Footfall by Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle, 1985

Footfall by Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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During the 1980's two science fiction writers got together and developed a loose formula for exploiting their different skills in writing modern genre fiction. These two were Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and for a time the books that they co-wrote dominated the best seller lists. Together, and occasionally with other writers, the two restarted the genre by going back and creating what they hoped would be masterpiece level entries for major sub genres of SF. In my opinion they never really did reach the masterpiece level with any of their books, but many disagree with me, and I have to say that they did come quite close. Together they wrote if not masterpieces, at least quintessential books about interstellar colonization (The Legacy of Heorot), comet-strikes-the-Earth (Lucifer's Hammer), rampant Luddism (Fallen Angels), archologies (Oath of Fealty), first contact (The Mote in God's Eye), and this one, Footfall, maybe their best, maybe not, about alien invasion. What really makes this one different is that it applies almost a Clancyesque approach to a Heinleinian style and provides a real edge-of-your-seat-thrill-ride, if you will pardon my descent into cover blurbs.

One thing you may want to know before you read this book; its truly massive. Niven and Pournelle really take well to the task of giving an excellent alien invasion novel. This one succeeds in dealing with the topic on a truly global scale. Its one of those books that has a "Dramatis Personae" list that is at least five pages long, and depicts conflict on multiple terrestrial and near space battlefields. The story is basically this: A race of elephantine creatures from the direction of Centauri, called the Fithp, were forced off of their home planet after a civil war. Desirous of a planet to colonize, they headed for Sol, knowing that intelligent creatures lived on the Earth and planning on using us as slaves. They approached and immediately attacked, wiping out Earth and Space based infrastructure and defense with kinetic energy weapons and high-powered lasers. After beating us back basically to the stone age they attempted a landing in Kansas (Niven's alma mater was KSU), but were pushed out with a joint Soviet/American nuclear attack. The Fithp afterwards made a showing of strenth by dropping an enormous solid metal asteroid in the Indian Ocean, called "The Foot," then landing in South Africa after its lowlands were inundated. There the Fithp gained significant ground before a final battle in space between their mother ship, the Message Bearer, and an Orion-style space craft of American construction that was lifted with nuclear bomb detonation.

The action in this book is modeled on campaign style warfare from WWII, but had lots of guerrilla combat too, and all of it was exciting. But my personal favorite part of this book were the Fithp themselves, which Niven and Pournelle put significant effort into developing. The Fithp physically resembled small elephants with multi-tentacled trunks for tool manipulation. An interesting picture of one adorns the cover of almost every edition of this book that I have ever seen. Like terrestrial pachyderms the Fithp were herd creatures. That outlook permeated their entire psychological make up. Every aspect of their culture was rooted in each Fi's (singular of Fithp) individual place in the herd. They were all individuals that were capable of independent thought and action, but failure either to follow a superior's orders or to even forget for a moment about the needs of the herd were unforgivable acts to the Fithp. Now, that being said, there were basically three loosely defined groups of on the Fithp ship, Message Bearer. The ship itself took almost 75 years to travel from Centauri. While en route most of the Fithp slept, but some had to remain awake to run the ship. The opinion among those that remained awake diverged from the sleeper's opinion. They thought the risk of invading Earth too great, and so when they woke the sleepers, they took their surrender through a Fitph ritual and politically dominated the entire herd. Surrender was another odd characteristic of the Fithp. For a Fi, when surrender was given it was total and life long. A surrendering Fi would be incorporated into his master's herd, first as a slave, then eventually as a member. But the way that humans surrendered created lots of chaos for the invaders who could not ever quite get their heads around being attacked again by someone who had already given up.

Despite the spacer's ascendancy the invasion occurred anyway. It was just too much of a political hot-potato for the spacers to put off. In essence the spacer herd-master capituated to the sleeper's will. In addition to the sleepers and the spaceborn there was also the Dissidents, made up mostly of the "Year Zero Fithp," (those born as the Message Bearer entered Sol system, who instead of favoring ship borne life like the sleepers, wanted to leave and find and uninhabited planet to take for their own. This division in the ranks never really caused a true schism in the Fithp, but the herdmaster felt the deep psychological need to care for the entire herd, and as a result of the division he felt restrained in making harsh decisions that favored one group over another. In essence, political and military control was significantly weakened. To compound the confusion, the sleepers and the spaceborn were on different mating cycles, and went into season at different times. In the Fithp both sexes went into season as the same time, but as the sleeper females went into estrous, the invasion really got going, driving most of the males mad including the spaceborn who were ordinarily on the same cycle as spaceborn females.

More than their psychological make up, the Fithp were a very naive race of beings, most probably because of the way their science developed. Millions of years prior The Fithp were pets to a race of beings called the Predecessors. The Predecessors developed a very high technology, but as a result of carelessness they poisoned their environment and killed themselves off. They left a large series of laser carved stones, called collectively "Thuktunthp," which pretty much gave their entire technology from fire and the wheel all the way up to advanced alloys and ramjets. The Predecessors gave the Fithp a slight genetic nudge as they themselves passed into extinction, hoping that natural selection would chose the Fithp to replace them. As the Fithp matured from the pets of the predecessors to the dominant intelligence, they discovered the Thuktunthp and predicated their entire scientific base on it. As a result of having their entire technological base handed to them, the Fithp were scientific adolescents: All of their efforts at discovery went not to learning new things, but to understanding the Thukunthp, so they really did not have a head at all for innovation, or for problem solving. They believed that humans would share this characteristic, and were never really ready for human outside-the-box-thinking.

That is the heart of the divide in this book. Though there is quite a bit of very well conceived politics in the book, the question at the heart of the novel is what happens when a technologically superior race with a somewhat bound sociological outlook on life encounters the tool-using, war-making monkeys of Earth? Within the confines of the universe that they created, Niven and Pournelle did a highly admirable job of drawing the "hot" part of that conflict to its conclusion. That is not to say that they succeeded on every level. For example, there is just something about the way that these two treat their female characters that makes me chuckle a little bit. Its not that that they make them weak or write them as hangers-on. As a matter of fact, just the opposite. But they have an adolescent approach to the difference between the sexes that does not ring very true to me. The book also is not very deep, but I don't think that matters too much, as that is not what they meant to create. On the other hand though Footfall really changed the discourse about alien invasion. There were novels before that presented aliens with characteristics quite different than humans, but the alien-invasion sub genre really was a tired and washed up concept before this novel hit the stands in 1985. Niven and Pournelle, with this book and others, proved that even the tired genres could reinvigorated, and books written in it could become easy best-sellers.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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