|Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 1999; $25.00 hc; 518 pages|
Another Dave Langford review.
NESFA Press continues its noble work of bringing sf classics back into print in durable hardback form. This omnibus comprises Hal Clement's early hard-sf novels Needle, Iceworld and Close to Critical -- serialized in Astounding in 1949, 1951 and 1958 respectively, with book publication in 1950, 1953 and 1964. Poul Anderson contributes a new introduction that knowledgably notes the stories' strengths, mentions a few technical points where they've become dated, and rightly adds that some scientific obsolescence is both inevitable and not terribly important.
Curiosity led me to ask the NESFA editors why volume 1 of an Essential Hal Clement series should feature Close to Critical rather than, as both chronology and career importance would seem to suggest, Mission of Gravity (1953 Astounding; 1954). The answer was that Mission is to be packaged with the other Mesklin stories, including a new one called 'Under' and the related essay 'Whirligig World', as volume 3: Variations on a Theme by Sir Isaac Newton. Volume 2, Music of Many Spheres, assembles a mass of short fiction and should appear in 1999.
So much for mere facts. It's hard to stand back and say objective, reviewerly things about Hal Clement's first novel Needle, since reading it was among my own formative experiences. The book didn't make it into British paperback until 1963: I was a shade over ten years old, just beginning to devour sf in bulk, and was captivated by this author who so lucidly brought scientific thinking to bear at every point. It wouldn't be wholly unreasonable to claim that Harry Clement Stubbs -- Clement's full name, as every true fan knows -- was my first decent science teacher. I babbled something of the sort to the great man when I finally met him at the 1992 Boskone, and probably caused him considerable alarm.
Rereading Needle brings it all back, as once again that lovable alien symbiont the Hunter makes himself at home in the body of fourteen-year-old Bob Kinnaird, with the futile-seeming aim of finding and destroying the Killer. This fellow member of his own amoeboid race could be secretly inhabiting anyone else on his host's island home: a camouflaged needle in a haystack. Meanwhile the nifty insights that Bob Shaw used to call 'wee thinky bits' come thick and fast. Shadows are excellent hiding-places in space. A spaceship crash-landing on Earth passes through the atmosphere too quickly to notice major storms. The focal plane of a beached shark's eye will be forwards of the retina -- so the Hunter, riding the shark, can construct his own retina at the appropriate place. Seeking a host, the protean symbiont discovers an easy-to-assume shape in which to approach Bob and his friends as they swim, only to make the eventual annoying discovery that while showing no fear they carefully avoid jellyfish....
One neat but unobtrusively made point is that the Hunter's best key to learning English is the exposition of universal principles in Bob's school physics lessons -- ancipating H. Beam Piper's 'Omnilingual' (periodic table as Rosetta Stone) by eight years. One area where Clement creatively did more work than necessary went clean over my head in the 1960s: the description of the island setting's industry, the 'tanks' where engineered bacteria process vegetation into oil products, is so plausible and minutely detailed that I didn't realize this bit was sf.
Needle is a fair-play sf detective story whose hidden goals are the identity of the Killer's host and the means by which the invader can be ejected. Possible physical clues are paraded and debated: for example, anyone falling ill from a bacterial disease is unlikely to have an internal protector who quite literally eats hostile bugs for breakfast. Clement is dealing in misdirection here, though, since as in Isaac Asimov's best sf mysteries (The Caves of Steel was also yet to come) the real pointers are psychological -- small behavioural changes in someone who's learned, though not consciously, that injuries are now less painful, heal quickly, and never get infected.
The schoolmasterly approach and determined level-headedness which give Needle its appeal for bright young readers (and for those of us who dimly remember being such readers) seem part of a determined effort to keep this a novel of ideas and not let it slide downhill into the tempting pit of horror. Being inhabited by four pounds of slimy alien jelly is rather a viscerally disturbing idea, and Clement works hard to establish the Hunter as a sympathetic and ethical viewpoint character well in advance of his initial mistakes in communicating with Bob. John Clute complains in the Encyclopedia of SF that such physical alien possession is a 'highly loaded theme' whose resonances needed to be explored. But, leaving aside the question of whether they could have been adequately plumbed in the Astounding of 1949, Clement is temperamentally not inclined in that direction. As the Clute Encyclopedia entry concludes (this time approvingly), he delights in pure ideas, intellectual thrust and parry -- not in icky stuff.
