always been one of the major “effects: a writer can rely one when he or she reaches for some fully fledged enormity, an atrocity to make our skins crawl.  For thousands of years cannibalism has seemed to us to be everything that civilization is not - which is why Homer’s hero Odysseus, in search of home, city, order and seemliness, must meet and vanquish such creatures as the cannibal Cyclops.  Cannibalism is a symbol in our culture of total confusion: a lack of morality, law and structure; it stands for what is brutish, utterly inhuman.  The idea is that, unlike cannibals, we are upright, orderly, enlightened, and generally superior.  But what we might use for symbolic purposes as an embodimnet of structureless confusion has nevertheless a basis in clear cold fact: cannibal societies have existed since time immemorial.  AS social beings, however, cannibals must inevitably have manners.  Whatever we might think to the contrary, rules and regulations always govern cannibal society and cannibal behavior.”

Visser goes on to observe that this is true even when the cannibals are very hungry - that cannibalism is always structured in ritual - it isn’t primarily a symbol of the breakdown of society.  In “Donnner Party” scenarios, people might eat the already dead, but the killing of human beings for meat is a very structured, acculturated process - but enormously taboo in our society.  So we symbolize it as the breakdown of everything, proof of inhumanity, but in fact, cannibalism is as mannered as our own table rituals, and in fact, a huge chunk of our dietary custom is designed - from our unwillingness to point knives at each other to the way we only ever use food terms for people’s bodies when we are being terribly derogatory.  That is, our customs say “we know, at some level, that  this could be us too” while our writings say that that’s impossible, we’re good guys.

One more fascinating point that Visser makes is that an exo-Cannibalist society (one where you don’t eat your friends and community members, just the enemies you defeat on the battlefield) *need* a continuing supply of enemies to devour - that is, they have to be warlike societies, constantly manufacturing reasons to go to war, because otherwise, the supply of meat dries up.  One of the fascinating things to me is that while we don’t eat people literally, we too have the same requirements - in our case, it isn’t our diet, but our economy, which is based on military Keynesianism (half the federal budget goes to warfare, and into the economy that way) is similarly dependent on enemies - that is, we’ve managed to make cannibalism utterly taboo, but not the culture that needs enemies to devour metaphorically just as badly.

Cannibalism is going to show up over again in this series - from Cormac McCarthy to SM Stirling, comparatively few of the writers can resist the chance to be this dystopian, to symbolize disaster so clearly.  I think when we see it, it is worth asking “What is the writer doing here?  Why cannibalism?  Do they need it as a symbol?  An exploration of fears?  Whose fears?”  It is worth asking also why the rush to respond to the disaster with the creation of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

 Thoughts?  I’ll be back with another post on this - could it happen?  My husband the science dude weighs in!  And more on limits.


26 Responses to “Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Lucifer’s Hammer - Run, the Cannibals are Coming!”

  1. Catharinaon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:07 am

    Hi Sharon,

    I allways thought I had not much chance at survival: mom of three little ones, bad health, wear glasses etc. But heee, I *am* an astrophysicist. So, I’m going to relax, stop preparing and just wait untill someone offers me a place in his stronghold. Until then I enjoy your bookclub ;-)


  2. Nettleon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:24 am

    I made a post about this book the other day on my blog at

    copying here part of that - the short version is yep, what Sharon said, only she said it better.

    Things I learned from Lucifer’s Hammer:

    1. Black people are primarily interested in drugs and sex. Oh, and cannibalism. Unless they are the token black in a largely white profession, in which case every single thought they have is “I’m a black person in a largely white profession!”

    2. Women are important sources of sex and sandwiches. The day after the end of the world, you can roll over and order a nearby woman to make you breakfast. She will. The she will have sex with you. Even highly educated women who are token females in a largely male profession can be counted on to get the coffee for the menfolks.

