Footfall – A Relevant Cold War Invasion

In 1985 the world was changing. The Cold War was losing steam, the USSR was becoming more open, and aliens were about to invade Earth. At least they were invading in the novel Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Alien invasion stories were a staple of science fiction in the 1950’s and 60’s. Often an allegory for the potential invasion by the Soviet Union into western territories, most notably the United States, these types of stories fell out of fashion not only because of repetitive nature of the stories but this sort of invasion was becoming all too unlikely.

While Footfall was written before glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, Niven and Pournelle could probably have been forgiven for resorting to time honoured tropes to give readers a more slightly modern take on the typical Red Menace story but they didn’t take this route. Niven and Pournelle managed to use it in a more internally logical fashion. Instead they gave us an invader free of the politics of the day. Human politics at least.

Larry Niven (left) and Jerry Pournelle (right).
Larry Niven (left) and Jerry Pournelle (right).

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, both highly regarded science fiction authors in their own rights, collaborated on four novels prior to 1985, and then five more, including Footfall, afterwards. In each instance both author’s skill and style compliments the other and Footfall is among their best efforts together. Many other people thought so as well since it went to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. A feat nearly impossible for a science fiction book in the 80’s.

The story opens with the discovery of some strange things happening in the rings of Saturn. A strange shape has appeared in them and it doesn’t take astronomers in Hawaii long to come to the conclusion that a spacecraft is responsible. They alert the authorities in the U.S. but also their counterparts in the Soviet Union in an act of scientific solidarity.

In 1985, the idea of cooperating with the Soviet Union was hard to imagine. The previous year saw the release of the film Red Dawn, a film about an actual Soviet invasion into the U.S. While it was not a very realistic depiction of such an event it was popular enough.

The story then takes a while to develop as we see how the U.S. and Soviet governments and officials respond to the news of the alien spacecraft. There is speculation about the intents of the aliens and whether they can even communicate with them as there has been no response to their radio messages. The only thing that is certain is that the craft is slowing down and on a course to rendezvous with Earth.

But we aren’t just looking at things through the eyes of humanity. We also see the preparations from the view of the invaders, the Fithp. Niven and Pournelle have given the audience a fully fledged and unique alien culture with its own moral code of conduct and reasoning. The don’t just look different than humans they behave, reason, and feel differently than humans.

This is one of the highlights of the story, the world building bringing the Fithp to life. Niven has always had a knack for creating interesting alien species that aren’t just humans with something added or removed. This ability comes to bear in the way the Fithp conduct themselves and the invasion. But they are not a homogenous group either. The individual Fithp also have personal ideas and motivations that affect the outcome of events.

The story continues to alternate between human and fithp points of view. And not just between one or two characters but from a multitude of angles. Each one adding their little thread to the total pattern.

Footfall is a hugely devised story with a very large cast of characters. If anything lets this book down it’s the fact that many of these characters are seen infrequently and briefly, appearing just long enough to push some plot point and then never heard from again. I think this can be forgiven somewhat as many hands would be required to accomplish something as grand as fighting alien invaders and not all stories need telling in great detail.

Although I do think the authors did a disservice to the entire story by not having a fully rounded ending for the Soviet side of things. This may have had something to do with lack of knowledge of how Soviets may fully react to an alien invasion in 1985 since they were not particularly forthcoming about their society as a whole at that time.

As the plot unfolds, events start to run away and the pace reaches breakneck speeds at the end. In fact, the ending is so sudden you might be caught off guard. This is a bit of a let down as well. There is no denouement to the story. It ends quickly on a knife edge and the reader is left to make up their own mind about the results. The ending is almost pulpish in its execution.

Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

The reason this could be so unbalancing is that ending only truly makes sense if you completely understand and embrace the fithp culture. If the reader does then you can see how the future will continue. If the reader doesn’t then they might well be looking for a couple of chapters more or at least a decent sized epilogue.

Footfall, at its heart, is story about a society that is facing off against a superior foe and how they meet that challenge. It’s the sort of story we’ve seen unfold throughout human history including most recently in the Crimea. That’s what makes reading Footfall so relevant today. The need for people to never give up regardless of how big the obstacle or force might seem because with careful planning, and a bit of luck, we can beat the odds.

Footfall is not the greatest novel I’ve ever read, nor is it the greatest novel these authors have written, either alone or together, but it is a good and entertaining story that also provides a snapshot of late Cold War Era life and thinking. If you think films like Independence Day (1996) are overrated and overblown depictions of a possible invasion from space I would heartily recommend reading Footfall for perhaps a more measured and grounded depiction of such a conflict, because despite it’s age Footfall remains an excellent portrayal of a hostile alien invasion.


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