Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Footfall1I originally had all these great ideas for making fun of reviewing my latest Niven-Pournelle Hugo-nominated disaster read, the main one being that I was going to list every single character intro in this 100-and-some-odd number cast, a la Ross Putman @femscriptintros, just to demonstrate how ridiculous and sexist these guys are at character descriptions.


She was about Jeanette’s age, and she would have been pretty if she’d washed her face and put on some lipstick. She was frowning heavily as she drank coffee. (loc. 415).

It would’ve made for a long post, as some of those character descriptions get, er, lingering, but I was up for it.

But then, BUT THEN, I discovered this:


Thank you for your reviews listings.

Inside this little yellow-covered 1985 edition of the delightful and scholarly British periodical Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction (of which I need to renew my subscription) is a Footfall review written by a 26-year-old lad named Neil Gaiman, fresh off his publishing debut of a Duran Duran biography. I. just. could. not. let this escape.

I’ve already shared my more recent thoughts on Gaiman, but he is a gateway author for me, and although I’ve outgrown him (or perhaps he’s outgrown me, as he’s moved on to become a crowd-pleasing, social media titan, children’s book writer, and proponent of safe social causes, i.e. libraries), I still appreciate that shadowy sentimentality he once cast upon the world, with American Gods being his most satisfyingly chill and odd and discomfiting novel. And to discover a young, rough-around-the-edges Neil Gaiman reviewing “Hard SF” fanbait by genre overlords Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle? No matter how this goes, this is going to be good.

Footfall is a blockbuster,” is his opening line, followed by an irreverent explanation about the characteristics of blockbusters due to their size (check) and “long casts of characters at the front” (check). He also warns that “If you hit someone with a blockbuster… you could do some serious damage.” (85)

His synopsis:

Footfall is a novel of First Contact, and it is signalled early on that the contact is not going to be particularly friendly: if you miss THE ULTIMATE NOVEL OF ALIEN INVASION on the cover, the alien’s description of us as “the prey” on page 2 of the Prologue should clarify that these aliens are Up To No Good…

Commentary on the unenlightened NivPourn signature self-insert:

The sf writers, including Heinlein, Niven and Pournelle, disappear off to an underground US base pretty quickly, and from there serve the function of explaining the plot to the US Government (“This is what the aliens are doing and why…)–much in the way that Asimov’s Robots and Empire robots perform incredible feats of deduction purely to let the reader grasp the plot… If the aliens had had a cadre of sf writers, it is implied, they would have understood the significance of Deep Throat and beaten us to boot.

Yep. It’s all in there.

He ends his synopsis with peak snark: “They are forced back into space, and decide that humanity needs to be persuaded to surrender by… The Foot!”

And while he is somewhat positive about the alien psychology–elephantine beings with herd-like mentality–(and isn’t this just Cold War thinking as usual? but Gaiman save the political stuff for the end)–and admits the Deep Throat confusion is “enjoyable” (dude. DUDE. that part is so dorky…), he is reasonably disturbed by the lack of humanity among the US-centric cast when India is destroyed, Africa is plundered, and millions of people die, adding that “[i]t reinforces the impression that the book is essentially parochial: The World is not threatened by aliens, only America is.” He complains of the cast of a hundred Americans and a few KGB strawmen, “while one Indian (or perhaps more easy for Niven and Pournelle to write, one aging sf writer in Sri Lanka*) among the cast would have engaged the reader, and perhaps made one care more than one does.”

(*For the non-vintage readers: he’s referencing Clarke right there.)

But the final paragraph says it all:

What could have been a gripping novel of alien contact is diffused into a Why Americans Are Best, Why Star Wars* (And, For That Matter, Anything Else We Can Get Into Space That Packs A Punch) Is Very Necessary, and Why Atomic Weaponry Is A Good Thing Book, with some incidentally enjoyable aliens, infallible sf writers, and a great deal of unrealized potential.

*Not the movie, kids.

(I would contest the unrealized potential part. And even the enjoyable alien part.)


The British first edition that Gaiman likely reviewed.

It’s not a perfect review: Missing are notes regarding the egregious sexism and clunky, clunky plot design (because you know that’s how NivPourn approach writing: jamming parts together like toddler with a lego kit), but, most importantly, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop with quips about other shoes (or feet) dropping in Footfall. Didn’t happen, to my disappointment, which should have been, I suppose, an expected undesirable outcome.

Mostly, though, Gaiman’s sarcasm about this book puts a happy tingle in my heart (though for what reasons anyone could ever take this book or these authors seriously I will never comprehend). I laughed and clapped along, and it makes me pseudo-nostalgic for a time when Gaiman could step on entitled toes (or chests) and say strong, incautious things; that time before he was a writer of blockbusters.

(This doesn’t stop Ursula Le Guin, however.)

17 thoughts on “Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

  1. Warstub says:

    “jamming parts together like toddler with a lego kit”
    Hey, that’s exactly how my old band used to put songs together. Don’t knock it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Warstub says:

    She would have been pretty if she’d found some decent fuckin’ human beings to be around!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “She was frowning heavily as she drank coffee.” That’s actually how I picture you. While glowering at a vintage, probably partially moth eaten, sci-fi novel.


  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    A while back gender switched passages from SF novels were circulated by Jim C. Hines — I bet this book would be a “fantastic” example…

    I’d love to read a rewritten passage!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      I rewrote the quote you provided: “He was about Jim’s age, and he would have been pretty if he’d washed his face and put on some cologne. He was frowning heavily as he drank coffee. (loc. 415).”


      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Hmm, I dunno what I would put instead of lipstick — who knows… haha


        • Warstub says:

          Maybe some “sun glasses to hide his morose and boring eyes” (instead of lips and shtick).


        • Warstub says:

          Although, I do think ‘cologne’ works perfectly well, but swapping ‘pretty’ for ‘attractive’ as though I woman would only be attracted to him if he smelled good.


          • and why not keep the lipstick? that is the point, after all.


          • Warstub says:

            No, I think the point is to find the most superficial description of how someone could find another person attractive. With these authors it seems to be with lipstick as a starting qualifier for being “pretty”. I don’t know what it might be for a sexist female author, since men generally don’t wear lipstick – muscle? Muscle seems to be the beauty image that men get hammered with a lot.


          • I still think lipstick is adequate, but O see what you’re saying. How about this: “he’d be handsome if he shaved.”

            It’s just not quite the same, is it. which is the very nature of sexism.


          • Warstub says:

            Yeah, I was thinking how much harder it is from the other side. It just has to FEEL derogatory – I mean telling a woman they’d look pretty if they just stuck some makeup on is really shit! But from the other perspective, I think you really have to appeal to the male stereotype: “He’d be a real man if he just put some muscle on those pathetically skinny bones of his!”


    • Wow, he posted that just a few days ago! That is a brilliant idea.


  5. […] Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – A lengthy, mostly US-centric story about the invasion of a herd of elephantine aliens who are I mean just completely baffled by human (read: American and Russian) behavior. Among the many, many, cookie cutter characters, a group of science fiction writers (heh heh) are recruited by the government (har har) to save the day (hardy har har). Eff me. […]


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