    3. Nuclear power will save us all, in deus ex machina fashion.

    This book is so incredibly dated in style that I imagined all the appliances as being avocado green, all the carpet as orange shag, and all the men as Disco Stu. This could have been entertaining had the whole story not been so dull. The one positive side of having a high number of unlikeable characters in a disaster novel is that you can count on a number of them dying horribly, but Niven didn’t kill off nearly as many of these awful people as he should have. Too many of them lived for too long, with their boring internal monologues intact. At one point, I was rooting for the cannibals, just because they were at least interesting in their horribleness. Occasionally some interesting characters or points turn up, but anything with potential is not followed through (the feral Boy Scouts had potential, and the PTA mom-turned-postapo hellbitch was awesome - both were abandoned by the plot, as were the interestingly complex internal politics of the Stronghold.) The pre-Hammerfall section of the book was the dullest - how many pages can you get of “Hmm, will we get hit by a comet?” Especially when you already know from the back cover that the answer is “Yes.” Yet, the final climax, the war to save the power plant from the lefty environmentalist religious cannibals (yes, Larry, we get it, thanks), felt rushed and tacked-on.

    I could have forgiven the blatant sexism and racism as products of their time if the writing had been better and the story had been gripping, but with the poor writing and the glacially-paced storytelling, there was no way around it. It was hard to take any of it seriously as an image of the end of the world because they characters were so unrealistic, but I think I understand why Sharon chose it. It exemplifies a certain macho fantasy End of the World - where men will be men, women will make sandwiches, and civilization will rise from the ashes led by middle and upper class white men.

    Part of the Macho Fantasy is that society will revert to “traditional gender roles” because of biological nature. Traditional gender roles are assumed to mean that women will prepare food, tend children, trade sex for food, status and protection, and be totally invisible in community leadership. Men will make the important decisions, be the visible faces of the community, trade, hunt, do the heavier agricultural chores, and protect the women and children from thieves and rapists.

    (…editing out speculation about how my friends and I would do after the comet hits - fine for my blog but irrelevant to the discussion here, except this last bit:)

    Of course, we’d all die anyway in spite of our useful skills because we’d be unable to grow any food in the first season after the comet hits, due to the week of heavy salt rain from the ocean impacts. We would not be able to miraculously come up with a way to grow food in salted earth like the Lucifer’s Hammer people did (this was never explained, though I assume that a Scientific Genius thought something up, since that’s how it works for everything else in the book.)

  3. […] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Lucifer’s Hammer - Run, the Canni… Ok, I’m not going to try and pretend that I think this is a good book. In fact, I think it is a really, really dreadful novel. Sufficiently so that sometimes it is funny. So why am I making you read this? Foraging Prepper: Busy Weekend… July 20th, 2008 […]

  4. Susan in NJon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:39 am

    Some unorganized comments:
    My brother’s an astrophysicist — and a ham radio operator, but otherwise suffers from theoretical scientist brain drift (aka absentminded professor syndrome) — I love him and would certainly let him into my bunker but he’s not the magician I would pick to save the world.
    I read this book a couple of years after it was written and all I remembered before I read it again was buying out all the spices and fancy alcohols and picking the nuke over a cure for diabetes. When I read TMIAHM (before Sharon posted) and was trying to figure out how it fit with the Wasteland (which I remembered nothing about except the footnotes) and LH, I thought well, the genius dies in both (mike/Dr. Shepherd) and so does the “king” (Prof., Jellison) — do we have a fisher king/wasteland/grail thing going on here (P.D. James in Children of Men certainly has it).
    I re-read the book because someone mentioned cannibals from the ghetoo and I couldn’t place it in my memory of the book. I found the first half of the book pretty tedious (cocktails and affairs, 70’s novel conventions). I was struck by the portrayal of the heoric dedicated nuclear power operators and construction people — struck with guffaws. I spent a year at a nuclear construction site and would have reached a different characterization even though I respect a lot of the people I worked with.
    There’s a lot of literary/history deconstruction literature about the use of cannibals as a signifier for the unknown terror, an indicator of extreme fears. I think you summarize it well. I like your analogy to the military/industrial politics. But it’s not just blacks (whether American, African or elsewhere) who are seen as reverting to cannibalism — a movie from approximately this period had Japanese WWII soldiers under assault reverting to cannibalism. It becomes a way, as I think you indicate, to characterize an enemy as beyond the pale, contaminated, inhuman and also a way to portray a survival situation beyond the commonplace. Our historical fascination with the Donner party, and the ’70’s era (? I’m hazy on timeframe) fascination with the Andes crash survivors come to mind.
    Not too useful as blueprint in my mind, but I do think this is the way a lot of people imagine a survival situation.

