When wealthy soap company heir and amateur astronomer Tim Hamner co-discovers a new comet , dubbed Hamner-Brown, documentary producer Harvey Randall persuades Hamner to have his family's company sponsor a television documentary series on the subject.
Political lobbying by California Senator Arthur Jellison eventually gets a joint Apollo - Soyuz docking with Skylab B mission into space to study the comet, dubbed "The Hammer" by popular media, which is expected to pass close to the Earth. Despite the scientific community repeatedly assuring the public that a collision with Earth is extremely unlikely, pieces of the comet's nucleus impact across the western hemisphere with devastating results.
The strikes on parts of Europe, Africa, the Gulf of Mexico, and both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans set off volcanoes, destabilize fault lines, including the San Andreas fault , and cause tsunamis thousands of meters high, destroying major coastal cities around the world, killing billions and initiating long-term climate problems due to the massive quantities of vaporized seawater in the atmosphere.
Immediately after the strike, China, anticipating the coming ice age launches a preemptive nuclear attack on Russia.
The last Soviet Premier reassures the US that they are not the target, and he requests help against the unprovoked attack. Jellison's ranch forms the center post of a fiefdom in the Sierra foothills, dubbed "the Stronghold" where he presides over a small population of survivors, including Randall and Hamner, who struggle to maintain civilization.
The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865
Shortwave radio , the only surviving means of mass communication, is eagerly monitored and reveals a chaotic situation after the Fall. Several people, including some who were previously officials of the former United States Government , claim to be the new or currently acting President of the United States, while others are now self-proclaimed monarchs of various regions or areas.
Many people subsist by looting former stores and by catching rats and various fish, especially the now-plentiful giant carp , which are mostly either former pet goldfish or their progeny, engorged by the massive supply of food available to them, primarily in the form of human and animal corpses. Some advanced technical knowledge was maintained by the means of the preservation of a collection of books which had been wrapped in impermeable plastic and submerged in a septic tank shortly after Hammerfall and later retrieved by a JPL scientist who realized their potential value and likely scarcity in a post-Hammer world.
Reverend Henry Armitage manages to take control of a cannibalistic group of petty thieves and the remnants of a former United States Army unit, integrating them into his pre-existing band of followers, the New Brotherhood Army.
The Reverend's forces begin a rampage through the area, culminating in a series of battles with the inhabitants of the Stronghold. Jellison's force prevails with the help of chemical weapons, saving the Stronghold while also defending a nuclear power plant nearby, thus preserving a supply of electric power needed to rebuild civilization.
Niven and Pournelle originally pitched the story to publishers as an alien invasion story, wherein the aliens drop a comet onto Earth after humanity fights them. Jim Baen told them to just write the comet story.
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The original story idea was later written as their novel Footfall. Judith T. Yamamoto in her review for the Library Journal said that the novel was full of "good, solid science, a gigantic but well developed and coordinated cast of characters, and about a megaton of suspenseful excitement.
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