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Footfall by Larry Niven
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Footfall (1985)

by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle

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The book depicts the arrival of members of an alien species called the Fithp that have traveled to our solar system from Alpha Centauri in a large spacecraft driven by a Bussard ramjet. The aliens are intent on taking over the Earth.

Physically, the Fithp resemble man-sized, quadrupedal elephants with multiple trunks. They possess more advanced technology than humans, but have developed none of it themselves. In the distant past on their planet, another species was dominant, with the Fithp existing as animals, perhaps even as pets. This predecessor species badly damaged the environment, rendering themselves and many other species extinct, but left behind their knowledge inscribed on large stone cubes (called Thuktunthp, plural of Thuktun in the Fithp language), from which the Fithp have gained their technology. The study of Thuktun is the only science the Fithp possess. The Fithp are armed with a technology that is superior rather than incomprehensible: laser cannon, projectile rifles, controlled meteorite strikes to bombard surface targets, lightcraft surface-to-orbit shuttles the size of warships, etc.

The geopolitics of the world in this novel are those of the Cold War, although the setting of the story is in the mid-1990s. This affects the plot, since in the world of Footfall, the U.S.S.R. is still a major world superpower, and has a greater presence in space than the United States. At the time of the novel's writing, this was an extrapolation of contemporary trends.

The Fithp are herd creatures, and fight wars differently from humans. Throughout their history, when two herds met, they would fight until it was evident which one was dominant over the other; then fighting ceased and the losers were incorporated into the winning herd. The Fithp expect their contact with humans to proceed along these lines, and are confused by human attempts at peaceful contact. Upon arrival, they immediately attack the Russian space station, where Russian and Americans wait to greet them, without warning. Then they proceed to destroy military sites and important infrastructure on Earth. A US Congressman and Russian cosmonauts are captured from the ruins of the space station.

The novel's human characters fall into two major groups, those on Earth and those who are taken aboard the Fithp spaceship as captives. Civilians are used to show the effects of the war on day to day life in the United States, while military and government personnel convey a more strategic overview of events. Science fiction writers are employed as technical advisers on alien technology and behavior; these characters are based on real writers, including Niven ("Nat Reynolds"), Pournelle ("Wade Curtis"), and Robert Anson Heinlein ("Bob Anson").

Facing possible extinction due to the long-term effects of biological weapons, a group of high-ranking Fithp were selected by wager to escape to the stars. The Chtaptisk Fithp ('Traveling Herd') are divided between 'Sleepers' and 'Spaceborn', as the ship is both a generation ship and a sleeper ship. The original leaders of the herd are subordinate to their descendants the spaceborn, who are well prepared to start a space based civilization, but are still dedicated to the generations-old ideal of conquest.

After their initial assault, the Fithp land ground forces in the center of the North American continent, primarily in and around Kansas. They defeat efforts by a National Guard detachment (and, somewhat later, three American armored divisions) to dislodge them by the using orbital lasers and barrages of kinetic energy weapons, but a combined Russian and American nuclear attack wipes out their beachhead. The Fithp, who are familiar with nuclear weapons but prefer to use cleaner ones, are shocked by what they consider the barbarity of humans' willingness to "foul their own garden" with radioactivity. Human protagonists, however, are exultant with victory.

It is during this initial invasion that more captives are taken. These also comprise a mixed bag of civilians including an elderly couple from the US Bible Belt as well as a young woman who was a high functioning mental patient at Menninger's. They are put to work by the Fithp on board their mothership, who expect them to integrate themselves into the herd. The humans decide to cooperate until a chance for some serious sabotage presents itself.

The Fithp respond to the defeat of their invasion by dropping a "dinosaur killer", a large asteroid whose impact results in environmental damage on a global scale, in particular the almost total destruction of India. In the aftermath, the aliens invade Africa, where they enjoy more success. One result is the end of South African Apartheid (at much the same time, though in a completely different way, from how it would happen in actual history). Simply, Whites and Blacks become equal under the rule of the Fithp.

The United States secretly builds a large, heavily armed spacecraft propelled by nuclear bombs (a real concept commonly known as Project Orion). While an earlier implementation of the idea was ruled out due to environmental reasons and the danger of radioactive contamination, in the desperate situation facing humanity such considerations are cast aside. The ship is named after the Biblical archangel Michael, who cast Lucifer out of Heaven.

The Michael launches and battles through small enemy "digit" ships in orbit. Though seriously damaged, she pursues the alien mothership. One of the space shuttles carried aboard Michael rams the Fithp ship, slowing it down enough for the Michael to catch and attack it.

There follows on Earth a confrontation between the American President David Coffey (loosely modeled on Jimmy Carter[citation needed]) - who is willing to make a compromise with the Fithp and let them withdraw into space, and who is reluctant to destroy their ship with their females and young in it - and his hardliner National Security Adviser, Admiral Carrell, who insists on unconditional surrender. Carrell effectively stages a bloodless coup d'etat, neutralizing the President and taking charge of the fighting in space.

