Footfall - (Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven)


The passing of Jerry Pournelle, one of the acknowledged Grand Masters of science-fiction, has left me looking back at his work and how it has influenced me over the years.  Pournelle crafted - crafted, perchance - some of the most important novels of the last four decades, both alone and in partnership with Larry Niven.  Of those, The Mote In God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall stand head and shoulders above the rest.  They set the standards for the rest of us to follow.


But why?


To answer that, one must answer a question that has bedevilled many of us in the SF community in the last decade or so.  What is science-fiction?  Is it merely a setting or is it something more?  Is it focused on technology or the human factor, adventure or philosophy?  Is it the future, or the past, or an alternate world?  And does it cross the line between straight SF and other genres?


The question is not easy to answer.  A romance story dressed up in science-fiction clothing would not, in my view, be pure science-fiction.  A detective story that didn't depend on a science-fiction element as well as a science-fiction world - a clone body being used to hide a crime, for example - would not be pure science-fiction either.  Indeed, the more advanced the technological base of the story, the thinner the line between science-fiction and fantasy.  The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks are great reads, but the technology is so far ahead of the current level that it might as well be fantasy.  Banks has to work hard to craft situations where the Culture simply cannot appeal to a combination of force and simple self-interest.


A pure science-fiction story, in my view, requires two elements.  First, the technology must be both reasonably possible, at least within our current understanding, and be what makes the story happen.  Ideally, technology and the practical application of same should be what solves the problem.  And second, the human characters must be human.  They cannot - they must not - be something greater.  A person who grows up in the Foundation may still be recognisably human, but a person who grows up in the Culture may not be.  Their mindset will be very different from ours. 


Obviously, there is a lot of room for debate here.  A story may not fit my definition above, but still be a very good read.  David Weber’s Honour Harrington books are good reads, yet they rely on a specific kind of universe and technological base; Peter F. Hamilton’s Void books showcase the wonders of a possible future, but - again - have left the limits of present-day technology a very long time ago.


By this definition, Footfall is one of the purest science-fiction books in the world.


Niven and Pournelle did not anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Footfall takes place in a vaguely alternate universe, where both the US and the USSR have bases on the moon, a soviet space station orbits the Earth and the Challenger disaster never happened.  Despite that, it is a fairly good reproduction of the US in 1985: no cell phones, no stealth airplanes, no internet, relatively few ground-to-space weapons.  Given that the moonbases are of very little importance to the story, one might simply ignore them.  In some ways, the story is as dated as The War of the Worlds. 


The story begins when astronomers detect a giant alien mothership approaching Earth.  Indeed, the first quarter of the book covers a series of reactions, from governments who are torn between welcoming the new arrivals and preparing for war to survivalists who want to go underground, fearing the worst.  Preparations are made to greet the aliens with a multinational welcoming committee on the space station, but - of course - the aliens have other ideas.  As soon as they get close to Earth, they attack.  The space station is captured, humanity’s network of satellites is blasted to dust and kinetic projectiles are rained on the planet below.  Military bases, airports, dams and everything else that looks dangerous - from orbit - is smashed flat before a single alien sets foot on Earth.


As humanity reels under the onslaught, the aliens land in Kansas.  Their control of space makes their position impregnable - notably, the authors don’t spend much time on the battles - until the US and USSR cooperate to drop nukes on the alien lodgement, obliterating both the alien base and much of the region.  The aliens retaliate, however, by launching an asteroid at Earth, clearing the way for a second landing in Africa.  Desperately, the US builds an Orion spacecraft and launches a final desperate bid to regain control of the high orbitals and force the aliens to surrender.  It works, barely ...


What is most impressive about Footfall is that the technology used by both sides is well within the limits of the possible.  There are no heat rays (although lasers are mentioned), nor are there force fields.  The aliens use railguns and Project Thor kinetic projectiles to clear the way for their landings, smashing armoured columns from orbit and making it impossible to muster a large-scale counteroffensive.  (The one major counteroffensive fails miserably, pretty much completely off-screen.)  They use lasers to launch spacecraft into orbit, as well as serving as an anti-aircraft system; they use orbital power satellites to keep their facilities operational and, later, as a bribe to get a number of countries to surrender to them.  Merely by holding the orbital space around Earth, they appear to be certain to win.  The book makes it clear that one doesn't need aliens to hold command of space.  In its universe, the USSR was slowly moving to take space for itself.


The aliens themselves are alien, although not as weird as the aliens from The Mote in God’s Eye.  Resembling small elephants, they have a very alien herd mentality; they start the war, at least in part, to test themselves against us.  It is clear that they would have surrendered if we had proven stronger, at the start; our failure to surrender when they stomped us flat bemused, then angered them.  (And then it dawns on them that they can ask for conditional surrender instead of unconditional surrender ...)  Niven and Pournelle do a very good job of representing the alien politics and making them understandable, if not likable.  These aliens are not humans in alien suits. 


Footfall is, in many ways, an event story.  Like much such stories, the characterisation suffers.  (Red Storm Rising is one of the few single-volume event stories that actually managed to balance events with decent character arcs.)  The President and most of the other characters are instantly forgettable, with a handful of exceptions.  (It’s nice to see a female army intelligence officer who just is.)  There are no scenes where POTUS flies a combat jet into battle <grin>.


