Menu Close

The Rules Of Civility Will Be The First Casualty

A “new to me” book I have been reading and finding enjoyable is actual quite old, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. I am about 60% of the way through the book, first published in 1977, and it is a beefy tome. The mass market paperback is listed at 640 pages and because it was written in the 70s it takes it’s time to get to the pivotal moment in the book. Despite the age of the book it hasn’t lost much in technological changes with no smart phones or some of the other common technology we have come to take for granted, which is a sign of a well told story. 
I am quite certain that I owned a paperback copy of this when I was a kid but never read it, so I find myself at 50 reading books I acquired when I was 8 or 10 and reading them now. 
Lucifer’s Hammer is in some ways pretty standard fare for the “end of the world” genre, but what sets it apart is the detail. Spoiler alert but the basic gist of the story is that a comet strikes the earth and causes the near instantaneous end of civilization. If you have looked at a map, one thing you will notice is that many of the world’s population centers and most significant cities are located on or near water so something like a massive strike in the oceans from multiple large objects would cause tsunamis and wipe many cities out. L.A. is on the coast and only 300′ above sea level. D.C. sits on the ocean and is only 400′ above sea level, New York is basically at sea level. You get the point. Bad things happen. Niven and Pournelle get pretty deep into the science of the events and the cast of characters is a bit unwieldy but it comes together. 
Each chapter starts with a quote and one really caught my eye. It comes from a book titled The Coming Dark Age by Roberto Vacca and the quote reads as follows with some added context from the book:
It is certain that free societies would have no easy time in a future dark age. The rapid return to universal penury will be accompanied by violence and cruelties of a kind now forgotten. The force of law will be scant or nil, either be cause of the collapse or disappearance of the machinery of state, or because of difficulties of communication and transport. It will be possible only to delegate authority to local powers who will maintain it by force alone —and who will be able, with the same force, to resist the source from which their delegated authority derives. In such a situation feudal anarchy becomes the rule. 

The rights of property will undergo very profound and rapid changes. Registers of landed property —even now chronically inaccurate and out of date will lose all meaning: at first because most landowners will have died without heirs, and then because perpetuating a grievous and antiquated system of property registration is an intolerable burden when that property is virtually worthless. Ownership through use will become the common way of acquiring property; it will no longer require ten or twenty years or more to be operative, but a few months or weeks. The advantage of possession will make most desirable those properties which easily lend themselves to defense against seizure by force.
We take for granted that things will just work a certain way. There are rules and we follow those rules because we as people know at a subconscious level that if we don’t, the alternative is the chaos that our forbearers fought to tame. Our civil society relies on these rules and most people, especially heritage Americans, follow these rules. We stop for stop signs because if we didn’t, lots of people would die in car crashes. We pay for the items in our cart at the store because if we didn’t the stores would close. We respect the property boundaries of our neighbor’s yard and in return expect the same. We have laws and a law enforcement mechanism to enforce these laws but there aren’t enough cops to police every four-way stop. You could drive around all day running stop signs and not get caught by a cop, but you are very likely to get in a wreck. 
Something portrayed vividly in Lucifer’s Hammer and also from examples in real life when society breaks down however temporarily is that these rules of civility are often abandoned almost immediately, especially by some people who figure out that things are different more rapidly than others. Most of us would presumably still try to cling to the rules of civility, at least initially, because that is all most of us know. People who live on the fringes of civil society? They wouldn’t wait for long, just as soon as it became apparent they could get away with it they would go wild. Look at the aftermath of civil disorder, whether caused by natural disaster or manmade chaos. There are people who are simply waiting for the right circumstances to start looting, whether it is the aftermath of a hurricane or a “mostly peaceful protest”. An increasingly numerous subset of people dwelling in America didn’t grow up in a civil society and won’t hesitate to go back to the proverbial and often literal law of the jungle. If the breakdown appeared to be more permanent than a storm? The resulting chaos would be far more intense. 
In a society without the rules of civility, things are going to be different. A lot different.
What you own will be what you can hold, or what you are willing to take. The title to a car, the deed to a house, the receipt showing you paid for groceries or batteries? That shit will be meaningless. I wouldn’t be surprised to find people showing up at their “bugout” location only to find some local boys are already there and not at all impressed that you paid the property taxes for years. What are you going to do about it? If the answer isn’t “shoot them, reclaim my property and take their stuff” then you are wasting your money on a bugout bunker. 

