Scott's Reviews > Footfall

Footfall by Larry Niven
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it was ok

Moderately entertaining artifact of the 1980s, predictably sociologically dated (and occasionally downright embarrassing in its treatment of sexual issues), but that isn't the biggest problem here. Footfall is a shining example of science fiction's general refusal to face up to the challenge of conceiving a plausible invasion by an extraterrestrial power without stacking the deck severely in humanity's favor through biology, psychology, or plain old stupidity. Here our species faces the peril of a world-beatingly superior technology, as commanded by an alien species too psychologically limited and developmentally disabled to actually beat us with it. John W. Campbell, Jr.'s famous exhortation was: “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man or better than a man, but not like a man.” The aliens of Footfall meet the third criterion but conveniently fall far short of the first two, stumbling half-assedly through their attempted invasion until we take their high-tech toys out of their hands.

The appearance of a cadre of thinly fictionalized science fiction personalities from real life (Robert and Virginia Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, Niven and Pournelle themselves, plus several others whose counterparts aren't so readily apparent) is less embarrassing for its grandiose wish-fulfillment than for the astoundingly unscientific presumption these folks are allowed to get away with. Time and again, they correctly diagnose the intricacies of the alien civilization at a glance. For example, upon noticing that the alien mothership carries sixty-four smaller vessels, one of the writers proclaims that they must use a base-8 (octal) numerical system, which, in a universe where the contrivance of the authors wasn't pressing down firmly on the scales of probability, would be like trying to divine the human numerical system from one picture of assorted aircraft on the deck of the U.S.S. Nimitz. The number could mean everything or it could mean nothing... perhaps 64 was all the aliens had room or time to install. Perhaps it was simply the most convenient and symmetrical arrangement for the mass of the smaller craft.

Even more ridiculous is the way the Niven analog correctly deduces the deeply-ingrained herd mentality of the aliens by... well, by watching them move and fight in units for a few minutes. Because human beings certainly never move or fight in groups! Great and incontrovertible weight is given to purely circumstantial evidence, and for all that this sort of book is generally touted as "hard" science fiction, no justice is done here to the most basic aspects of scientific analysis.

There are occasional moments of grace, such as the "Jayhawk War" sequence where a rootin' tootin' band of National Guard go racing off with armor and helicopter support to kick some E.T. butt and are promptly flattened from orbit with no survivors; for a brief instant the vital question of "how does humanity answer the unanswerable?" seems to be in play. But don't worry, folks, the space invaders still turn out to be just conveniently handicapped enough for us to get the best of them in the end. I wonder if the real universe will be so generous to us if we ever spot a large dark mass decelerating toward us from the edges of our solar system...

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 11, 2013 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by John Paul (new)

John Paul Feehily I haven't read this one but I expect I enjoyed your review more than I would this book. Have you read Ringworld? I am working my way through the Hugo award winners and that one is coming up. Was Footfall an uncharacteristic mis-step or is Ringworld equally clumsy?

message 2: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Jarboe I enjoy your books sir, but I found this review to be even more entertaining! Deliciously scathing.

message 3: by Dan (new)

Dan Shirley My favourite treatment of alien invasion is First Contract by Greg Costikyan , where the aliens with their super advanced tech mainly want to sell us stuff.

Brian Newland I hate this book so much I literally burned it when I finished it. I don't think I hated it for all the reasons mentioned here, but some of those were probably at the heart of my rage.

Reading Scott's review also makes me realize why he's an author and I am not; while I usually just say "this book blows", he lists the problems in a coherent manner. Well done.

message 5: by Patrick (new)

Patrick A novel wherein even a human level civilisation invades earth, with our own current technology would go something like this:
"In a brief flash, humanity ceased to exist. The End."

Orbital thermonuclear bombardment wouldn't leave a lot of room for story or character development. A realistic depiction of interstellar warfare would not be fun to read, and generally speaking a fun read is what people are after when it comes to tall tales of Alien invasion, not The Diary of Anne Frank. Greg Bear does a fine job with 'The Forge of God', but it's less of an invasion and more of an extinction level event.

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