Sharon Astyk is running a “Post Apocalyptic Book Club” over at Casaubon’s Book. The next book in line is Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven. She hasn’t started discussing the book yet, but I just finished it and had to write down some thoughts. If you haven’t read the book yet, there is spoiler-like material below, though there’s nothing that happens in the book that isn’t telegraphed way ahead of time.
Apologies to my friends that I borrowed for a thought-experiment – if you don’t like the role I assigned you, we can discuss it. You’re not locked in to anything until after we set up our anarcho-collectivist post apocalyptic society. There’s time.
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.
How “traditional” these roles are throughout human history is an area for debate, but these seem to be the basic assumptions of the Macho Fantasy. So I wondered, am I simply being a naive, silly female for thinking that this sounds nothing like reality as I know it, or reality as it would be in such a scenario?
This led me to a thought experiment – myself and my two closest female friends and our families, all trying to live together and create a viable life after the comet hits. So that’s me and Mr. Nettle; Mr. and Mrs. Wren and Wren Jr., a teenage boy; and Mr. and Mrs. Clover and Clover Jr., a young child. How would our various roles play out?
Well, Wren, Clover and I are not frail sexbunnies in need of male protection – Wren is a gentle soul, but would go all fierce if her family was threatened, and Clover and I are not particularly gentle souls to begin with. We are all strong sturdy adult women who are totally capable of protecting ourselves, and while the guys would certainly pitch in and help with protection, marauders would have more to fear from Clover, Wren and I. Of course, superior firepower would win the day, but that has nothing to do with gender roles – if anything, bringing guns into the equation levels the gender playing field by making sheer physical strength less important. Clover and I can both shoot, and Wren would learn. There is nothing gender-based about the ability to take out a target, and as I said, Clover and I surpass any of the men in natural ferocity (I think – I am prepared to be surprised.)
So I imagine defense would be a role that all would partake in, regardless of gender. OK, how about other skills?
Wren would be chatelaine, in charge of the food stores and menu planning – if food is in short supply, this is a hugely important role and requires careful planning and forethought. She’d do this well. Mr. Nettle would take care of home maintenance. He knows basic plumbing and such and is great at maintaining a clean and orderly home, both in terms of housecleaning and in keeping systems functional. Mr. Wren is a doctor, which is such a valuable skill that he could not only take care of our medical needs but be able to barter his services to the neighbors (assuming that they are not cannibals). Clover and I both have farming backgrounds and can handle the livestock chores, with everyone pitching in for the bigger jobs like haying or butchering large animals. Clover is also a blacksmith and farrier, which will also be useful both for us and for barter. Mr. Clover and I both know wild plants and foraging, and he and the Mrs are also excellent gardeners. Wren, both Clovers and I all have crafting skills for making useful items.
Wren Jr. would have to pitch in wherever needed – such is the lot of a teenager – but I assume he would eventually fall into some specialized role. Clover Jr. could help out with things like vegetable harvesting, foraging, and small animal care. There is a fourth member to the Clover household who I haven’t mentioned simply because I don’t know him well enough to know how he would fit in, but I’m sure it would be according to competency, just as for all of us.
I’m not sure who would be the “leader” – Wren, as manager of food stores, would have a level of authority (at least the authority to say “no” to anyone who wanted more than could be spared) and Mr. Wren, as someone who would be more mobile in the community due to his profession, would be to a certain extent the “public face” of my little imaginary extended family. I think we’d all discuss any major decisions outside of our little individual spheres of competence and come to some level of group consensus. I don’t see any one of us taking a “head of household” role.
Two things spring out of this little thought experiment – first, that among my close friends, roles do not play out according to the “traditional gender roles” of the macho fantasy. The idea of Clover, Wren or I clinging to a man for protection and aid is just laughable to anyone who knows us. If there is such a thing as girl-macho, my “end of the world” fantasy is definitely girl-macho, with us hardened pioneer chicks guarding our younguns and chickens with shotguns and large dogs. It’s probably every bit as silly as the boy-macho version. Second, I need to make a friend with construction and basic engineering skills. We need that for our little end-of-the-world homestead gang.
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.)
In unrelated news:
I was totally prepared to be all jaded and bored at the prospect of a Watchmen movie, since Hollywood always screws up Alan Moore’s material, and Watchmen is, like, the greatest comic book of ALL TIME so why bother making a movie of it – you don’t mess with perfection – but then I watched the trailer and OMG RORSCHACH and I fell into a nerdy little puddle. If you haven’t read the book then the trailer won’t make any sense, but if you have then here, swoon with me: hurm