Old-Fashioned Optimism


Footfall, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, New York: Ballantine, 495 pages, $17.95

Footfall is a novel that breaks no new ground for science fiction or for Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle. The plot is very similar to Lucifer's Hammer (1977). Reports are that Footfall is the novel that Niven and Pournelle intended to write before they were persuaded to leave out the aliens and convert Lucifer's Hammer into a mainstream disaster novel in which Earth collides with a comet. And the characters are familiar to anyone who has read The Mote in God's Eye (1974), their earlier novel of alien threat. But Footfall is certainly what science fiction fans like to call a "good read," and it is a book that raises important philosophical issues in an entertaining context.

Footfall stands squarely in a long tradition of alien-invasion novels. The aliens, who bear a marked resemblance to baby elephants, are apparently implacable. They possess technologies of war far superior to those of Earth. But they are here not simply to conquer and despoil; they are here to make a home on Earth and to incorporate human culture into their own. They are our enemies and a serious threat to our survival, but their motivations are not entirely unlike our own.

Those who have read even one of Niven and Poumelle's earlier novels will know how Footfall is going to end even before they open the cover. They write a very humanistic-cum-optimistic kind of science fiction. They believe that human beings can and will accomplish great things, albeit with considerable whining and foot-dragging and conniving along the way. It is simply inconceivable that they would write a novel in which the human race is conquered, or even held in check, by another species.

The source of the strength that will allow humanity to defeat the invaders is manifest very early in the novel. Niven and Pournelle hold some rather eccentric views about politics and human nature, but the core of these views is a straightforward kind of individualism. They usually portray human beings as the very antithesis of herd animals and political freedom as a kind of centrifugal force that guarantees that the species, through its individual members, will be moving in every possible direction at once. This restless energy and the social chaos it produces is what ultimately defeats the invaders, who are herd animals.

The aliens and human beings differ in one fundamental way. No matter how closely integrated into a community they become, individual human beings generally do not completely give over their will to the community. When they do—in, for example, a religious cult—we are inclined to condemn them on both psychological and moral grounds. That is, we think them mentally deficient because they lack a will of their own and morally deficient because they have abdicated responsibility. The social contract that binds human communities must be continually reaffirmed by each member, and we recognize all sorts of good reasons (as well as bad ones) for refusing to do this.

The alien invaders of Footfall are the polar opposites of human beings in this respect. For them, an individual who refuses to submit his will to that of the group, or who reneges on the social contract after he has entered into it, is thought to be insane. The psychological and moral bonds of the social contract are absolute and irrevocable.

This works to the benefit of the humans in some rather obvious ways and serves to convey the not terribly original message that freedom is better than the security of the group; in other words, that capitalist democracies are better than collectivist tyrannies; in other words, the United States is a better place to live than the Soviet Union. This message is driven home by the fact that the Soviets really don't contribute much to the defeat of the aliens.

But this message is no less important for being obvious, and Niven and Pournelle have a flair for reducing philosophical principles and concepts to human dimensions. Mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, in his cover blurb for Footfall, calls it a "good, old- fashioned invader-from-space story, with noble and ignoble Earthlings scrambling for cover." And this is right on target. Footfall is old-fashioned because it is optimistic about human nature and human freedom and, more importantly, because it is historical. It is "about" the present, but it looks explicitly and unabashedly to fundamental and perennial human concerns—courage and cowardice, personal responsibility, freedom and oppression—for an understanding of the present. (This is so old-fashioned that I feel a bit decrepit just typing the words.)

Footfall is a story about an enormous number of Earthlings both noble and ignoble. (The dramatis personae lists 117 characters.) In their last novel, Oath of Fealty (1981), Niven and Pournelle let the philosophical message take over the story. Oath of Fealty was less about human beings than it was about technological wonders that would make political and spiritual liberation cheap and painless.

Footfall avoids this trap that is so common in science fiction. The philosophical message is embedded in a diverse collection of human beings who must make difficult decisions and carry them out with very little help and, quite often, with thoroughly inadequate tools. The invisible hand is very much at work. The politicians and military leaders who are explicitly concerned with saving humanity play their part, but so do the rogues and misfits and ordinary folks who are just trying to stay alive.

Footfall tells a predictable story not because the authors lack imagination but because they are guided by a philosophical view of the world that is both cogent and familiar. Those who find the philosophy appealing will enjoy the book, because it is a detailed and concrete illustration of the philosophy. Those who do not find the philosophy appealing will not enjoy the book, for the same reason.

John Ahrens is the assistant director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.