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Earnest apocalyptic blockbuster, but a little dated
on 2 April 2013
Niven and Pournelle's 1977 book about the apocalyptic effects of a comet slung towards Earth by a rogue planet far out on the edges of the solar system suffers slightly from its age. The book was a bestseller and nominated for a Hugo, so it is hardly surprising that much of the content now seems very familiar. That is of course a backhanded compliment to Niven and Pournelle, whose workmanlike evocation of the mechanics of both the comet's approach to Earth and its effects when it arrives does make it all seem both real and intellectually terrifying - given that at some point in the future this will happen. However, on an emotional level the writing isn't of a standard to really twist the guts.
There is a cast of, well, scores if not hundreds, which early on gives the book a pleasingly epic feel. However, as the book moves to a conclusion, most of the threads converge in one geographical location, giving the final third an oddly low budget feel. Despite (just about) remembering the 70s, I struggled with the then contemporary setting, partly because the American cultural references weren't always clear to me. Worse, the rascist and sexist attitudes casually on display are rather disturbing - this isn't very long ago, but the best a strong, intelligent, independent female character can hope for is to have her own career as an office administrator. Black characters really get a raw deal, most of them ending up part of an army of cannibals.
Overall, it's an interesting exercise, but may seem over-familar and doesn't sparkle enough to stop its huge length dragging somewhat.