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Shiva Descending and Dated SF

I recently finished reading, for the second time, Shiva Descending by Gregory Benford and William Rotsler. Excellent, gripping book, but a little dated, just as Lucifer's Hammer is. Shiva Descending dates to 1980, where if I recall correctly Lucifer's Hammer dates to 1976. Lucifer's Hammer is one of my all time favorites, which I have read something like five times over the years.

When the couple of precautionary "oops, Earth is gonna get slammed" movies came out a few years ago, I naturally thought of Lucifer's Hammer. Some people on a mailing list I'm on were discussing Deep Impact's merits and problems. As one person said, "it's neither deep nor has impact." Ouch! And it was more technically accurate than Armageddon. Anyway, Benford, who is on the same list, posted that Shiva Descending was closer to Deep Impact, and a rough inspiration for the movie. Didn't sound too happy about it.

That's what led me to read Shiva the first time; sort of a direct recommendation from the author. Ironically, I already owned a used copy. I tended to buy bunches of books, used or otherwise, that when I looked at them is the store looked compelling enough, then I would put them on the shelf and get around to reading them someday. I'd kept looking at that one, considering it, but for some reason I hadn't dived in yet. Maybe I was reading and rereading the Wheel of Time series too much. Rereading while they were still compelling enough to be seductively rereadable, anyway. The most recent ones have been one shots.

Where Lucifer's Hammer is discovery of the comet and initial buildup and meeting the characters, then the greater and greater probability of a strike, then the strike and the aftermath, Shiva Descending is a very quick discovery and buildup, the reaction of the populace when the word is released and it comes closer, with no major effort at secrecy, the buildup of the mission to try to stop it, and the mission itself. In that regard, LH is like neither movie.

Sadly, the way people act in the book is way to much like they probably would if it were happening in reality.

LH was current day and made no predictions. The space part of it assumed existing or easy to throw together Apollo and Soyuz hardware. In a way it's less dated because it's not extrapolating a future to speak of. It's a period book for sure; a reality that didn't happen, but that was so pretty much immediately.

SD is set in the future from 1980, though I don't believe it ever said exactly when. That was before the first shuttle launch. In that world, there are multiple space stations, including one that grew up around an initial component formerly a fuel tank. An old, nearly obsolete station has a spinning wheel design! With two wheels! Ships dock there for refueling. Their are lunar stations and routine lunar runs. There are manned space telescopes. They've been to Mars.

What a hopeful future!

Yet they still relied on a computer center with sensitive, liquid helium cooled computers in which the chips can fry if the power is out very long. No cell phones. Who knew? Oh, but there are videophones everywhere.

Strange thing is, the models for the character would have been Mondale and earlier, but when they described (the general perception of) the Vice-President, I thought of Quayle.

Isn't it funny how wrong near future SF can get things?

Anyhow, if you have never read it, dated or not, Shiva Descending is a good read. As is Lucifer's Hammer, by Niven and Pournelle, if you're one of the three people who's never read that.


I see that there are still plenty of visitors coming over from Instapundit. Welcome!

Feel free to check out my main page and the archives, if you're new here. Some of it's goofy and inane, but I'm told plenty of it is worth reading. Fair warning, it gets all garbled up in Netscape, at least part of the time. I have no idea why, as there's nothing any browser shouldn't understand.

I appreciate all the interesting comments. I hope you enjoy your stay, and visit again.


Posted by: Jay Solo on Aug 26, 03 | 2:32 am | Profile


Near future is tough because real technology is changing exponentially and it branches off in directions that are difficlut to predict. Even so, I still like near future settings.

Posted by: Jeff@notoriousblog on Aug 26, 03 | 11:26 am

I came by Lucifers Hammer in used form, so I have no idea what kind of a (pardon the pun) splash it made.

Nonetheless, it's still one of my favorites. The concept that humanity will organize from chaos due to outside pressure has been used by Niven before (see the short story "Cloak of Anarchy") and I think it holds pretty true.

Another fun near-future story, with a wink to the past that never was, is Footfall. The climax to the book is brilliant, and very believable.

Posted by: datarat on Aug 26, 03 | 2:33 pm

On a somewhat-similar note, see Harry Turtledove's "WorldWar" series (heavily influenced by "Footfall," BTW). Interesting take on how technology can change rather quickly with enough (ahem) outside influence...