  5. Hausfrauon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:51 am

    Why do men have to fantasize so much about helpless, compliant women? Is it because they feel so helpless and compliant?

    Men don’t have as much opportunity to get their aggression/energy out anymore - not in public anyway. They are not “needed” as much by women who can make their own money and who don’t want kids, thank-you-very-much. They are not usually working independently or being heroes. A lot of them are working in boring jobs they don’t like very much for too many hours, sitting fuming in traffic, answering to bosses, and then watching TV. Am I being too stereotypical here?

    The post-apocalyptic world provides the PERFECT setting to actually be a red-blooded strong fearsome male! Now, women need protection! Hunting needs to be done! Bad guys need to be fought off! And as a prize, they not only survive but get a sexy woman and some marvelous lightning. Thus, they fulfill their destiny.

    The part I hated most about the book was how the violent cannibals somehow turned into lefty environmentalists. WTF? Why on earth would you risk all that you have left for some freakin’ electricity? I think that’s the question we should all be asking ourselves right now.

  6. Ailsa Ekon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:54 am

    Most of what I would say about the book would boil down to a couple of paragraphs of jumping up and down and screaming. One pet peeve of mine, though - the situation is dire enough to provide all the tension we need, why do writers insist on throwing in eeeeevile villains as well?

    Six fatal words about any book - I don’t care about these people. And DH & I have been laughing at the idea that the entire East Coast would be gone for years. That one line destroyed my suspension of disbelief. Have Niven or Pourmelle ever been to the East Coast? Outside of New York or Boston Worldcons, that is?

    I don’t believe in this view of disaster. I just don’t.

    “Lefty environmentalist religious cannibal” *giggle* I want a button of that.

  7. Rosaon 21 Jul 2008 at 11:11 am

    Okay, I have to admit I haven’t read the book. I thought I had, but the one I read was Footfall (I thought, why would Sharon recommend a book about aliens shaped like elephants?). Our public library didn’t have this one, and the science fiction bookstores didn’t have it used.

    Just from the description, though, I do see the influence. It just makes me appreciate the people from the same era who *weren’t* like that more (has anybody read Piercy’s Dance the Eagle to Sleep? I assume people have read Ecotopia, mostly) and also the men now with the courage to step out of that fantasy. I guess I can see why it would appeal to some people…but not why it would appeal to so *many* people. Do they all imagine they’d be top dog?

    I don’t think it’s fair to lump The Road in there so much - the cannibalism there was so widespread, it wasn’t used as an othering device…and the baby-eating, at least, seemed like an obvious metaphor.

  8. Sharonon 21 Jul 2008 at 11:27 am

    Rosa, I actually think it was used as an othering device in _The Road_, although in more complex and subtle ways than in Lucifer’s Hammer (gee, do we think Cormac McCarthy might be a better writer…hmmm…. ;-)). And I agree it is also a metaphor.


  9. Meadowlarkon 21 Jul 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Shoot me now. I enjoyed it. Like watching a good, campy 1970s movie. Which is exactly how it was paced… it had to have been written with the idea of eventually becoming a screen play.