The book clearly presents Carrel's unconstitutional act as justified: the compromise which the President was willing to accept would have left open the possibility of the Fithp making a new attack later. But with their ship (and most of their population) on the verge of destruction, the Fithp accept humanity as the stronger species and surrender themselves to become part of the human "herd".

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
When I picked up this book I wasn't expecting great literature. It was, after all, about an alien invasion. I was looking for something light and fun. But I found it so irritating, it finally took a sheer act of will for me to finish it.

I could write pages about what made the book so bad. This is only an outline:

1.) Characterizations. The characters were cartoons. They had no depth. That was perhaps inevitable, given the fact that the novel's dramatis personae, listed in the front of the book, consists of four pages! That's too many characters, even for a novel of over 500 pages. A reader can't get a sense of any of them. Do any of them have emotional lives? Hard to tell, given that the premise of the book is literally earth-shattering, and there's no indication that anybody's carries any trauma over it. A lot of people die, but is anyone devastated, even when losing friends, family, mates? All just seem to shake it off and life goes on.

Worst are the characterizations of women. One of the major characters is a major in Army Intelligence who becomes adviser to the President. Yet she's portrayed as a real nitwit who giggles all the time in the middle of meetings and flirts with the head of the President's Secret Service detail even the most important things are going on.

The portrayals of the alien females are no better. The aliens apparently have an even stronger patriarchal civilization than the Earthlings do. (Must be a universal law of nature in Niven-Pournelle's view?

2.) Dialogue. When the characters are cartoons, I suppose you can't expect them to talk like real people. But did the "sound" of it have be so painful? Which leads to . . .

3.) The writing in general. Who can take this kind of writing seriously:

[SCENE: The aliens have invaded Kansas by parachuting in. Reports are coming in to the President and his advisers, and they are curious to know what they look like.]
The Admiral lifted the phone. "Carrell . . . Yes, put the photographs up on the big screens. Let everyone see what we're up against."
There were five screens. One by one they filled with pictures of baby elephants. Some hung from paper airplanes and wore elevator shoes. Others were on foot. All carried weirdly shaped rifles.
Laughter sounded on the floor below, but it soon died away as the screen showed photographs of ruined buildings and wrecked cars, with alien shapes in the foreground. Bodies lay at the background of most of the pictures.
Jenny studied the photographs. They were quite good; the photographer who'd taken them said she'd sold to Sports Illustrated and other major magazines. That's the enemy.
"They do look like elephants," Admiral Carrel said.
"Yes, sir," Jenny said. "But they're not really elephants."
"No. They're invaders," General Toland said.

Even when Niven-Pournelle happen upon a happy turn-of-phrase, they botch it. When the alien mothership suffers significant damage, they write that sounds from its hull sounded like that of a "smashed banjo." That's a clever metaphor. And Niven-Pournelle must have themselves also thought so, because they then use the same metaphor three more times in the next few pages!

And if there were a word I could eliminate from their vocabulary, it would be "grin." Everybody's prompted to grin in this book for one reason or another. (Funny reaction, in the midst of an alien invasion.) If you excised all the times the word, "grin," is used in the book, there would be significant gaps in the text. Get Niven-Pounelle a thesaurus!

4.) Gratuitous ridiculousness. If the above quote isn't enough to illustrate this point (baby elephants riding parachuting under paper airplanes while wearing elevator shoes?), note that among the heroes are a swashbuckling Congressman and a bevy of science fiction writers. The SF writers are brought in to advise the President because they would seemingly know more about planning strategically against aliens than Pentagon types who have spent thousands of hours gaming all sorts of scenarios against possible invaders. Just because SF involves speculative thinking, who says that the SF writers speculations in this case are going to be better than anyone else's?

5.) An intriguing idea squandered. There is an idea at the center of the novel, but it remains seriously unexplored. The idea is that much of the carnage that is created between the aliens and the humans results basically because of fundamental cultural misunderstanding. Because the two civilizations carry different assumptions about interpersonal interactions, including conflict, they essentially kill what they don't understand. This is a important insight, having echoes in human history from ancient imperialism to US involvement in SE Asia and the Middle East. Maybe it was too uncomfortable for Niven-Pournelle to explore too deeply (as I understand they hold pretty right-wing beliefs), so they just let it go. ( )
  kvrfan | Apr 25, 2015 |
This is a serious "meh" read from Niven. I sometimes wonder (perhaps others have expressed this already) if Niven's collaborations with Pournelle were really a good idea. Maybe I'm forgetting some amazing book they wrote together, but so far, after revisiting this book and The Mote in God's Eye, I'm less than enthused. Both seemed to show far too much of Pournelle's political ideas drifting into what otherwise might have been a good story. Oh well, it was still an overall enjoyable read, but not one I'm likely to read a third time (my first read was probably around the age of 13 or so -- hence my memory of this being so useless to recommend it). ( )
  tlockney | Sep 7, 2014 |
Footfall
By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Publisher: Del Rey
Published In: New York, NY, USA
Date: 1985
Pgs: 495

REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

Summary:
Beyond Saturn, we see them for the first time. A small series of dots on telescopic images moving against the backdrop of Saturn’s rings. Ships inbound from the deep solar system or beyond. Signals rip across space, desperately trying to make contact with the unknowns. First contact destroys a space station. Second contact, a targeted bombardment of asteroids destroys dams and installations all over the Earth. Third contact, they are landing. Their demands are simple; surrender or death.

Genre:
fiction, science fiction, invasion, aliens, ufos, militaria, conquest

Why this book:
My love of Niven and Pournelle’s work. My deep fascination with aliens. My abiding affection for militaria.

This Story is About:
courage, working hard, doing the right thing, greed, friends, jealousy, love, caring, happiness, sadness, family

Favorite Character:
None of the characters really jump into my consciousness. Maybe Major Crichton, though I wish she had more page time.

Least Favorite Character:
Roger Brooks, correspondent for the Washington Post and douchebag, womanizer, and adulterer

Character I Most Identified With:
See two answers above.

The Feel:
Not sure really. I want that alien invasion sweeping over the world, fear of the other. But I’m just not getting it.

Favorite Scene:
The date gone wrong on Mauna Kea.

The well connected Academician getting attitude from the newly minted KGB officer lording it over the queue.

Submarine Ethan Allen vs. Asteroid tidal wave.

When the sheriff makes it clear that he doesn’t like the secret project going on in his town during the building of the Starship Michael and the plotting to layer the onion of the secret so that when someone does find out that they aren’t building greenhouses like the cover story says they’ll have another layer of onion to dig through.

Brooks on his way to blow the secret getting quieted down permanently the way he did. Woof!

Settings:
Mauna Kea Observatory; Planet Saturn’s orbit; Washington DC; Moscow; Kosmograd Space Station; Los Angeles; Kansas; Cheyenne Mountain; Starship Message Bearer; Bellingham, Washington;

Pacing:
The pacing on this one is okay though a bit slow in places.

Plot Holes/Out of Character:
N/A

Last Page Sound:
What just happened? I know what it said happened. But you still don’t know what happened. There are only two options there and which one of them happened. Piss? That sucks.

Author Assessment:
I have a deep and growing fondness for the works of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Editorial Assessment:
Wish this one would have gotten another treatment or two under the touch of the editor.

Did the Book Cover Reflect the Story:
I am so hoping it does. We’ve got an elephantine alien hiding behind junk with a bayonet attached to a rifle as a human soldier approaches across a field of wheat with a woman standing behind him on the cusp of a hill with her hand raised in an obvious call of warning and hope that he will be careful. The cover image is almost directly from the story. Good on them.

Hmm Moments:
When the herbivore elephantine aliens realize that their prisoners eat something like canned Spam, their reactions are great.

The Fithp’s surrender/dominance ritual and its similarity to elephant movements is fascinating. And their encountering the alien humans with their never-quitedness confuses the aliens.

The submarine sneaking elephant guns ashore for the Zulus to fight against the invaders.

Knee Jerk Reaction:
it’s alright

Disposition of Book:
Irving Public Library, Irving, TX

Why isn’t there a screenplay?
The only way this works as a movie is with an extensive rewrite taking it out of the 1980’s USSR vs USA context.

Casting call:
Brian Cox as Soviet General Narovchatov...or equally, he could play Admiral Carrell.

Yvonne Strahovski as Captain Jeanette Crichton.

Would recommend to:
genre fans ( )
  texascheeseman | Mar 25, 2014 |
My reactions to reading this novel in 1998. Spoilers follow.

I was too distracted by other things to possibly appreciate this novel, but I found it overly long for its subject but not long enough to get into any pleasing, interesting detail. Next to Fallen Angels, co-written with Michael Flynn, this is the worst Niven and Pournelle novel I’ve read. Niven and Pournelle provide an interesting rationale while the alien Fithp try to Earth: they're a young race who acquired space travel from the Predecessors, aliens who first evolved intelligence on the Fithp homeworld and then destroyed themselves. Thus the Fithp aren’t too bright or, at least, don’t think of any other option than to invade a planet instead of exploiting space.