Posted by: Will Collier on Aug 26, 03 | 3:07 pm

I too read LH back in the 70s and actually did a report for it in my (sole) American Studies class on pop culture. IIRC, the themes that I identified were: pro-free enterprise (with some digs at the Soviets) and pro-technology, with warnings about how much we take it for granted without understanding how it works. A good ripping yarn that has stayed with me for a quarter-century.

Posted by: Dale Leopold on Aug 26, 03 | 3:10 pm

One of my favorite scifis involving fairly recent character is Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Inflation has already happened and they ran out of presidents to use for the incredibly inflated currency. Hence, a billion-dollar bill is a Meese. You needed a lot of Meeses to buy a skateboard, say.

Posted by: David Perron on Aug 26, 03 | 3:33 pm

I bet there is never a manned space telescope.

The vibrations would almost certainly render it useless, the caustic oxygen environment and man rating would render it expensive, and better communications, computers, and optics render it needless.

It will still be useful to have telescopes that can be visited and serviced by humans or our nanite successors.

Posted by: jerry on Aug 26, 03 | 3:48 pm

I read LH back in the day when the term survivalist was used only by those who were. I liked it and FootFall because they were outgrowths of some of the non-fiction Pournelle wrote at the time. He has a regular column in a magazine called Survive that dealt with some of the same issues LH characters had to deal with.

FootFall was also cool because it has all of these SF writers in it as characters.

Posted by: Ron on Aug 26, 03 | 3:53 pm

I used to subscribe to Survive. It was pretty interesting.

Posted by: Jay Solo on Aug 26, 03 | 3:56 pm

I happened upon Lucifer's Hammer sometime in the late nineties after college. I had spent four years being asked, "If western civilization needed to be rebuilt. Could you do it? This thought of rebuilding and getting a second chance to do it right always interested me. The thought of preserving the wisdon of the ages and the world it has inspired are also intriguing to me. I think is this why I also enjoyed reading "A Canticle For Liebowitz," another book I happened upon in the late 1990s. It was published in 1959, I believe. Makes you think of the monks in the "Dark Ages" preserving Western thought in writing. Very cool.

Posted by: Patrick on Aug 26, 03 | 4:08 pm

For a great visual example of missing the near-term future, rent Until the End of the World. Made around 1991, it's set in 1999.

It's a world like our own, except.... well, there are public videophones everywhere, but no cell phones. Did any SF predict cell phones as a lifestyle?

Posted by: Larry Yudelson on Aug 26, 03 | 5:55 pm

If you find the idea of re-creating Western Civilization using the preserved wisdom of the past couple thousand years then I can highly recommend the Island trilogy by S. M. Stirling. In them the island of Nantucket and all its inhabitants are sent back in time to the Bronze age. Their attempts to survive and make contact with the cultures of that age make for compelling reading.

Posted by: Eric on Aug 26, 03 | 5:58 pm

Re: Cell phone prediction

Robert Heinlein predicted a handheld, wireless phone in "Space Cadet". IIRC, the main character takes a ringing phone out of his pocket, has a brief conversation with his mother, than hangs up. Another character mentions that he checked his phone in his luggage so as not to be bothered.

Funny how it seems so mundane now, but was futuristic then.

Posted by: Catch22 on Aug 26, 03 | 6:08 pm

for a really hilarious "swing and a miss" getting the near future wrong, try paul kennedy's decline and fall of the great powers, published @1987. a really great chapter on challenges the soviets would face into the 21st century, and how the us would have to adjust to falling far behind japan and the eec. heh.

Posted by: steve on Aug 26, 03 | 6:38 pm

Way to go, Jay!

Posted by: Ith on Aug 26, 03 | 7:46 pm

Niven's Mote in God's Eye postulates a federation made up of the combination of American and Old Soviet nations. Talk of Dated.

Of course in Herbert's Dune the fremen are based on a nomadic civilization with distincly Arab overtones. leftovers from Muslim civilizations?

Posted by: Dan Williams on Aug 26, 03 | 8:21 pm

Oh dear, does anybody remember Jerry Pournelle's "CoDominium" stories? Niven and he worked together on a couple of things. Yup, nobody could imagine that the Soviet Union was going to go away. And of course, Pournelle stuck in stupid crap like "The 42nd CoDominion Marines" who have kilts and crap for dress uniforms. Dork.

Posted by: eric on Aug 26, 03 | 9:53 pm

Bob Heinlein had cell phones in several of his novels.

One of the best moments (in retrospect) was in, I believe, "Farmer in the Sky," when the protagonist pulls his cell phone from what we would call a fanny pack!

