Book Talk: 'Footfall' by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Footfall' by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Alexander Wallace prepares for the arrival of the Fithp.
Some have made the contention that the alien invasion, as science fiction has traditionally envisioned it, is deeply infeasible for logistical reasons. There’s the matter of the sheer amount of energy that is needed to traverse the gulfs of space versus the actual gain from conquest, a notion that would make most works with that conceit absolute lunacy from the perspective of the invaders.

In 1985, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, two masterful science fiction writers, attempted to make the conceit of an alien invasion make sense. Their aliens, the Fithp, are from a world where civilization is in the process of collapsing, and launch a ship across the stars to find a new home. Unfortunately for humanity, that home is Earth.

Such is Footfall, one of many of Niven’s and Pournelle’s brilliant collaborations; in being so, it joins the lofty ranks of The Mote in God’s Eye, Oath of Fealty and Inferno. Their collaborations took Niven’s scientific rigor and combined them with Pournelle’s storytelling ability and created groundbreaking works that are still justly read today. Footfall exemplifies their brilliance by being simultaneously a science fiction thriller par excellence and a rigorous exploration of alien life.
The massive alien ship, the Thuktun Flishithy, lands in Kansas. They choose this landing area because they can tell, by looking at the planet from orbit, that the United States is the most powerful country on the planet. How could they tell? The answer is simple yet unintuitive to most: the interstate. Any area with such a developed transportation infrastructure has to be powerful and wealthy. As such, they bombard it with everything they have.

Such is just one of the various tracts of well-reasoned contentions that Niven and Pournelle make when depicting this extraterrestrial invasion. You will be astounded at how well they do this, at how they come to a bizarre-sounding conclusion and make it feel downright obvious. My favorite example is the result of the Fithp coming across a Kansas farmer’s hidden pornography stash, a sequence that has absolutely no business being as profound as it is.

I know that that last bit is sensational; I won’t spoil it for you. I will say that it has much to do with the fact that the Fithp are herd animals. Much is made in this book of the differences between individual animals like humans and herd animals like the Fithp. The Fithp remind me very much of how John W. Campbell exhorted science fiction writers to write their aliens:
“Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man or better than a man, but not like a man.”
The Fithp are concerned with all the things that the likes of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar would have thought about when they were embarking on their great conquests. They simply think about these things as a goat or a wildebeest would, rather than a human.

Footfall impressed me when I read it in middle school and it impressed me again about a year after graduating college. It takes the standard alien invasion premise and elevates it with scientific rigor and very clever reasoning. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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