    I LOVED the idea of storing important stuff (books!) in the sewer/cistern. :) And the whole “I’m holding the rest of the books hostage, because I am the only one who knows how to do this stuff”. Brilliant!

    And I was envious of the cool-guy stronghold that they lived in… out in the middle of nothing? That is TOTALLY my dream place. In my dreams I was the cool little girl who rode my horse all over the place and was really important. (In reality, can’t ride a horse to save my ass)

    Crazed religious nuts? Always good for something. Their attempts to destroy evil (aka: nuclear power and light bulbs!) was classic.

    Women as sexual objects? What the heck… everybody is looking for a hot congressman’s daughter. You know it. I know it. Luckily, it will end up that nearly everybody is able to pair off with an equally attractive mate. Handy for repopulating the world, don’t you think?

    And any story where people stockpile liquor? I’m all for it. You should see my basement whiskey supply. And I don’t even DRINK whiskey…but stockpiling gin seemed a bit out there. Who’s ever seen a snakebite victim given a shot of gin. No, whiskey is what’s gonna save ya.

    So that’s my take. It was a quick, beer-in-hand read. It had humor, sex, violence, campy acting… I loved the boy scout son with his “woman”… although the old guy with the young chick made me throw up just a bit in my mouth.

    So count me in as the weirdo that thoroughly enjoyed this. As far as any value? Well, it reminded me I need more pepper. And validated my whiskey experiment. Beyond that… not much.

  10. PBJon 21 Jul 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Say, has anybody read Suzy McKee Charnas’s _Motherlines_ series? To me this is feminist SF at its best–a total takedown of the patriarchal, militarist, misogynist assumptions behind most science fiction. It’s beyond great. Makes you think, makes you squirm, makes you read into the wee hours.

    She confronts the whole cannibalism-as-othering-technique head on. I won’t say more because I’d hate to spoil it for any potential readers, but I’d like to ask: how does breastmilk fit in to this discussion?

  11. Sarahon 21 Jul 2008 at 12:29 pm

    To bring this back to our previous author for a moment, I think I blame reading “Stranger in a Strange Land” at an impressionable age on the fact that I *don’t* have a strong cannibalism taboo. Killing people and eating them is definitely wrong, because killing people (other than in very specific and unfortunate self-defense circumstances) is wrong. But I rather liked the idea that the Martians eat each other because they are on a *higher* level of civilization.

    I thought that a large part of the need to have an Eevil Bad Guy was to give the Heroes(TM) something they were capable of fighting against. Pournelle definitely wanted Heroes, who would Win, rather than people struggling nobly against overwhelming odds. The disaster is something that the men are, when it comes down to it, utterly powerless against. Powerless men do not enter into Pournelle’s universe. Unless possibly they’re black and have been properly subdued.

    My entire extended family certainly has a critical mass of physicists, computer scientists, and engineers, though I don’t think we have any astrophysicists, per se. Aerospace engineers might come close enough. Come the apocalypse, I will definitely make a note to start sleeping with my cousins ;-)

  12. Sharonon 21 Jul 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Meadowlark, despite the fact that I think it is a bad book, I agree that it is also fun in a campy way. I liked your review a lot.

    I, on the other hand, am way heavier on the gin than the vodka!


  13. rdheatheron 21 Jul 2008 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve bogged down before the comet’s even hit! But now I might just start skimming and slow down for the good bits-ghetto cannibals and the feral boy scout sound interesting.

    And as far as I’ve made it, all the women are super attractive. So apparently if you just look average as a woman, it’s not good enough? Or maybe we’re saved for the cannibals?

  14. Susan in NJon 21 Jul 2008 at 1:38 pm

    PBJ — I was trying to remember the book name and author of Motherlines when Sharon was asking for suggestions. I agree that it’s a total feminist takedown that makes you squirm but keeps you reading. In its own way, it would be a good pair for Lucifer’s Hammer because it’s so totally the opposite

  15. Meadowlarkon 21 Jul 2008 at 1:48 pm

    PBJ… breastmilk. Reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath. Now THAT is a book about struggle and survival. And the end literally made me weep… for lost children and for lost chances. But also for the generosity of mankind.

