Fiction is full of a whole variety of apocalyptic scenarios - like the dead rising from the grave, a full-blown nuclear exchange, or a takeover by hostile machines. There is one scenario that has what you might call an “advantage” over these ones, though. The catastrophic collision of an asteroid into the Earth is all the more unsettling because it has actually happened before, and - looked at over a sufficiently long timescale - will inevitably happen again. It’s perhaps the ultimate disaster that we can imagine, and yet it is also very real.
According to the dominant Alvarez hypothesis, the dinosaurs and most of the planet’s species were wiped out 66 million years ago by the impact of an asteroid estimated to be between 10 and 15 kilometres across. That’s roughly the same size as Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. The strike would have had an explosive force equivalent to 100 million megatonnes of TNT; that’s the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, multipied by a billion. There are many other large craters around the world, each of which is the legacy of a devastating impact in the distant past. These include the Karakul crater in Tajikistan, the Popigai crater in Russia and the Vredefort crater in South Africa, the world’s biggest at over 160km across.
The asteroid impact scenario has inspired many works of fiction including last year’s film Don’t Look Up, the duelling 1998 blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon, and numerous sci-fi stories and novels. Of these, one of the most notable is the book The Hammer of God, written by Arthur C. Clarke and published in 1993. Taking into account the latest science of the time, the book was the second-to-last novel that Clarke wrote alone and the last one he wrote alone outside of the Odyssey series. Incorporating elements and styles from his better known earlier books, The Hammer of God partly inspired Deep Impact and could be a good entry point for newcomers to Clarke’s body of work.
By 1993, Clarke was a household name, particularly in the UK. His novels were well known and widely read, and his collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was already a milestone in SF. He was also working on a number of TV series, which contributed to a relative slowing in his written work. With The Hammer of God, he applied himself fully to the idea of a potential asteroid strike on the Earth, and the practical business of trying to prevent such a catastrophe.
The novel has a lot of features that will be familiar to experienced readers of Clarke. It is briskly paced, with a minimum of excess detail - particularly compared to a lot of today’s SF. It engages quite deeply with the recent scientific discoveries of the time, and contains Clarke’s imaginative speculation about the future. The book is also suffused with its author’s abiding sense of optimism. It may be about an apocalyptic scenario, and its plot is partly driven by acts of incredible selfishness and cruelty, but The Hammer of God is still rooted in the idea that people can and will work together to put aside their differences and build a better future. This approach arguably robs the book of some of its tension and believability, but it makes for a fairly unique take on the material that is distinctly Clarke.
The book is essentially made up of two halves. The first half details the discovery, by an amateur astronomer, of a fateful asteroid which is later named Kali, after the Hindu deity. However, this is not the main focus. Instead, much of the first half of the book is about its main character Captain Robert Singh; his background, family, and experiences. Clarke’s other interest at this point is in exploring the future he predicts for the world of 2109. It is a vision which quite closely resembles the futures depicted in Earthlight (1955) and Rendezvous With Rama (1973) among others. The world is peaceful, tolerant, diverse, and enriched by advances in technology. Many of the old rivalries of the past have fallen away, facilitating great leaps in space exploration in a relatively short period of time.
Clarke speculates about a number of technologies including what are now called brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), near-real simulations, medicines that increase human longevity, playback of memory recordings, and new forms of interplanetary communication. At times, Clarke’s predictions are unintentionally comical, such as his use of the term “space-faxes”, and the fact that many people have become bald as a side-effect of their use of BCI equipment. Clarke also includes material about social developments which are often catalysed by new technology. One seemingly insignificant example is the rise of “Chrislam”, a syncretic hybrid religion which fuses Christianity and Islam with small elements of Buddhism.
It is in the second half of the book that the main plot kicks into gear. Captain Singh is in command of Goliath, one of a pair of spacecraft which are each stationed at one of Jupiter’s Lagrange points. When the threat from Kali is established beyond doubt, Singh must lead Goliath’s crew in an effort to alter its trajectory in a way that will save the Earth. The plan to do this involves using ATLAS, a massive propulsion system stored on Mars’ moon Deimos and fueled with hydrogen on the Jovian moon Europa. With this being a Clarke novel, events are never as dramatic as those found in say, Armageddon. However, Singh’s crew face challenges from human and natural threats alike.
The Hammer of God proves that Clarke still had the capacity to use the SF novel to plausibly speculate and to entertain. The story is far less bombastic than most depictions of the same theme, but the novel is better for it. Despite Clarke’s positive outlook, The Hammer of God still has the power to unnerve. Why? Because its implication is that only a united, peaceful, post-scarcity society would have the means to overcome the threat of extinction. In climate breakdown, our real world faces such a threat - but we certainly don’t have the kind of society predicted by Clarke. That should make us feel anything but safe - especially if there is a real-life Kali out there, too.
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