Oh how the mighty are fallen! It takes just a lump of rock (albeit a rather large one) to wipe out millions of years of dinosaur existence. It takes a couple of hours to read a book by one of the most esteemed science fiction writers, and come to the conclusion he has fallen at a similarly small hurdle - he thought too much of the present.
The Hammer of God conerns an old stalwart of sci-fi, something that Arthur C Clarke admits has been in novels several times before, that of asteroids and meteors impacting on Earth. Of course, almost immediately after this book came out in 1993 we had a pair of blockbuster movies on the same subject. With their kinetic motion and vividness, could the written word match up to them?
The book starts with Robert Singh on Earth, having an idyllic time with his son and wife back at their home-of-the-future. But this is just a ruse, as really this is a VR tape recording of memories, and he is in fact on a ship, Goliath, circling Kali, named after a world-destroying Hindu god. Through at least two strands of back-flashing, and some very annoying digressions, we get up to speed with the situation. Singh is Captain of the scientific craft that had been weaving around Jovian asteroids - those nearest Jupiter. That is, until an amateur astronomer with nothing better to do had found one everyone else had missed, and had had it worked out that it was due to smash into Earth.
For a portion of humanity this isn't a problem, as this is 2109, and with the Earth very over-crowded, people live on the Moon and Mars too, the latter of which is being terraformed to create a better life there. But the majority of humankind would rather not have life on Earth ruined by a direct impact.
Unfortunately, it takes a rather large portion of the book before the narrative can comfortably stick to one time-line, and we can engage with Singh and his crew. They have scuttled round the solar system (picking up equipment from a Martian moon, fuel from one of Jupiter's... like you do) and have a plan to attach an engine to Kali, which will brake it, and allow Earth to pass in front of it in its orbit, in safety.
Now we can't rightly stop admiring Arthur C Clarke (or Arthur Clarke if you know him better - or Art if, well, perhaps not). It's a pity then that we have report that an awful lot of the first pages of this book is mostly a lot of showing-off. With a mind such as Arthur's there must be a whole spread of details of future possibilities waiting to come out, and unfortunately in the rush to turn a short story into an inspired-by-future-truth novel, an awful lot of them have been dumped on us in one go.
And some of them are just daft, or childishly common wishes. A lot of humanity is now bald (including our Sikh hero), so that a VR device can be fitted (under a wig if the user prefers) that provides the wearer with limitless educational possibilities, and lots of virtual memories, etc. OK, that beats some jumped up 22nd century Internet, but the "Brainman"? Please!
More childishness resides in Robert's kid, walking round Africa with a pet tiger, one which has been genetically refined so that it will live its whole life as a placid and engaging kitten. Who hadn't thought of that one for themselves?
Also, we get some silly inclusions when we would just rather have a story - do we really need to know Arthur Clarke's musings on which gravity field - Earth's, Mars's, the Moon's or a spaceship's zero-G - is better for having sex in? And why is the book's longest chapter about a lunar marathon, and the special space suit required? Answer, unfortunately, for no reason at all.
Also, by looking at the then-current times too closely, he commits some heinous flaws. The first Gulf War led to a lot of Americans staying in Iraq and the Middle East, and thus helping invent a merging of religions, Chrislam? Er, not in this world. That beats the standard end-of-capitalism, global-banning-of-weapons that we'd read of pages earlier.
There was us thinking Clarke would have learnt from 2001: A Space Odyssey, that writing fiction about the near future will very quickly be proven ineptly incorrect.
However, let us not despair. This is a short, large-print book, with a lot of chapter gaps and breaks, so it won't take long to finish it off. The reader will soon discover which of the daft lunacies mentioned above provides the dramatic twist that from then on grinds the story into a singular narrative (clue - it isn't the tiger). Afterwards it's more straightforward.
We've learnt by now that there is very little in the way of character in this book. In fact of the entire Goliath crew, only about four ever get mentioned. There is a different in the manners of speech of the captain and the main scientist involved in asteroid geology, but that's about it - and is only expected, as the latter's working past his 100th birthday. So if you want depth of character, those earlier-mentioned similar movies would actually be best.
What is more engaging is the speed of the narrative - as suggested, it rattles past the eye in no time, and in bold swoops from one plot strand to another. However, there is still a shortfall in the story. We want our heroes-to-be to face adversity - it's not enough that a planet will become desolate and dead if they fail! While there is always a smidgen of doubt that something will go wrong, again there is more in the way of ordure for our leading cast in the movies. Especially with the assistance of a helpful on-board computer (a change for Clarke!), there is only the mionor worry about the success of the mussion.
Which is a shame, really, as the second half of the book does show a great improvement from the first 100 pages. This is not to say it becomes a great work of science fiction. It remainds at the B-movie level, and while an entertainment for an hour or three, it is never more than that.
One could also say that the postscript, a patchy chapter about the inspirations and facts behind the book, is better written. It at least points out the whys and wherefores of the book - this is a subject that won't go away, as somewhere out there there is another lump of rock with our name on it. While we don't want to be around to say hello to it, we didn't really want to be around when AC Clarke said goodbye to definitive, hard sci-fi, in favour of dashed-off amalgams of thoughts and a weak adventure story.
It also shows two other things about Clarke that we should consider before we open this book. One, "Rendezvous with Rama" had just the same focus, for just a couple of pages, as this takes 240 to cover. And another, because of Rama, NASA's urgent spurt of searching for near-Earth asteroids used the same name Clarke invented for his fictional one.
So Clarke has left a great legacy in the field of meteorites that are fatal to mankind. This is certainly a long way away from that. It's readable, it's diverting, but it's hellishly disposable. It doesn't improve on the movies, and cannot really be recommended. 2 (and a bit) stars.
The Orbit sci-fi edition theediscerning read had the ISBN 1-85723-194-5. It's quite a common charity shop find.
The Hammer of God, Arthur C. Clarke Clarke in the 1990s wasn't as good as he had been earlier. His books written then are still very readable, but he was starting to parody himself in some ways: more and more delayed mini-denouments, more and more nagging senses of familiarity and déjà vu experienced by his characters. This 1990s book was about an asteroid called Kali, which is destined to destroy the earth, and the efforts of mankind to destroy it before it could. Clarke was writing about this danger as far back as the 1973 and *Rendezvous with Rama*, and it's a tribute to his prescience that the real official organization now working to publicize it is named after the fictional official organization he created in that book: SpaceGuard. SpaceGuard returns here and has to fight off sabotage from a mad sect that sees Kali as God's instrument for the destruction of the earth. Most of the book is set on the spaceship that's assigned to intercept Kali and plant explosives on it that will deflect it from the path of the earth. Even on less than his best form Clarke is still very good at making the future seem real and this is a satisfying and, if it makes you take the definite danger of asteroid more seriously, even an educative book. An asteroid like Kali could already be on its way and if you’re interested in learning more about the efforts to prepare for it, please visit the real SpaceGuard here: http://ds.dial.pipex.com/spaceguard/
A huge meteorite, 'Kali', is heading for the sun and Robert Singh is in charge of diverting it's course. But other factors are at play.