  16. Sharonon 21 Jul 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Breastmilk is, of course, the great cannibalism undoer/cannibalism metaphor. Visser really is worth a read here.


  17. Texicalion 21 Jul 2008 at 6:56 pm

    One interesting quote for me was “They hate what they’re doing, but look nostalgically at the “simple” life. Of course they won’t voluntarily choose to be farmers or live in communes, but if everybody has to…” Which I think illustrates the point of view of many. Another perspective (which I think is actually closer to that of the authors) is shown in their contempt for those who actually farm. They create a world in which the farmers will get them through the crisis but they are forced to risk everything for the non-farmers to preserve the nuclear plants that will keep non-farmers children from having to farm. If you are a person in power, or one who is wealthy, you like Hamner have money that keeps you from having to “do” things. The destruction of this world where you and your children can dream of not having to do something useful is the utmost calamity, not the loss of millions of lives.

    Hmm, cannibalism. I do agree that it is used as an “othering” device, but frankly I am not too upset at the thought of it. I am entirely sure where this perspective comes from, maybe a general “waste not, want not” attitude. I don’t believe in killing folks to eat them, but if I was starving and I killed a healthy looking marauder in self-defense… Certainly I would not be opposed to feeding such a person to the wild javelinas that I keep on my fantasy survivalist ranch.

    I also agree that most of the female characters were terrible, especially Maureen (but she was worthless even before the comet hit). Eileen was actually pretty good, as was Marie Vance until she decided to get herself George Christopher. I am curious to read a feminist depiction of a somewhat similar scenario. My perspective on some of these things comes from watching a couple of “reality” shows on PBS. One was called Pilgrim House (or something similar) where they recreated a eastern colony. The women folk included a professor’s wife and someone fitting the “strong liberated woman” stereotype. Which meant that they spent most of the show complaining about having to do “womens work” and when they went to do outdoor work they were pretty much useless. My point is not to raise an argument about stereotypes, but to ask: In a collapse scenario, where few people have any experience doing something useful, how do you quickly organize society? An authority figure would likely be identified, and work would largely be passed out based on past experience, but lacking that it would largely be based on gender roles. Growing up my family helped build our house. My mother, sisters and female friend provided food and did the detail work (painting, filling nail holes, etc.). My mom and sisters were strong and capable people, but they couldn’t lift the weight that they guys could. I can certainly see a future in which women are more highly valued for their contributions, but functionally that will often involve “domestic” work. As for all the sexual escapades not terribly likely.

    Which brings me to a tidbit about sex. The whole first half was a tedious bore, especially the bit about the sexual predator. However, it served to illustrate the authors attitude towards sex. “Real men” want sex with easy women all the time. The predator was not a real man, not viral, had been sodomized in prison, etc. He killed the beautiful woman when she inexplicably expressed an interest in having sex with him, thus making her a whore in his mind. But real men don’t care, they sleep with everyone. Why exactly do both books include prostitutes? Because both books have “real men”, who need sex to stay under control. In this way the book is as insulting to men as it is misogynistic towards women.

    All that being said I enjoyed it. I mostly read non-fiction, so it was a bit of escapist fantasy with the added benefit of getting to hear what other folks think of it.

  18. Texicalion 21 Jul 2008 at 7:51 pm

    One other thing (as if that last bit wasn’t already to long), what do people think of “Civilizations have the morality and ethics they can afford”? Sharon talked about it at the top with slavery and chemical weapons, and clearly it seems our own wealthy civilization could afford more in the way of morality and ethics if this were true. But my interest is in the grey areas: looting after a natural disaster to obtain what you need to survive, squatting on unused land, seizing the land of those who seem to have too much, etc. Are these examples of subverting an oppressive power dynamic that places too much emphasis on personal property, or simply not being able to afford the morality and ethic any more?

