Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Hal Clement by Graham Sleight

The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter, Hal Clement (NESFA 1-886788-06-X, , $25.00, 518pp, hc) 1999. Cover by George Richard.
The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 2: Music of Many Spheres, Hal Clement (NESFA 1-886788-07 -8, $25.00, 506pp, hc) 2000. Cover by George Richard.
The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 3: Variations on a Theme by Sir Isaac Newton, Hal Clement (NESFA 1-886778-08-6, $25.00, 465pp, hc) 2000. Cover by Richard McKenna.

Hal Clement’s work represents, in remarkably pure form, a particular tradition of writing SF. So to write about him is really to write about the strengths and weaknesses of that whole tradition. Thankfully, these three NESFA volumes collect much of Clement’s most essential work into permanent form and allow the reader to get an overview of his whole body of work. Volume 1 contains three novels: Needle (Astounding, 1949), Iceworld (Astounding, 1951), and Close to Critical (Astounding, 1958). Volume 2 collects short stories from across his career. And Volume 3 contains his most famous novel, Mission of Gravity (1953) together with its sibling Star Light (1970) and associated shorter fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps the place to start is the story “Uncommon Sense” (1945) from Volume 2, retrospectively given the Hugo Award. It starts in the middle of a crisis. Laird Cunningham, an explorer of star systems, is sheltering in a cave on a planet orbiting the star Deneb. His rocket has crashed there following sabotage by two of his assistants. They are now attempting to repair the ship and get it back to serviceable shape while Cunningham hides from them. But because the light on this planet is so bright, and the ship’s hull gleams so brilliantly,

[Cunningham] was forced to keep his eyes elsewhere most of the time, and look only in brief glimpses at the dazzling metal; and in consequence, he paid more attention to the details of his environment than he might otherwise have done. At the time, this circumstance annoyed him; he has since been heard to bless it fervently and frequently.

The point is clear: paying attention to the details of your environment is never a mistake in a Clement story. In this case, what Cunningham discovers is the local lifeforms. They are small and crablike, and are seemingly preyed on by other, centipede-like creatures. He is curious as to how the crab-creatures can survive in this airless environment (he and the other humans are wearing spacesuits), and so investigates: the crab-creatures appear to have a kind of liquid metal for blood. As the blood cools to the planet’s natural temperature, it solidifies, and Cunningham hatches a plan. At night, when his two former assistants aren’t watching, he takes a couple of solidified rods of this metal and applies it to the hull of the ship where they had been welding. In the morning, when they begin welding again, they inadvertently melt the metal blood. As Cunningham had gambled, the smell of the blood attracts the centipede-creatures, who attack in a kind of frenzy. In the confusion, he is able to get into the ship himself, lock the other two out, and call for help.

However simple the central conceit, “Uncommon Sense” nicely demonstrates the central idea of Clement’s fiction: investigating the world will enable you to make sense of it and, very often, benefit in the process. Cunningham may look, superficially, like a Heinleinesque Competent Man, but he differs in having the kind of detailed curiosity I’ve described. Heinlein’s heroes tend to win out because of the strength of their belief, because they’re right but the world doesn’t know it (quite) yet. Clement’s heroes tend to win out because their faith in empiricism is ultimately rewarded. (The unspoken axiom there, of course, is that empiricisim is sufficient to solve any problems that may come along. It’s no surprise, then, that Clement’s stories tend to be arranged so that this indeed is the case. The question of how often a situation like the one in “Uncommon Sense” might arise in everyday life is not addressed.) There are a couple more arguments that might be made against Clement’s worldview. First is that empiricism tends to trump all other values — contemporary readers might balk a little at the scene in “Uncommon Sense” where he kills the crab-creatures just on the off-chance that he might find out things about them. The second is that he’s not particularly interested in character. Characters have traits, to be sure — Cunningham is determined, the two men who have highjacked his ship are “villains.” But any idea of a more rounded selfhood is very rare in Clement.