The characters who do have genuine story arcs tend to make points; some subtle, some not.  Senator Was Dawson, a space enthusiast, calls in every favour he is owned to be part of the welcoming committee, which ends badly when he finds himself an alien prisoner.  Nothing loathe, he tries to use his new position to convince the alien dissidents to make peace with Earth, an attempt that backfires horribly when he manages to talk them out of being dissidents!  And John Fox, an anti-technological zealot, rapidly comes to realise that he is little better than a traitor to the entire human race.  Both Fox and Dawson have to work fast to redeem themselves and the book is ambiguous about their success.


Niven and Pournelle (and I) acknowledge that technology can cause problems.  Every change in the status quo has caused problems.  And yet, technology can also solve the problems it causes as well as the original problems it set out to solve.  The first nuclear power plants were dangerous things - no one would dispute that - but more modern nuclear plants are far safer.  So-called ‘Green’ energy has produced little more than a series of expensive boondoggles.  People who want to go back to the simple life have never experienced it.


Oddly, for a book of its era, Footfall shows Russians as sympathetic characters, even though it has no illusions about the Soviet Union itself.  The Russians are understandable, torn between the need to keep Eastern Europe under control and a grim awareness that the price of constant repression is staggeringly high.  Even the most powerful among the Russians are inmates in a giant prison camp, fearful to say or do anything for fear of attracting the ire of the KGB.  And the price Russia pays for helping to nuke the aliens in Kansas is a bitter civil war.  Russia vanishes from the plot halfway through the book and it is easy to understand why.


Part of this, of course, is another teachable moment.  The aliens were effectively ‘uplifted,’ brought to sentience by a long-gone precursor race.  Their technology comes from records left behind by their precursors, saving them the trouble of developing it themselves.  And yet, the aliens are seemingly blind to the potentials of their systems, let alone the boundless opportunities outside the gravity well.  Even the dissidents, the ones opposed to the war, are horrified when they realise just how much humans know.  Their shift to supporting the war comes when it dawns on them that humans will crush them, given time.  Their way of war - loser surrenders and gets assimilated - doesn't apply to us.


This is true of the Soviet Union too, both in the book and in real life.  The Russians did make some impressive technological developments, but they spent far too much of their time stealing technology from the West and copying it.  Part of this was because of the constant paranoia, the constant awareness that one was being watched, that one had to watch what one said ... hardly a good state for scientific development.  The Soviet Union was more interested in repressing its people than in allowing them to flourish.  If nothing else, Footfall serves as a both a reminder of why the ideal of communism is so insidious and a reminder of why we should be very glad the Soviet Union collapsed and vanished into the dustbin of history.  One may censor something one doesn’t like - as a debate of the merits of the pornographic movie Deep Throat makes clear - but where do you stop?  It isn't easy to resist the ‘think of the children’ mentality, yet it must be resisted!  Where do you stop?


Niven and Pournelle spend less time covering the side-effects of the war than I would have expected, although they do manage to slip in a few more teachable moments.  America survives the later stages of the war, at least in part, because the government is weakened without being destroyed.  What makes it work, as one character notes, is just enough government, combined with a high degree of personal initiative.  Washington’s burdensome web of regulations and ‘you can’t do that’ bureaucrats being cut down sharply is good for the economy, something that far too many people fail to grasp.  My old rule of thumb - the more you ask the government to do, the less it can do - remains as true as ever.  Indeed, I wish they’d spent more time covering some of the points here.  But I cannot fault their decision to limit it.


That said, there are some odd moments in the plot.  While the Russian subplot coming to an end makes sense, the survivalists are of less importance and could probably have been cut out without materially weakening the book.  (I was expecting them to be in Kansas, which they weren’t.)  Other moments could probably have been cut down too, perhaps while some other sections were expanded.  On the other hand, the alien politics makes for a welcome change - particularly when compared to Lucifer’s Hammer - and probably could have done with a little further expansion.


In many ways, Footfall reads a little dated.  The technology and politics (US and international) are well out of date.  Social attitudes changed a lot over the years since the book was written, for better or worse.  Other aspects are unknown to a new generation of readers - unlike The Mote in God’s Eye, the book isn't that timeless.  Indeed, the in-jokes - characters based on science-fiction writers of that time, for example - are largely meaningless these days.  You’d have to know a great deal about the fandom of that time to understand them.  That said, you don’t need to understand such details to like and enjoy the book.


And yet, Footfall has not yet expired completely.  Command of space remains utterly priceless, in military affairs.  Even a relatively primitive opponent, given free access to space, would be able to crush the United States and NATO.  (China’s interest in space should be seen as a potential threat.)  There is nothing in the book that we could not do, given the political will.  No magic tech, just hard science.  And the anti-luddite message never stops being important.  Technology - and the understanding of technology - is the key to progress, genuine progress.  It is also the key to victory, both in the Cold War and the ongoing conflict with Radical Islam.  Tech can make life better in a way that no amount of de facto fascism cannot.  Capitalism and constitutional democracies are not perfect, but they are far - far - better than the alternative.  Those who would hold us back do not have our best interests at heart.


The best science-fiction talks about the limitless possibilities of the future.  By that standard, Footfall will be popular for a very long time to come.