Posted by: Beryl Gray on Aug 26, 03 | 10:00 pm

re Dan Williams.... "Of course in Herbert's Dune the fremen are based on a nomadic civilization with distincly Arab overtones. leftovers from Muslim civilizations?"

not just 'based' on arab populations. utterly and completely infused with arabian mythology and heritage.

Posted by: owl on Aug 27, 03 | 12:22 am

Even in the mid and late 80s such visionaries as William Gibson had trouble conceiving of a future where the Soviet Union no longer existed (read Neuromancer or some of his short stories from the mid-80s for examples) or where the Japanese weren't kicking the US's ass in high-tech. Yeah, things change, though more often it's more that things weren't quite the way you thought they were.

Video phones were one of those big predictions that damned near everyone made. Video phones are like a stamp that says "this book and/or movie and/or TV show is futuristic!". The only trouble with video phones is that they're not all that much more useful than simple voice communications. If the cost were the same how often would you opt for a video phone call rather than just a regular call? How often do you think the other person would choose video as well? Now what if such calls were to cost "only" 3 times more? Now you see the problem, and the actual cost difference is much larger. I think you see why there aren't more of them around even though it's been technologically feasible for quite some time.

As for cell phones, they're one of those things which are just so fundamentally transformative that they can be difficult to really come to grips with. There are books and movies set now which don't take into consideration the implications of cell phones, and not a small number either. Think about how many key plot points in your favorite recent movies, TV shows, or books (assuming they're set in the present or future, of course) would be changed dramatically by the addition of a cell phone (which damned near everyone over the age of 12 has these days). And I don't think anyone's come to grips yet with the ever increasing power and ubiquity of computers, though I'll admit that that's a much more complex and difficult prediction problem (which is why we account as an artistic genius anyone who takes a stab at it with any serious amount of effort and comes off with something not completely unbelievable).

Since I can't think of anything witty or insightful to finish this off I'll just hand it over to Conan O'Brian:

"In the year two thousand! ....

Computers will become so small that millions of them will fit in a tablespoon.

They will be used to enhance the flavor of soup."

Posted by: Robin Goodfellow on Aug 27, 03 | 3:37 am

Dan, the Second Empire in Mote was actually one of Jerry Pournelle's contributions. (Niven does funny aliens very well, but he's not much on politics.) JP's CoDominium looks dated now because we don't think of the world as bipolar any more, but it was very believable right through the 80s (as I recall, JP updated it over time; I seem to remember that at one point the US actually helped reconstitute the Soviet Union because it would rather share ruling the world than be just another power).

The CoDo was a clever idea IMHO, provided lots of conflict for Pournelle's Falkenberg novels, and set things up his Empire in later books. I recommend King David's Spaceship, set at about the same time as Mote, if you haven't read it.

Posted by: PJ/Maryland on Aug 27, 03 | 5:17 am

So the CoDominium in space was a failed idea? Hmmm.... what two countries are running the only space station? What two government space programs are at this moment totally cross dependant?

I do not see a US/USSR led space force as all that unlikely... particular after the Chinese go up.

Perhaps the first deep space war will be US/USSR clashes with Chinese ships out in the asteroid belt...

Posted by: Dale Amon on Aug 27, 03 | 8:50 am

H. Beam Piper predicted pocket-sized phones way back in "Little Fuzzy." I still remember reading that as a kid in the '70s and thinking the phones were as far-out as Piper's 'contragravity.'

No doubt Heinlein beat him to the punch, though. I believe RAH predicted pocket phones in one of his Worldcon speeches back in the '50's (somebody who has a copy of "Expanded Universe" handy can grab the exact year).

Posted by: Will Collier on Aug 27, 03 | 8:53 am

One book that has stood up very well is John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar." It was published in 1968, set in 2010.

Global satellite TV
Artificial Intelligence
A "Common Europe" superstate, including Poland
Enhanced humans

Posted by: tj on Aug 27, 03 | 10:31 am

haven't read shiva, but it's on my list now. i read LH in '76 or '77, and at almost the same time read Stephen King's The Stand. i found it intriguing that two "end of the world as we know it" novels were written in the same year with such a fundamentally different cause and outcome. i suppose The Stand's disease is similar in probability to LH's comet (why was I remembering it was an asteroid?) but the outcome of The Stand is a wee bit out there (i can hardly imagine "me and all my freeinds" saving the world from Satan).

And, I just found this abridged version of LH at:

Posted by: chris hall on Aug 27, 03 | 11:13 am

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