Review of “Footfall” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

You can’t go too far in the world of written science fiction without coming across the name, Larry Niven. He has had his hands in so many science fiction novels that you would be hard pressed to find a bookshelf without his name proudly displayed in any self-respecting science fiction enthusiast’s home. No we are not diving into Ringworld, though maybe one day that universe would be worth a look. Instead, I am turning to the bestselling novel, “Footfall.” Of course, since I am pointing my spyglass in the direction of this novel, I cannot forget the addition of Jerry Pournelle. I have limited experience with this author (though I may have to change that in the coming months), but I have a large amount of experience with Niven. I do believe that Pournelle adds a lot of fantastic complexity and interest into this tale, but that is a matter to be debated elsewhere. I will let the author, or in this case authors, disappear into the ether, and focus my efforts on the words, as I usually do, albeit with sometimes limited success.

The most impressive feat in this novel, at least to me, is not the complex story-lines that intertwine and unfold between characters separated by classes, miles, and languages. While those elements are all done well, they are outshone by another element. An inhuman element. “Footfall” treats its aliens, the Fithp, with a unique style and sensibility that you rarely see applied to alien races in science fiction universes.

First, we have the obvious difference. These aliens are no humans. They don’t look like humans, they don’t act like humans, they don’t speak like humans. They are truly alien. It is strange that the most alien of creatures always comes out of books. In film, at least, the viewer can see what the alien looks like. Twenty pages of description can be done in a ten-second pan around of the alien. Often this is the problem that novels face. They don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but they want to create something unique. There usually have to be some compromise. Details get glossed over and aliens get homogenized. This often leads to details springing up at the last relevant moment or not brought up at all. The reader comes out of the scene disoriented with their understanding of the aliens shifted and fundamentally changed.

Okay, so what does “Footfall” do differently? They gave us another creature to build from. The Fithp look essentially like little elephants (little compared to an elephant of course). The novel is quick to describe the few key differences, and these differences are reinforced throughout the novel giving the reader a clear and concise picture of the alien without relying on old tropes or getting bogged down in details.

If that had been the only unique treatment of the Fithp in “Footfall” perhaps it would have been enough, but the novel goes further and explores more. There is a general human assumption, and a reasonable one, that any alien race coming down to visit us from the heavens must invariably be smarter than we are. After all, they had the means to get here didn’t they? That in itself should imply at least some degree of superior intelligence. The humans in “Footfall” immediately assume that they are now the second most intelligent species in the solar system (excluding lab rats and dolphins). Overall though, the notion that superior alien intelligence is required to achieve higher technical accomplishments is a fallacy. What is required is superior knowledge.

Eventually the humans come to understand that they are smarter than the Fithp. They can out do the Fithp. How did the Fithp get here, some are led to wonder. The answer is simple. They got here not of their own ideas or concepts. Not of their own ingenuity and knowledge, but instead from the acquired knowledge of a precursor race. I must again applaud “Footfall.” Not only did it take into account the assumptions of the human race, but it used those very assumptions against the reader, while at the same time prepping the reader for a good bit of ego stroking near the end.

Speaking of fallacies, we often assume that any alien societal structure will generally have more strength than our own. The Fithp follow a herd mentality, and the humans, having a structure more prone to shifts, evolutions, and restructuring, have difficulty at first understanding the rigid nature of Fithp herd society. What’s interesting here is that, in “Footfall,” the Fithp have already broken through the language barrier (at least for English) so again we avoid the entire trope of two cultures clashing purely due to difficulties in basic communication. Instead, we have something very different. The two cultures, Fithp and human, simply do not understand how the opposite culture operates. This, of course, leads to great confusion (and fun for the reader) when one species surrenders to the other.

It would be careless of me if I did not discuss the Fithp tongue while we are on the topic of language. At first, I thought their difficult language got in the way of my enjoyment. Names and concepts are hard to pronounce, and sometimes blend into one another. Stylistically it makes sense. Who am I to assume that an alien tongue would have any semblance to English. We have enough languages on this planet alone to boggle the mind. What I at first found disorienting and troublesome I later learned to appreciate. It put me in the same disorienting world as our captured humans. I appreciated this interesting bit of immersion by the end of the novel.

When all this comes together we have a finely painted alien species that differs so entirely from the human race, that they can be truly considered alien. Much of the interest in this story comes not from the science aspect, but from the meeting of two extraordinarily different species. Another interesting example of a truly alien race is that of the Moties from the beautifully named novel “A Mote in God’s Eye.” Curiously enough, this novel is penned by the same dynamic duo. In both novels, humans and aliens spend more time trying to understand one another than they do discussing the exacting details of alien technology and power. This is where science fiction truly shines.

This story has a lot of meat on it. It’s written with gusto. Set in the bowels of the cold war, it brings together a cast of characters so interesting and varied that almost any story could have unfolded with great success. Maybe it helps that some of the characters in the book are science fiction authors. A little self-serving maybe, but it certainly kept the corners of my mouth tugged in the upward direction. It’s good to see that science fiction set in the present (it was the present when it was written) can still go in just as many interesting directions as science fiction stories set in the distant future.

Next, I will shift gears to a slightly newer novel, and one that plays with traditional narrative structures in interesting ways. If you have a free moment in your reading agenda, take time out to read “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell. Don’t cop out and watch the movie. Let some words flow in front of your eyes, and let this interesting piece of narrative science fiction take hold of you. It may be slow going at first, but David Mitchell’s words will grow on you.

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