  19. Jerahon 21 Jul 2008 at 8:54 pm

    VERY good question, Texicali. My thoughts (or rather question) exactly. It seems to me that societies facing protracted economic/societal collapse, such as certain places in Africa right now, revert to clan/family politics and hierarchies. Even in poor neighborhoods in this country, you can see it: your family matters first. If your cousin gets a job at the foodstamp office, you better believe he’s going to give you and your sisters first stab at the foodstamps. He might get caught, since this is the USA, and we have laws against that, but what if someone from Ethiopia gets a job at the food stamp office? Then he’ll get his cousins from Ethiopia jobs at the foodstamp office, and they give their cousins jobs, and pretty soon only Ethiopians are receiving food stamps in the South Bronx and everyone else gets pissed. But he’s just doing what he has to, according to the (some would say post-apocalyptic) rules he grew up with. It’s his duty.

    Your allegiances have to change, when your responsibility to “society” is defined down to smaller and smaller increments of society.

    I think we’re still, as a society, trying to figure out what that means. I mean, we live in such a large, complex society, and the rationale for our allegiance to that society is starting to fray around the edges. We realize that the status quo is bs, basically. Society isn’t going to take care of us, of our families, of even our food or drinking water. So back in the 70s we started realizing that, and worked through the problem with our little sex-crazed reptilian brains. And wrote books like this. :)

    My favorite, favorite part is when the hippie commune guy joins the rest of the manly survivors (to go protect the nuclear plant, I think), and makes a big speech about why he was SO misguided and his marxist communal living arrangement was such a bust. It’s such a clearly conservative morality play, it’s ridiculous. Not only did this guy’s liberal eco-commune fail, but he had to apologize endlessly in the book for ever having been a liberal, just so he could join the cool survivalist group. Sheesh.

    But yes, I have to admit, I read the whole thing in 2 and a half days. I ate it up like candy, it was so much FUN. It was really the disaster book of the year for me. So far. :)

  20. Meadowlarkon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:34 pm

    Gender roles: OK, so I’m a former Marine and a farm girl married to a city boy (and former Marine, now a SWAT guy). Gender roles? We ain’t got no stinkin’ gender roles.

    That said… he couldn’t cook decently to keep us from rioting. I don’t clean house well enough to save us from a plague (ok, the main cooties are gone, but what’s one more stack of really important papers on the kitchen table?).

    Guns? We both fired expert. Killing stuff… he couldn’t stand to slaughter a rabbit. And don’t ask him about eating gristle… or heart or liver or anything “gross” - that’s farm girl stuff, apparently.

    Sex? Um. Yeah. Ok. Next question.

    Cannibalism? I’m not going to starve. Period. And my babies? (now grown up adults) Not going to starve. Period. Society’s stigmas belong to society, not me.

    And yet… ok, bear with me… I’m a terribly submissive girl by nature. I’m happiest with a man who will take care of me and take care of all the ‘ugly’ realities of life. So shoot me. I said it. Although I seem to fit with the “independent woman who can kick ass” I actually enjoy having someone else take care of what I call the “shit decisions” while I get to worry about dinner and the garden and “leading from the rear”. Which is no less difficult, but the other stuff (is the air conditioner working?) is just totally not my thing. My form of “submission” is to pawn off the yucky jobs to a guy and do the “girly” stuff myself. I hate to lead… but when everybody else wusses out, I’ll lead from behind and make sure things go the way they’re supposed to.

