Review: Footfall

By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I read this book all the way through and I don't know why.

Wait, strike that. I do know why: I was in an airport and had eight hours of flight time ahead of me and didn't have a book. This forced me to stop in the Airport Bookstore to pick up a novel. Let's see... I don't want to read any of the five thousand different Stephen King novels, novellas, or short story collections. Nor the three thousand Dean Koontz books with his awkward dialogue and utterly implausable characters and forced love interests. Nor any of the two thousand different books that told the tale of some mercenary tracking down the last remaining Nazi, hiding in Brazil since 1943 who is about to take over the world. That's why.

Four things annoyed me in this book. First off there's the aliens. They're a race that looks exactly like elephants, but instead of a single snout, they've got a snout that splits in two, then two again, then two again, giving eight digits. I'm not the only one who found it hard to visualize a herd of elephants from outer space invading the Earth. But let's just say that sure, baby elephants living on another planet managed to evolve a grasping appendage. Okay. Then they became the dominant species. Okay. Then why do their rifles look almost exactly like Colt's or Remington's or whoever else makes guns? Just bigger to offset their size.

You might have heard of a theory called the six degrees of separation. It's best described as the Kevin Bacon game, where you pick a random person, say the best man at my wedding, and try to figure out how he could know someone like, say Kevin Bacon. My best man now works at Pixar and worked on A Bug's Life which had John Ratzenburger (best known as Cliff from Cheers) playing P.T. Flea (1). John Ratzenburger was in She's Having a Baby with Kevin Bacon (2).

Footfall takes this to absurd levels. Everyone knows everyone else in the world -- every human who is a key player in defending the Earth from this alien invasion, across states, across countries, across continents. For instance, the biker knows the reporter who was abducted who got it on with the Soviet space station commander while in alien captivity who was working directly under this Soviet astronomer who found out about the invaders from an American astronomer who was with the military woman whose brother-in-law is a general who is also an astronaut who hires the biker to help fix the American last-ditch effort to defeat the aliens. Well, let's look at the military woman again. She works with the science fiction writers, one of whom was brought to NORAD by the biker and another reporter. This reporter knows the survivalists, who also know the first reporter who was abducted and imprisoned with a Congressman who hired the biker to look over his house while the Congressman was on the Soviet space station and he was dropped off at the space station by the general who is also an astronaut who works with the President who has a Secret Service agent who is sleeping with the military woman whose sister is carrying on an affair with the second reporter who knows an environmentalist that discovers what the military is doing who knows the Congressman who knows the...

You get the idea.

Footfall itself. There's a big thing about how the next step in the invasion would be to drop a "dinosaur killer" onto the Earth. But there's no real reason to do so. The aliens are going to invade the planet. Naturally, the next step would be to drop an asteroid so big it would wipe out all life right? Huh? And we're given the alien's take on it. The ploy makes no sense. Yet the entire last fourth of the book takes place after this event has happened.

It's the science fiction writers who save the world. Imagine that. Two science fiction authors write a book about science fiction authors saving the world. All of the writers in this book are extremely irritating. Everything they say is correct. They know more about technology than people who actually develop and use technology. And they're so mellow, so cool, so laid-back as the aliens invade and conquer the planet: "Some of our resistance figthers were blasted from orbit? Anybody want another banana daiquiri?" As somebody else said, "Authors should make some effort to stay out of their own fiction unless they promise to maintain their objectivity."

So, what did I like about the book? Hard question. There was real science behind the fiction. There were some interesting characters and interesting scenes. However, the book seemed to revolve around three characters: Hairy Red (the biker who I didn't care about gets about 300 pages), Jenny Crichton (interesting but did out of character stuff), and Senator Dawson (who isn't a thing like his description on the "Enemies and Heroes" page). Any other character seemed to be briefly mentioned, then forgotton for two hundred pages when they'd suddenly be reintroduced. Intriguing side characters were introduced, but just as something interesting would happen to them, dull characters would start to appear. I wanted to know more about John Fox, but he only seemed to be in the book for a total of five pages. I couldn't care about the bookstore owner or any of his friends back in LA. His subplot didn't seem to do anything for story except to provide Jeri and Hairy Red someone else to know. He gets about twenty pages.

Oh, and there's just enough sex to remind you you're reading a Niven book. I wanted to use that sentence in this review, but couldn't find a good place for it. So I stuck it there. You're welcome. See also: Ringworld Engineers and The Smoke Ring.

Well written, but the closest it gets to the superior Niven/Pournelle collaboration Lucifer's Hammer is in the Science Fiction Arranged by Authors shelf in your local bookstore.