But we don’t learn anything more about the Predecessors, really get into the dissension of the Fithp ranks, or learn a lot that much about the Fithp given the time spent on them other than they are herd animals who are used to fighting until a foe unconditionally surrenders for their whole herd. Nor do we get, a lá Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, neat description of meteor devastation. Most of it occurs off screen as does the combat in Kansas and its eventual nuking. We don’t get a really detailed look at the Orion-style spaceship Michael. We get more characters than is probably necessary – too many adulterous or sudden sexual liaisons almost as if, especially in the case of Jeri Wilson, the authors were trying to make a statement about human sexual bonding under stress and the need for women to bond to a strong man.

This book, according to an interview I read years ago with Niven and Pournelle, was supposed to have been written when Lucifer’s Hammer was, but the editor had them concentrate on Earth being bombarded. Some of the same type of characters show up here: politicians, survivalists (rather perfunctorily here), military men, reporters, playboys. (Another fault was the sudden mutiny against the president who made a reasonable decision regarding Fithp surrender. The groundwork for this plot development was not laid.) The threat team was good and plausible. I could identify several sf author surrogates: Nat Reynolds (Niven), Wade Curtis (Pournelle), and Robert Anson (Robert Anson Heinlein). I don’t know if the others were based on anyone specific. The name Joe Ransom sounds familiar. He could be Pournelle associate Dean Ing. (Niven and Pournelle have been putting disguised sf figures in their book since Inferno, their second collaboration.

I did like some things. (The breakdown of the Soviet Union was not explained.) I liked biker minstrel, Harry Reddington. I liked the eager reporter Roger Brooks being killed by environmentalist John Fox to protect Michael (ironically a atom bomb powered spaceship). I liked smuggling guns to Zulus to fight the Fithp. Pournelle does the usual propagandizing for space (though he doesn’t emphasize survivalism as much as I thought). I also liked the LA group of survivors.

A somewhat disappointing book either too long or too short. ( )
  RandyStafford | Aug 21, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Larry Nivenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pournelle, Jerrymain authorall editionsconfirmed
Harris, JohnCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thijssen, FelixTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Whelan, MichaelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Within its broad array of nested rings, the planet was a seething storm.
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Shuttle three, Challenger, was already lost to sight. Roy caught sight of a gunship's yellow flame just before it disappeared into a missile explosion. "Maneuvering. Stand by." Roy's sense of balance protested as Jay turned the Shuttle. "What have we got?" "Missiles. We've got five miles per second on those snout ships. The missiles only get one pass. They can't hit us if we keep veering. " "You hope." "Semper fi, mac. Let me know when you think you have a shot at something." "Yeah, sure." The missiles were in the main compartment, and the big bay doors weren't open. The ring of green lights dropped away aft. "Go, baby, go." Roy prayed. Talking to the ship. Why not? What else can I do? "Maybe we should open the bay." "No point." The dreadful green lights were fading. "Our missiles can't reach them either. Save 'em for Mommy Dearest. How long before we're in range?" "Maybe an hour, if we don't get hurt, and they don't get more acceleration." Roy poked numbers into Atlantis's computer. "Looks to me like they're pouring on all they have." "So are we. Roy - " "Yeah?" "General Gillespie said Michael might not make it." "Yeah, I heard." "That leaves it up to us." " Well, there's Challenger." "Heard from Big Jim lately?" "No." Big Jim Farr. Six four, only he managed to lose two inches in the official records. Laurie Culzer and Jane Farr and five kids were sharing a house in Port Angles. "Think he's had it, Joe." "I think we act like he's out." "Which leaves us." "Which leaves us. Maneuvering. Stand by."
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Book description
The book depicts the arrival of members of an alien species called the Fithp that have traveled to our solar system from Alpha Centauri in a large spacecraft driven by a Bussard ramjet. The aliens are intent on taking over the Earth.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345323440, Mass Market Paperback)

"NOBODY DOES IT BETTER THAN NIVEN AND POURNELLE.

I LOVED IT!"
--Tom Clancy

They first appear as a series of dots on astronomical plates, heading from Saturn directly toward Earth. Since the ringed planet carries no life, scientists deduce the mysterious ship to be a visitor from another star.

The world's frantic efforts to signal the aliens go unanswered. The first contact is hostile: the invaders blast a Soviet space station, seize the survivors, and then destroy every dam and installation on Earth with a hail of asteriods.

Now the conquerors are descending on the American heartland, demanding servile surrender--or death for all humans.

"ROUSING . . . THE BEST OF THE GENRE."
--The New York Times Book Review

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:06 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The earth faces a terrible challenge from alien invaders from space in this novel by the authors of Mote in God's Eye (1975). They first appear as a series of dots on astronomical plates, heading from Saturn directly toward Earth. Since the ringed planet carries no life, scientists deduce the mysterious ship to be a visitor from another star. The world's frantic efforts to signal the aliens go unanswered. The first contact is hostile: the invaders blast a Soviet space station, seize the survivors, and then destroy every dam and installation on Earth with a hail of asteriods. Now the conquerors are descending on the American heartland, demanding servile surrender--or death for all humans.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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