    Any takers on THIS argument? :)

  21. Texicalion 22 Jul 2008 at 12:05 am

    Heh, that is quite an argument and I don’t strictly disagree. I think there is a mis-perception about what gender roles signify and where agency resides. I will return to the character of Mare Vance (please do not take any offense to comparisons). She was the backbone of the rear guard action ostensibly led by the Mark Randall character. She was perhaps the most fearsome character in the story. You did not doubt that she would find a way to survive. Yet, she seems to get lumped into the worthless women characters because she is a manipulator who provides sex to the guys. One might wonder if instead the guys are providing sex for her. We all manipulate to some extent as a means of producing our preferred outcomes. I clean the house, do dishes, laundry, and bake. My wife cooks. I could cook, but we both eat better when she does. So most of the time I don’t try terribly hard to make the meals I cook memorable. It is more of a stopgap thing when she is too tired. Why? I don’t like to cook, and their isn’t much point in trying to create a subversive home culture where the guy does all of the house work. Besides she has a better sense of taste and smell, so she has a much better sense of spice. I guess my point is that rather than blasting the book, we might better engage with what is actually contained. Looking not at the poor writing, lousy politics, and seemingly sexist characters (though these all get in the way); but instead engaging with what useful characters and nuggets of information might be squirreled away in the bullshit.

  22. AnnaMarieon 22 Jul 2008 at 5:40 am

    It’s kind of funny but the one point I remember time and again from this book was the guy who very quietly and neatly double bagged all his books of knowledge and hid them for future generations. He knew his skills were nil but his mind was top notch and protected himself with books as his barter.

    This has always been my excuse for buying more books. That and they make great insulation when stacked against exterior walls *g*

  23. Sharonon 22 Jul 2008 at 7:49 am

    I think the problem with Marie Vance, who is by far the most interesting woman in the book, is not that she ends up with George Christopher - there’s really nothing empirically wrong with wanting to be the power behind the throne, even though we much prefer women who want the front role. Personally, I would prefer that myself in such a scenario (I’d prefer not to have to marry the person, just write her speeches and help with strategizing). The problem with Marie Vance, IMHO, is that the book spends a lot of time telling us she isn’t really important - think about how her role in the battle is treated vs. the men who do pretty much the same thing. That said, however, I think she’s the most interesting female character in the book - and since the men aren’t that interesting, that puts her ahead of most of them. But what is done to denigrate her is, I think, more subtle than what is done to denigrate most of the other women - but I do think it is there.

    Re: Cannibalism - as a purely practical strategy, it isn’t one that I’d recommend. The reason is the transmission of prion diseases - the eating of human flesh spreads prion diseases pretty rapidly, and saving your kids to having their brains rotted out have them die a few years later doesn’t seem like a great trade off to me - although I’m not swearing I wouldn’t do it. Just that if there’s any other choice, I don’t recommend it. But I also think that culturally, we have to distinguish between two kinds of cannibals - those who eat their dead, and those who kill people to eat them. What is supposed to disturb us about these cannibals is that the population got stripped - there are PLENTY of dead people around to eat if you are hungry (and we’ll see this in Stirling’s book in September) - but people seek out living human beings and kill them to eat, presumably because it is more fun. This, IMHO, should be taboo - that’s one of those good cultural reasons for taboos “Hmmm…plenty of meat sources around, but Steve, you just look so good…”

    Texicali, I agree with you and Jerah that morality to some degree is situational - that’s real. On the other hand, when I wrote about the sheer othering quality of the cannibals I was thinking mostly of Richard Slotkin’s terrific book _Gunfighter Nation_ - he argues that the narrative of American history in both film, books and in life is that we want to be just, we want to fight “fair”, we want not to torture and exterminate, but the sheer evil of the other and their evil techniques means we have no choice. It is always the case that heroes can maintain their heroicness, even though they use the most horrifying methods imaginable, simply because they don’t really want to use them. So yes, there is such a thing as situational morality - but I’m reluctant to leap immediately to those scenarios, precisely because I think America from its very inception has always chosen situational morality, even when there was no justification for doing so. We are trained, very carefuly trained by our culture, to look at the “enemy” or the “other” or our neighbors and find a justification for using the most extreme possible methods.

