Friday, March 8, 2013

The Last Circus, the (not-so) big 3-0, and the brilliance of Lucifer's Hammer

This blog post is going to be all over the place. Not very professional, but then again I'm not a professional blogger. I just use this space as a warm-up for the writing I take seriously. 

So here's the trailer for The Last Circus (aka Balada Triste de Trompeta), but don't watch it. It really is best to go into the movie fresh, without any idea of what you're about to see, just so long as you're not the type who's sensitive to simulated sex and violence. And if that's the case, what are you? Six?

a movie clip related to The Last Circus

I have two or three complaints about The Last Circus, but they're so minor it'd be trivial to mention 'em. Want my review? Here you go: it's a great movie, damn near perfect. That's all you need to know. No need for a two or three page review.

So I just turned 30. Same shit, different day as the characters in the awful Dreamcatcher might say. My girlfriend's going through a family crisis and I'm watching her parents' dogs until the waves calm. Meanwhile I've been reading Lucifer's Hammer. It's a book I've been meaning to read for years. The time has finally come and it's been getting a lot more attention than these damn dogs.

And holy shit. I had no idea what I was in for. This is the best piece of disaster fiction I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. It reads like an extremely vivid nightmare.

Sagan said that building our civilization on science and technology, but not understanding it, was "a recipe for disaster." Lucifer's Hammer is the worst case scenario in a world in which tax payers and politicians don't understand the return value of scientific research—the worst offender in recent memory was Sarah Palin who publicly made fun of fruit fly experiments. Perhaps "worst case scenario" is misleading because the events in the book become more plausible everyday it doesn't happen. Only the most hopeful (or completely ignorant) could hope the planet won't be struck by a life-threatening object while humans are living on it, especially when you consider it's happened numerous times before we were here. As one character points out the chances of an extinction-level threat occurring on our planet is almost a certainty given enough time. 

Indeed, a pretty big impact event might be happening as soon as 2014—not here on our planet, but on Mars, just next door. 

It would be an event on the same sort of scale as the impact that drove the dinosaurs extinct 65m years ago. If it really is that big, and if the comet were to hit the side of Mars facing Earth (it seems that it might do, but it might also hit the far side), then the blast could well be visible to the naked eye, even in daylight.

While Jupiter's size and influence acts like the inner planets' magnet-like security system for such things, it's foolish to expect it to thwart all such events. As Lucifer's Hammer points out (as well as Arthur C. Clarke in his more optimistic novel, The Hammer of God) comets are incredibly unpredictable because the closer they get to the sun, the warmer they get and the ice tends to vent, which changes the object's trajectory like crude retros. 

Niven and Pournelle make the civilization-destroying comet in their book a character in and of itself, one that's almost as old as the universe. The way they write about its past almost makes you think it's been destined to hit us all along, which really beefs up the sense of dread. The characters are plentiful and they're real enough to care about. The decision to set the story in the seventies was probably the right decision at the time (the book is well known for its sense of urgency), but now the novel sort of comes off as dated, particularly in a scene which features Johnny Carson. Quick fix: just imagine it's an alternative universe. 

The scientists in the novel spend several pages assuring humans there's nothing to worry about, but continuously revise the odds as the comet grows closer. The "one in a million chance" of impact eventually dwindles to "one in a thousand" and, well, bad things happen. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of characters who insisted tax payers' money should be spent on "problems a little closer at home." Even environmentalists don't worry much about comets and space rocks even though they're probably the biggest threats. 

Does it hit? Do the scientists thwart it? Any summary on the internet will give the answer away and, as with The Last Circus, I suggest going into it cold. Let the book surprise you. It will. I guarantee that.

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