There will be a direct relationship between your likelihood of surviving the initial chaos and how quickly you can change your mindset to reflect the new reality. Whining like a little kid “That’s mine, no fair!” won’t help you keep your stuff and more than likely will accelerate how quickly you get a bullet in the back of your head. For most of human history and in much of contemporary human reality the rule is still “Might Makes Right”. You don’t have to become a wastelands warlord but you need to be ready to avoid being a victim of one.
To beat the proverbial dead horse, this is why mental preparation is at least as important as physical prep. The longer your mind stays stuck in normie, “things will go back the way they were” mode, the greater your likelihood of getting killed by someone who doesn’t share your fantasy. If someone you don’t know (or maybe even do know) shows up unannounced, you won’t have the luxury of asking them their business politely. Instead your response should be a twitch away from gunfire unless and until they prove to be harmless. Honestly in a SHTF situation, no one will be harmless. Underestimating the most base human nature will be lethal and quickly.
You should already be categorizing people into different groups in your mind. Your spouse and your kids are hopefully completely trustworthy. Close family and friends would be next on the trust scale. Other friends and acquaintances with useful skills are in the next ring out. After that? Everyone is suspect. Keep your preps on the down low, need to know basis. Don’t think for a second that your overweight, soft neighbor who wears socks with sandals and drives a Mini Cooper would hesitate to put one in your back to get your stuff if things get ugly. 
The prepared mind is compartmentalized with “how I deal with people now in a mostly polite society” and “seeing everyone as a potential threat”. Your trigger to switch mindsets should be very light indeed. The rules of a civil society will be the first casualty, your mental preparation and ability to change gears will determine if you are the second casualty. 


  1. 3g4me

    I didn't own Lucifer's Hammer as a kid but did read most of it (put it down before finishing it) a few years ago. As you note, it takes a very circuitous route to its point. And while the lack of modern tech wasn't an issue, I found the whole social setting extremely awkward and dated (but then I've never had any desire to live in California and never followed 'the stars'). Knowing who is dependable and who isn't is key, and dropping normalcy bias is also vital. These main points are equally addressed in a lot of the newer TEOTWAWKI books, some good and others not so much.

    As far as compartmentalizing how one deals with people, I always see everyone as an idiot and a potential threat; I can speak politely but firmly to the standard fool while simultaneously wishing him deceased. YMMV.

  2. Troy Lee Messer

    ….There will be a direct relationship between your likelihood of surviving the initial chaos and how quickly you can change your mindset to reflect the new reality….

    The last two years have shown is there is this lack of cognitive ability.

    …. The longer your mind stays stuck in normie, "things will go back the way they were" mode, the greater your likelihood of getting killed by someone who doesn't share your fantasy…..

    One of the benefits of having been homeless is that it gives you a very low Maslovs Heirarchy of Needs outlook. Because when you are looking for a place to shit, everyone is an enemy. you look for places that are out of sight. When you are homeless, you have already lost everything. though there is baggage with that, finding food has a way of placating baggage.

    I, for one, will thouroughly enjoy watching people kill themselves and getting themselves killed, because a life without Netflix and an Iphone is a life not worth living.

  3. Last Days To The Rodeo

    Although your delivery is much more structured and rational, I have been trying to convey this same message to people who have asked for years. The ability to switch from mild-mannered husband, father, mother, wife, etc., to trained killer will be far more important in the initial stages of collapse than most skills associated with prepping. The hardest to convince of this are the more passive homesteaders that, for them, a collapse of society will simply mean an isolated Little House on the Prairie scenario where they tend to a vegetable garden while the cities burn. I've had the opportunity to visit thousands of small towns and cities around the country and I can tell you that no matter how remote, there is always a "Bubba and Earl" waiting to unleash their inner psychopath. Prepare accordingly and prepare your family for the beast you may become when the time comes.

  4. James M Dakin

    I've read a metric butt ton of post-apocalypse since my teens and to my mind none come close to being as good as Lucifer's Hammer. That said, you have to enjoy reading. It is not for everyone. If reading hurts your brain- no judgment- you want to read No Blade Of Grass. Very close to being one of the best ever, it is mercifully short. If you want more of a Almost Happy Ending, go with Cannibal Reign. More for modern sensibilities, and a regular length book. If you owned all those three, you'll never buy another one close to as good.

