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I read this novel at least 25 years ago, maybe more. I don't remember the cover.

There is a joke: How does an elephant come down from a tree ? It sits on a leaf and waits for autumn.

Well, this is how this book begins, by an army of elephant-looking aliens reaching Earth on gliders. And soon they control most of it.

One thing that I remember is that with them everything went by three (or maybe by four ?): their trunks that ended in many delicate "fingers", 9 or more (16?) ; their armies that were organized in a hierarchy by 3 or 4; and so on.

I don't remember much except that those who on Earth tried to keep fighting managed to leave the surface by a rather brutal method: huge (and very thick) metallic plates propelled by exploding nuclear bombs on their down side. (I don't remember how they manage to explode nuclear bombs progressively rather than all the bombs at once).

I think that by that method, once the "elephants" lose full control of the sky, mankind manages to win the war.

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    Definitely Footfall as stated in the answer below. I stayed up all night reading it when it was new. As to delivering bombs one at a time, if a soda machine can deliver one soda at a time to a customer, then surely the Orion engineers can figure out how to deliver one bomb at a time below the plate. Jan 18 at 1:37
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    @InvisibleTrihedron The soda machine does not deliver one soda in a zone where an atomic bomb has just exploded... ;)
    – Alfred
    Jan 18 at 8:09
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    For the atom bomb-spaceship: This is also a real NASA design. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion). They even did some bit of testing for the concept, before it was shelved for obvious reasons
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 18 at 9:22
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    Oddly enough, I'm reading Footfall (for the first time) right now. It doesn't "begin" with elephants on gliders, though; I'm on Chapter 11 (about 25%) and no gliders yet, and only a very brief appearance of the aliens. The first quarter of the book is all about humans noticing their ship and "preparing" for it.
    – Matthew
    Jan 18 at 15:19
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    @Matthew As I have written, I read this 25 years ago or more. What I remembered was the arrival of the... Fithp, as I have now ascertained, multi-trunked elephants as I remembered when I asked my question. The beginning of the book did not leave as strong an impression in my memory as the gliders....
    – Alfred
    Jan 18 at 22:31

1 Answer 1

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This is Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

The alien Fithp resemble baby elephants with multiple prehensile trunks. They possess more advanced technology than humans, but did not develop any of it on their own. In the distant past on their planet, another species was dominant. The predecessor species badly damaged the environment, rendering itself and many other species extinct, but left behind their knowledge inscribed on large stone cubes from which the Fithp gained their technology. An arms race between two rival herds threatened to render the species extinct, so they wagered to see who would depart in a starship and seek a new home elsewhere. The leadership of the loser formed the Chtaptisk Fithp ('Traveling Herd').
...
The US secretly builds a large, heavily armed spacecraft in Washington state that is propelled by nuclear bombs, a real concept known as Project Orion

enter image description here

For the record, the alien's society appears to be based on the number eight

“There were eights of eight-cubed of thuktunthp scattered about the world. The Predecessors.
...
They would drown, by eight to the eighths. The Herdmaster mourned in advance. “Have you chosen our foothold?’

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    This is indeed it. But Wikipedia does not mention the number on which their society was organised, which is an important point I remember. But was it 3 ? 4 ? 9 ?
    – Alfred
    Jan 17 at 22:59
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    "“There were eights of eight-cubed of thuktunthp scattered about the world. The Predecessors"
    – Valorum
    Jan 17 at 23:06
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    A line of insect-sized flyers converged toward the town ahead. Those weren't parachutes. "Delta wings," Harry Red murmured. "Hang gliders." The shapes hanging under the delta wings were not human.
    – DavidW
    Jan 17 at 23:09
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    The "Science Fiction writers get asked by the US Government to advise them" also happened for real - but I don't remember if the book came first. I know that Larry Niven was involved in a post-9/11 government thinktank (obviously after the book) but I think there was an earlier "Strategic Defence Initiative" (a.k.a. StarWars) era one too - which would be around the time he wrote the book...
    – AdamT
    Jan 18 at 11:52
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    @jeffronicus, sounds similar to The Funniest Joke In the World. 😄 Jan 18 at 18:16

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