Many of the central ideas in Clement’s work are taken from chemistry and (pre-Einstein) physics — he took a degree in astronomy and subsequently worked as a high-school chemistry teacher. This gives his work a peculiarly grounded feel, especially when a lot of hard SF today tends to make use of the wilder shores of physics. (Or, more exactly, it often takes the cool and wacky bits from contemporary physics, and then just makes up whatever new ideas it needs to enable the story.) Both the chemistry and physics are on show in Mission of Gravity.

The premise, famously, is that of a super-large planet, Mesklin. Because of its mass, it is oblate, very much flattened at the poles and bulging out at the equator. Gravity at the equator is about three times that of Earth; at the poles, 700 times. The plot itself is the barest McGuffin hunt. Barlennan, an insect-like Mesklinite, is employed by a group of humans to travel from the equator to the pole to recover data from a crashed scientific probe. So the novel travels through progressively more extreme environments. What the reader discovers very quickly is two things. Firstly, that Clement has the perfect expository voice: clear, lucid, answering all the questions you might have. Second, so do all his characters. So a lot of information is imparted in dialogue like this:

“It seems as though it should work, though,” [Rosten] admitted grudgingly. “Just what sort of sled are we supposed to build for this ocean liner of your friend’s? How big is it, again?”

“The Bree is about forty or fifty feet long and fifteen across; I suppose it draws five or six inches. It’s made of lots of rafts about three feet long and half as wide, roped together so they can move freely — I can guess why, on this world.”

“Hmph. So can I. If a ship that long had its two ends supported by waves while the middle hung free up near the pole, it would be in pieces before long whether it started that way or not. How is it driven?”

“Sails; there are masts on twenty or thirty of the rafts. I suspect there may be centerboards on some of them too, retractable so the ship can be beached; but I never asked Barlennan.”

And so on. You’re given all the information you need to visualise this ship, and more importantly to understand why it’s shaped as it is. But the thing that makes this passage unconvincing is right there in the first paragraph: Rosten’s “How big is it, again?” — so that the reply is, almost literally, an “As you know, Bob…” The elements of this dialogue that are supposedly inflections of character — Rosten being grudging, or making clear that he can work out the reasons for the boat’s construction — feel pasted on to the infodump.

The positive side of this, though, is the thoroughness of Clement’s worldbuilding. You realise that he has a peculiar talent for thinking through the second- and third-order consequences of his ideas. One of the fundamental ideas here is that because of its huge mass, Mesklin has a very high speed of rotation, and so a short day. Clement then goes on to the next logical consequence, that because of the high Coriolis force, a thrown object will always tend to swerve to the left. To take another example, because of Mesklin’s low temperature, the seas are made of methane rather than water, and so because of the higher density of methane, hurricanes at sea tend to blow themselves out much more quickly than on Earth.

In his introduction to this volume, David Langford refers — I think absolutely rightly — to Clement’s “staunch faith in universal principles and underlying reasonableness.” To me, this explains two central things about Clement’s writing. It accounts for the extent to which the world is always perceived as something that can be understood through the application of empiricism and science rather than, say, understanding of character or motivation. And it also addresses, as Langford notes, the criticism that Barlennan and other aliens in Clement aren’t alien enough, that they behave and reason as humans do. (This isn’t quite the case, and Clement is very good at making the Mesklinite culture reflect their high-gravity environment; but their phobia of, say, heights is again somewhat pasted on to the rest of their character.) Clement’s most central axiom is that empiricism will always work, and that it will always trump whatever else might get in the way of understanding. You’ll enjoy his fiction to the extent that you can share that axiom. It may be that, in these clouded and postmodern times, his positivistic clarity is more difficult to accept than it once was.

