|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #113, January 2004|
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Inevitably it keeps happening. The writers who shaped the SF genre in the mid-twentieth century – First Science Fiction, as John Clute calls this informal collective – continue to vanish one by one.
The rec.arts.sf.written "Frequently Asked Questions" file lists the golden oldies of SF, including elder statesman Jack Williamson (born 1908), Andre Norton (1912), Wilson Tucker (1914), Charles L. Harness (1915), Jack Vance (1916), Arthur C. Clarke (1917), Philip José Farmer (1918), E.C. Tubb (1919), Frederik Pohl (1919), and, finally, youngster Ray Bradbury (1920). Updating the list is always a sad occasion.
We lost one of them in October: Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (1910). And another who at only 81 hadn't yet been included: Hal Clement (1922).
Eshbach, more publisher/editor than author, is little known in Britain. He launched a tradition by producing the first ever book about contemporary SF – as it was in 1947. Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing features essays by E.E. Smith, John W. Campbell, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, A.E. van Vogt, and the token Brit, John Taine. It's still an interesting read.
Personally I love books about SF and have even written a few. Nowadays there are almost too many to count. In 1947 there was just that one, and fans faced a long wait until Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder (1956; third edition 1996), followed by a handful of 1960s works by Kingsley Amis, James Blish and the erudite though stylistically challenged Sam Moskowitz. So, a heartfelt toast to Lloyd Eshbach for getting this show on the road.
With Hal Clement, it's more personal: I'll really miss him. His first novel Needle was a memorable early SF experience for me.
Typically for Clement, the lead character is totally alien, a shapeless protoplasmic glob who's stranded on Earth after a spaceship crash. This "Hunter" is not only an interstellar detective but a symbiont who needs to live within an oxygen-breather's body. The Hunter duly manages to sneak inside the human schoolboy hero, and faces the problems of (a) explaining this tricky social situation to his new host, and (b) working out which other human body among Earth's haystack billions contains the criminal he's chasing, who's an evil shapeless protoplasmic glob ...
Needle has many clever scientific insights, the sort of thing the late Bob Shaw would call "wee thinky bits". One nicely understated point is that the Hunter's best key to learning English is the exposition of universal principles in his boy host's school physics lessons. Clement spotted this eight years before H. Beam Piper's story "Omnilingual", famous for using the periodic table of the elements as a Rosetta Stone to decode a long-gone scientific civilization.
Similarly, even the dry bones of optics came alive as the location of the focal plane in a beached shark's eye became an important practical issue for the Hunter when, earlier, he's trapped in the carcase. With the eye out of water, images come to a focus some way forward of the retina, so our alien simply builds a retina from his own versatile tissue at the appropriate position. Very neat.
On the high-gravity planet Mesklin in Mission of Gravity, one insight is that the alien natives face a huge barrier to understanding the physics of falling bodies. Things fall so hard and fast that it seems that they just teleport catastrophically to ground level. Naturally Mesklinites have a terrific fear of heights, and of getting underneath anything at all. Roofs are taboo.
Mission of Gravity is one of Clement's trademark punning titles. Another is Close to Critical, dealing with another weird planet called Tenebra – whose temperature and pressure hover near the critical point for water, leading to bizarre ramifications of not-quite-weather. When drifting raindrops thirty to fifty feet across can fade into closely similar volumes of steam in the thermals from a small fire, you know you're not in Kansas any more.
Yet another punny title is Still River, with teeming booby-traps in a cave system whose internal states are driven by complex cycles of evaporation and condensation ... a deadly natural still. Even trickier is the planetary environment in Star Light (sequel to Mission of Gravity), where a two-phase atmosphere combining water and ammonia at a wide variety of temperatures provides unnerving shocks for both Mesklinite explorers and human scientists. This novel anticipated chaos-theory models of weather.
Perhaps the most terrifying Clement setting appears in Iceworld, a cryogenic hell where deadly hydrogen oxide exists freely in liquid and even solid form. Our sulphur-breathing protagonist is amazed that there's any life on this ghastly world, "cold enough to freeze potassium, and lead, and tin!" It is, of course, Earth.
A particularly proud moment of my SF career was being asked to write the introduction to Hal Clement's omnibus Variations on a Theme by Sir Isaac Newton (NESFA Press 2000), including Mission of Gravity and Star Light. After which I was very nervous of meeting him at last at a Florida SF convention that year; but the great man was courteous, tactful, and changed the subject to hearing aids – he wore twice as many as me. A genuinely nice fellow. Goodbye.
David Langford is trying not to wonder who's next.
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