  5. Anonymous

    a long time ago, a group of us gave our extra c-rations to some kids. once outside the gates. they where set upon by older folks who then beat the shit out of them for the c-rats. we where told to stand down. a couple of said kids ended up dead. we started feeding the kids INSIDE the gates after that.
    but, it was something I never forgot either. being civil for most is skin deep at best. and that is only because they fear what may happen if they not civil. once that is gone, all bets are off.
    do not think you will be able to barter with your silver or gold for a meal or fuel. most of the people you will run into will rather kill you and take your shit instead. count on it.
    you will need guards you can trust with your life. country folk will have to band together or die.
    hard to work on anything when you might be shot in the back for your clothes or boots.
    let alone whatever food you may have. it will not be pretty to see or live thru.
    and never let anyone know what you holding.

  6. E M Johnson

    a key point mentioned earlier, prepare those closest for the ugly you will have to let out. Especially your spouse who may have never seen that part of you or even imagined it was in there.

  7. Glypto Dropem

    I am well practiced at turning it on or off. Working in EMS, we get the total bullshit calls, or the repeat calls from the "frequent flyers." On the way to the scene, we curse those that DEMAND our services for stupid shit and/or for the umpteenth time. As soon as we get face to face with them, we become the helpful and pleasant EMT. It isn't much of a stretch for me to impart extreme violence in order to survive.

  8. Arthur Sido

    I can definitely tell LH was written back in the 70s when people had more patience in reading, they would have made them chop 1/3 or more of the book out if it was being published today.

  9. Otis D

    I like Alas, Babylon better. and The Stand by King, even though he's a putz, is an amazing read of dystopia.

    Earth Abides is pretty good, too.

    been years since I read those.

  10. JJJ

    Lucifer's Hammer has one of the strongest visuals for "Rules don't apply" – when they are driving up the fairways and across the green because traffic has snarled the roads surrounding the municipal golf course.

  11. Anonymous

    ALAS BABYLON was my 1st book about society descending to chaos. This was when I was a young college student. I've been into hunting since I was very young, I was blessed to have a younger brother who also felt the same way. Firearms were taught to us early and young teens had our own rifles given to us for deer and rabbit hunting. Handguns when young were a Ruger Single-Six (not Super model, that came later). It was a great time to be alive.

  12. Anonymous

    This is why "Gasp! Bill Gates owns the most Farms!!" does not worry me. Outside of a good rule of law, the current "rich" will not stay that way.

    When TSHTF, all of the "rich" and the "powerful" will undergo a quick and messy changeover. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Bill DeBlasio, Hillary Clinton, Soros, and any number of other clowns won't mean crap any longer. Turn off the electricity or collapse the currency, and their belongings will transfer to their security.

    Land, possessions, and resources will belong to those who can keep and use them.

    There will be a quick die-off from bad water, a somewhat longer paroxysm of violence, then things will settle back into trade and cooperation.

    It will be interesting, but at my age, I don't expect to see the other side.

  13. Arthur Sido

    I have read Alas, Babylon and it is pretty good but the setting is kind of dated. I'll have to check out Earth Abides, as for the Stand I have a hard time reading anything by King but at least I can read his books without him getting a dime for it.

  14. Arthur Sido

    The 70s and 80s were the best, it enrages me that the world my own kids grew up in was so awful in comparison. It didn't have to be this way and a lot of people need to pay for what they did.

  15. Arthur Sido

    Good point, once the "money" their security guys are paid no longer exists when the system shuts down, their security might just help themselves to Bill's stuff and drive away in one of his sports cars. Probably over his corpse.

  16. EasyCompany

    The best shft type book I ever read was First Angel by Ed Mann, it was part of the Soldier of Fortune series.

    Publish in 1989, it deals with WW3 in rural Kentucky. 3 main characters are a NG Captain trying to hold things together, a survivalist group leader, and a brigand leader.

    Many little subplots that are welled fleshed out, refugee camp, trading post, survivng the fallout and on and on.

    All very realistic.

  17. Plague Monk

    Not necessarily; I'm in the process of finishing the first in a 3 novel hard SF novel that combines an unusual means of getting to space with an Allen Drury style political novel(Advise and consent) of an alternate history. The publisher has no problem if the first book goes to 1200 pages, though it might be chopped up into 2-3 novels. Total projected length is around 3000 pages.

  18. Anonymous

    A Serbian refugee told me that during the collapse their neighbours came over and kicked them out of their family home using a lot of violence and only spared their lives because they'd been good neighbours. The refugee still considers it their home but good luck with that

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *