Dec 142012

Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.
–Robert A. Heinlein

This brief century of ours is arguably the most significant one in the history of our universe. We’ll have the technology either to self-destruct, or [to] seed our cosmos with life. The situation is so unstable that I doubt we can dwell at this fork in the road for more than another hundred years. But if we end up going the life route instead of the death route, then in a distant future our cosmos will be teaming with life, all of which can be traced back to what we do—here and now. I don’t know how we’ll be thought of, but I’m sure that we won’t be remembered as insignificant.
— Max Tegmark, MIT professor

The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!
— Larry Niven

This month seemed the right time for a novel focused on apocalypse: many conspiracies surround December 21, 2012 and the end of the world. You can obtain Lucifer’s Hammer in hardcover and paperback. I enjoyed it on audiobook (performed by Marc Vietor).

I find this book to be a powerful reminder of how civilized we have become, and how easily it could be wiped away. As the characters are fond of saying, “we are only as civilized as we can afford to be.” When a human is torn down to basic survival instinct, there’s not much civilization left.

I don’t think this should turn into an existential treatise, but it perhaps bears one paragraph. We are able to operate at an extremely high level when part of a civilized group. In my opinion, this is the height of humanity. The opposite, the animalistic survival struggle, is so far from our consciousness that I think we wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we do if we daily had survival on our minds. Being blissfully unaware of our precariously balanced civilization is the only way for us to advance.

Nevertheless, our civilization is complex. Many speculative fiction authors discuss the resources required to sustain a “high” technological society – the fact that an entire world of experts and industry are required to build spacecraft. And also how quickly a civilization can revert to a feudal society or simply go extinct. Some argue that any society will eventually collapse.

There almost certainly will not be apocalypse this month, but some day soon it will occur. The universe is an incomprehensibly vast and hostile place. Such a small portion is amenable to life for so short a time. All humans will perish if the Earth is our only home.

Religion is important, as well. There are those who feel science and technology contradict God’s will. That building spaceships and homes across the galaxy constitute a modern day Tower of Babel. I disagree, but I’m not certain we could reconcile our differences. The novel does tackle some of this dissonance, albeit in a fairly extreme manner. Perhaps there would be nothing but extremes in the face of the end of the world.

I won’t spoil the plot, but it’s safe to say that if you appreciate these lines of thought, you will enjoy Lucifer’s Hammer. A great deal of effort is put into the reactions of various types of humans when faced with majestic, unstoppable destruction: archaeologists, astronomers, TV personalities, politicians, writers, businessmen, TV evangelists, policemen, criminals, rich men, children. The end of the world might be the end of civilization, even if small groups of humans do survive.

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