By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
First Published: 1985
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller, First Contact
Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is a highly entertaining alien invasion novel in the grand tradition of the H. G. Wells classic, War of the Worlds. However, you don’t need to worry about this being some kind of lame copy-cat effort. Footfall contains tremendously innovative imagination about an alien civilization and how first contact with this civilization could play out. The best aspect is that the story remains unpredictable throughout, right up to the last page.
The same two authors that created my favorite disaster novel, Lucifer’s Hammer, collaborated again on this epic alien invasion novel. Once more they proved that collaboration can be quite fruitful and this is another case where I can easily picture the authors having as much fun writing the novel as I had reading it.
Footfall is written on a large canvas with a large cast of characters and an epic scale than includes major action on three continents as well as in the nearer reaches of the solar system. The beginning of the novel is slowed a little by the large quantity of characters being introduced but Niven and Pornelle generally do a great job of keeping the reader engaged by utilizing a wide variety of interesting characters with many interconnecting links. Then, when first contact is made, the real action begins and the reader is in for a serious roller coaster ride. The first contact sequence, itself, was one of the strengths of this novel along with the innovative portrayal of the alien civilization. The aliens are quite well developed and the authors did a good job of keeping their motives and thinking “alien” rather than making them seem similar to humans.
The large scope of Footfall provides the authors with ample opportunity to inject all kinds of stories into this novel. You get a smattering of adventures, disasters, comedy, heroism, treachery, action, and even love stories. The battle scenes are done very well and the tension is maintained at a high level throughout. In fact, the tension is maintained right up through the last page and I have to commend the authors for coming up with an ending that is both unpredictable and satisfying at the same time.
One feature of this novel that I thought was really amusing was that when the American government began making preparations for first contact with the aliens, they created an advisory panel of hard science fiction writers. Who would be better to predict what might result from first contact and who better to advise the President on how to respond to our first contact than speculative writers who had written novels of alien first contact. I can only imagine the laughter that Niven and Pournelle must have shared as they created these scenes with science fiction writers becoming the most important advisors to the President. However, the more I think about it, science fiction writers really would do a much better job of advising the president than most of the advisors that have been around for the last couple of decade. At least they might not be completely controlled by special interest groups or by political agendas.
While Footfall will never be considered a great work of literature, it is certainly a highly entertaining novel. As mentioned earlier, the authors did a great job of keeping Footfall unpredictable. There were a few sections of the novel where I started thinking that it might be getting a bit predictable but each time this occurred, within a few pages, some major surprise turned the story or at least the subplot to a completely new direction. I can’t really give any good examples without ruining some of the best surprises of this book so I can only recommend that you read Footfall for yourself. You will not be disappointed.