    Meadowlark, I think sexual roles are complicated. Writing submissive women doesn’t in itself make you a bad writer, or make your book sexist - I think it is easy to reduce the discussion to that level, but that isn’t the issue. For me, the issue is the relationship the book itself has to its own female characters - the way it looks at them, the way it constructs them, and a host of other things that make this book stupid and piggish. I’ve argued several times that PO is likely to put more women into the home and back into traditional roles - the simple material realities of transport costs eating up second incomes, for a start, and later on the reality that people won’t be able to afford formula or pricey breast pumps, and women in their childbearing years will need to be near their kids. I don’t have a problem with that analysis. The question for me is whether those roles make you into a particular kind of person - inevitably, without nuance.


  24. Green Assassin Brigadeon 22 Jul 2008 at 9:53 am

    I’ve joked before on other blogs that I would eat my neighbours if need be to keep the “good’ food for my little ones, morals be damned. In fact I would consider it disrespectful to kill some one and waste the meat, I’ve always been taught only shoot what you can use, not that I’ve shot more than a few birds.

    The automatic assumption however that people would go canibal is simply stupid, people all over the world starve daily yet don’t take this leap. But environmentalist canibals do make sence in the writers eyes because they are already morally and mentally weak people who reject progress therefore must be capable of any other heinous atrocity. This lack of reason makes them less than human so it’s ok to gas them.

    I do have problems with the idea of moral vs immoral weapons. Would I be less outraged if a gun not gas killed my family?

    The decision to take a life is the most serious of choices and I don’t think the manner death really matters, a slow bleeding gut shot is no more humane than gas would be. The distinction between gassing a population and a battlefield is huge, the distinction between gassing a battlefield or shooting combatants on it is slim if it exists at all, your still killing.

    While not a popular vision I see slavery which has been a “normal” part of most our historical culture as almost innevitable in such a disaster. The needy will be preyed apon in some cases and socieity which would not have the resources to support prisioners will have little choice but kill them or enslave them to do the dangerous jobs no one else will willingly do but society would need done.
    People are not noble and will quickly revert to less than moral institutions.

    It’s funny how the reformed environmentalist from LH is so similar to the reformed environmentalist from Footfall, I don’t mind these writers but they do seem to have an issue with the green types and with altering their world view even in the slightest to make a story different. Lazy lazy lazy!

  25. Nettleon 22 Jul 2008 at 10:35 am

    I alternated between being amused and infuriated with the way the hippie commune people were treated. I laughed when the postman reminds them that no civilization means no rolling papers, they look all chagrined, as though Advanced Pipe Technology was out of their reach. The woman in the commune was especially badly treated - being both female and an environmentalist, she was left with no humanity at all. As Sharon points out, the dehumanizing of women has nothing to do with what jobs they do in the community - it’s in how the book treats them. I think it’s a red herring to say that the issue lies in who does the cooking; the issue is, who gets to be a person?

    I had one giant “huh?” moment when the guy who escapes the cannibals comes to warn the Good Guys about the freaky Others in the woods (sorry I can’t remember the names - the book already went back to the library.) It’s clear from his story that he was forced to participate in cannibalism, and that he went through great personal risk to get the word back to the Stronghold. Instead of thanking him for his heroism and accepting this guy, who has proven loyalty and survival skills, back into the fold, the Alpha Male says, “You know you can’t come back here after that.” And the escapee accepts that. Everyone accepts it, as though it’s a given that there is a permanent Mark of Shame on anyone who has eaten people-meat, whatever the reason. It seems oddly religious for a bunch of survivalist technophiles to just accept that there’s this metaphysical moral breach that occurs regardless of the situation. Where did this moral code come from?

  26. Fernon 23 Jul 2008 at 7:50 pm

    “Mom, I hate Grandma’s guts!”

    “Then have seconds on the peas.”

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