Monday, July 20, 2015

10 (More) Minutes About "Footfall," by Larry Niven

I think one of the things I like best about Footfall is the sheer scope of the story.  It's fitting, I think, for an end-of-the-world story to have a giant cast and a universal reach -- in this case, outside of the galaxy and spanning 15+ years between when the story starts and when the invasion of Earth begins.

I like big sprawling books that you can really sink into.  People talk about "world building" and I vaguely understand/care about what they say, but world building like Larry Niven does in Footfall is rare.  There are characters and interrelationships and sidebars and dead-ends and all of it, somehow, serves the novel.

That's really a testament to the writing.  Take two side characters, John Fox and Marty something-or-other.  Originally, John is introduced when one of the characters, Roger, a reporter, is looking for someone to interview at the time the spaceship that ultimately invades Earth has been discovered.  Fox talks to the reporter about his concerns over a dam or something that threatens the Death Valley area, and the reporter listens more out of politeness than interest; he even says as much, given that the big story is An Alien Ship Is Headed To Earth.

That's kind of a throwaway moment, almost, except that later on John Fox shows with Marty. Marty  is first introduced as a dog-show breeder who is on the fringes of a survivalist group that ends up making their shelter right outside of the town located [SPOILER ALERT!] in the same place the US decides to pick to build its spaceship to fight back against the invaders. Marty drifts back into the story later on, leaving some friends in Los Angeles to go hide in the desert with John Fox.  This all leads to a scene where [SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT] Fox and Marty drive up to a ridge right after the invaders drop a 'dinosaur killer' asteroid that causes a salt water downpour in Death Valley. They watch the rain fill in what used to a be a sea bed and Fox makes a brief speech about how he fought nuclear power and was a fool, because had he allowed science to progress then the humans might have been able to fight back against the invaders, and he wouldn't be watching all the fragile, perfectly-adapted creatures of Death Valley drowning.

It's the kind of moment that could be preachy or overdone; it's essentially Larry Niven and his co-author Jerry Pournelle being almost didactic: they're hard-science guys who want people to be pro-scientific advances.  But it doesn't come across that way.  Instead, the message Fox and Marty convey is buried within a story, because it was chapters and chapters ago that Fox was even introduced, and Marty's just there as a sort of avatar of the reader, watching Fox.

That kind of large-scale writing is tough to do.  What Niven and Pournelle do so well here doesn't work as well in other books -- I gave up on Niven's Building Harlequin's Moon, as it was more science lecture than story -- but when it does work it's incredible to read.  The story keeps threading through these new characters and overlapping subplots and winding back, and even for a guy like me who has a hard time keeping track of characters, it's easy to follow.

That's 10 minutes.

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