(A thought experiment for those who like a good shudder. Imagine the movie rights to Needle being acquired by David Cronenberg.)
The affably didactic tone of Needle is continued in Iceworld, whose bright if unsophisticated lead character actually is a schoolmaster. An alien one, though, who as a scientific jack-of-all-trades has been chosen to infiltrate the spacegoing smugglers who are trading with the unspeakable cryogenic hell of Iceworld ... that is, Earth as seen from the standpoint of a very much hotter metabolism. Good grief, it's 'cold enough to freeze potassium, and lead, and tin!' This use of an outsider viewpoint provides that special thrill of being in the know as the sulphur-breathers grapple with shocking facts that defy preconception. Viciously reactive oxygen occurs naturally in the air of this awful place, while the deadly heat-stealer hydrogen oxide lies around copiously in its liquid and even its solid phase. Who could have imagined that?
The extraterrestrial teacher is called Sallman Ken; the pleasantly 'human' flavour of his personality is perhaps over-emphasized by referring to him throughout as Ken. He interacts with both menacing smugglers in space and the human traders below. The latter consist of a well-balanced family group -- again, child viewpoints -- who have no idea that they're supplying a drug with dangerously addictive effects on the hot folk. As Poul Anderson observes, Earthly attitudes to the dope in question have shifted a good deal since 1953, and what then seemed comic or ironic now has an air of prophecy: the filthy substance is tobacco. Iceworld's alert and unscrupulous alien master-villain is finally circumvented, just a little too easily, when he ultimately makes more mistakes and displays more imaginative limitations than Ken himself.
The neatest of the 'wee thinky bits' here is the deduction by one bright human youngster -- a freshman student -- that the visitors are from Mercury. Their comings and goings correspond to that planet's synodic period, and they have indeed set up a superheated base on its sunward face. A rueful but scrupulous footnote adds that Mercury is now known to rotate.
Close to Critical is one of Clement's punning titles (see also Mission of Gravity and Still River), the point here being the thermodynamic critical point. The high-gravity planet Tenebra's weird surface temperature and pressure hover near the critical point for water, where liquid and gas phases have the same density. Thus drifting raindrops thirty to fifty feet across can fade into closely similar volumes of steam in the thermals from quite a small fire. Tenebra's bizarre system of not-exactly-weather is extrapolated in some detail.
This provides the background for a tricky rescue mission when an experimental 'bathyscaphe' containing two children -- one feisty girl of twelve and one nonhuman -- makes a forced landing on Tenebra, just beyond the reach of rescue from space. Native help is required to refloat this vessel, but there's conflict and also a language barrier between an isolated group of young Tenebrans educated by an Earth-built telefactor robot known as Fagin, and the suspicious older tribe who understand rather more about Tenebra's oddities. After various complications and tours of the world's shifting landscape, the precocious girl and the formerly hostile natives outsmart all the scientists in orbit and set up the rescue their way.
These three novels are good, solid examples of the old school of problem-solving sf -- strong on concept if sometimes a mite perfunctory in matters of character -- which assumes that despite all the strangeness the universe can throw at us, it remains in some underlying way reasonable and capable of being understood. 'God is subtle, but He is not malicious.' People, too: even the bad guys are never quite irrationally evil. The title Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter also reminds us of how much old-fashioned skull sweat necessarily went into the writing, with no electronic assistance to ease the meticulous calculations of every little point of physics. Like a teacher guiding pupils through tangled thickets of detail to some luminous general principle, Clement courteously worked hard to make the path seem easy.
While the above was being written, news came from the 1999 Nebula banquet that Hal Clement had been named as the latest of SFWA's Grand Masters. About time too.
|First published in The New York Review of SF, June 1999. |
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