Mission of Gravity is accompanied in the NESFA volume by a number of associated pieces. Perhaps the one to start with is Clement’s 1953 essay “Whirligig World”, written for Astounding, which serialised the novel. Here Clement sets out the process by which he arrived at the orbit, size, and composition of Mesklin. This exercise of showing his working is fascinating in itself, of course, and also something of a contrast to a lot of hard SF these days is worked out. A lot of times in contemporary works, you feel that handwaving has gone on (especially handwaving using speculative quantum physics) to engineer the outcome the author wants. Clement makes no bones about shaping Mesklin so that it was a venue that could house a story. But he does so without any shortcuts in his logic or use of science.

The other novels collected in Volume 1 of the NESFA edition share the same worldview. Close to Critical, for instance, is set on Tenebra, a world where gravity, temperature and pressure are contrived so that water is close to its triple point — it may be solid, liquid, or gas. So oceans rise vastly at night, and much of their water boils away in the day. Needle is more involved with ideas of biology than Clement’s other books. It’s the story of two jellyfish-like aliens, crash-landed on Earth, with one (“the Hunter”) a police-officer-equivalent seeking the other, a criminal. Both end up residing in human bodies in a kind of symbiosis in order to get around. The core of the book (and its main viewpoint) is the relationship between the Hunter and Bob, the teenage boy in whose body he comes to reside. From the moment when the Hunter first reveals himself to Bob, the boy has a kind of open-eyed curiosity and wonder at the situation that, you sense, was what Clement wanted his readers to feel about the world in general. Iceworld was the one of this trio that I felt was a little routine. The premise, as ever in Clement, is just an excuse to explore a particular scientific concept. Like Needle, the specific idea here is a cops-and-criminals one, with alien police trying to track an evil drug made on Earth — tobacco. The twist is that they come from a very much hotter environment than humans, so our planet is freezing and inhospitable for them.

It may be that Clement’s particular interests, even more than most SF writers, were best expressed at shorter lengths. The stories collected in Volume 2 of the NESFA edition certainly fulfil the classic pattern of the SF story: a single idea gets set out, explored, and made sense of. “Proof” (1942), Clement’s first story, is actually more speculative than most of his work — and also, in a sense, reverses the premise of Iceworld. It’s based around a race that lives in the solar photosphere, and that has based its civilisation on the ultra-heavy element neutronium, which periodically needs to be harvested from the sun’s core. Because of the temperature, their bodies are “simply constructed: a mass of close-packed electrons — really an unimaginably dense electrostatic field, possessing quasi-solid properties — surrounded a core of neutrons, compacted to the ultimate degree.” One of the characters puts forward the theory that “matter — ordinary substances like iron and calcium — might actually take on solid properties, like neutronium, under the proper conditions.” In the end, a sort of proof-from-observation for this is advanced, but the story works on two levels. Firstly, it’s an exercise in irony: we humans know perfectly well that iron and calcium exist in solid forms. Secondly, as ever with Clement, it’s a demonstration of method: you get to the right answer by applying logic to what you see.

Other stories collected in the second volume are more grounded in known science. For instance, “Raindrop” (1965) covers some of the same territory as James Blish’s “Surface Tension” (1956) in its working-out of what the ecosystem of a water-filled environment would be. “Sun Spot” (1960) has one of the more kinetic ideas in Clement’s work. It follows a group of scientists slingshotting themselves round a star while buried in the depths of a 30-billion-ton ice comet. Of course, the amount of ice that will boil off has been carefully calculated, and nothing happens in their journey that’s not somehow explicable in terms of physics. And “The Logical Life” (1974) is another story in which a human (Laird Cunningham from “Uncommon Sense”) has to figure out the nature of an alien world with the help of an alien. Hypotheses are tried out and rejected — at one point, Cunningham says to himself, “The geyser idea was good, but left out some facts that needed explaining.” A good scientist, or Clement character, would never do that. At the end, Cunningham proposes an ambitious expedition to investigate the final hypothesis further; his alien friend replies, “I will be quite willing to listen to reason.” In Hal Clement’s world, there is no higher value.

This review was first published in the October 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

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