Book #4: Mission of Gravity (1955)

author: Hal Clement
language: English
pages: about 200
finished on: 21/1

If you read back in my previous posts on this blog, you’ll probably already be able to give a short list of my current (or ongoing…) obsessions, such as Tintin, or Japanese films… you can now add to that sci-fi books, particularly those in the series “SF Masterworks”, which gives me a convenient way of selecting books by various authors that I wouldn’t have read otherwise. Hal Clement is one of them. Never heard of him (until picking up this book), which may mean that I don’t know enough sci-fi. And this is true: I feel I don’t read enough, and that’s what the reading-lots-of-books-this-year-and-writing-a-blog-about-it Thing is about.

Anyway, it’s a story about a gigantic planet, Mesklin, that spins on its axis so fast (about once every 18 minutes) that it’s practically spinning itself apart, twice as wide at the equator as at the poles. In a practical sense, this means that it has ridiculous levels of gravity, some 700g at the pole and 3g at the equator, if I remember correctly. The humans send a probe (a classic McGuffin if ever I saw one!) to one of the poles to make observations about what happens in high gravity; when they can’t get the thing back off the planet they have to enlist some privateer aliens from the planet. They’re adapted for the high gravity and are essentially foot-long centipedes.

Now, I picked it up because it seemed like the level of detail that had gone into the worldbuilding was impressive, and I wasn’t disappointed by that; the world is presented effectively, each element coming together and having a purpose, such as what’s shown of the aliens’ psychology and physiology. There’s little in the way of extraneous material; a minimal backstory is established as to why the humans are there and what they’re doing (including the briefest of mentions of other aliens elsewhere), and all the focus is on the Mesklinites and their doings on the planet as they and the humans discover things they didn’t know about the different gravity regions of the planet. There’s an impressive amount of focussing going on, in that almost every page will relate back to the central theme of high gravity. Too much more of this and it could have been bogged down, so I thought it was a good length overall. Infodumps are mercifully rare and only indulged in when the author just couldn’t help it any longer (going over details of Mesklin’s seasons and orbital perihelion, for instance), and the rest is shown rather than told. I’m pretty sure I’ve read other sci-fi that gets distracted by irrelevant-seeming details and spends half its time infodumping, so this was refreshing to read and well paced.

And of course, at the same time, it’s too tantalizing… I still quite want to know more about the Mesklinites’ means of reproduction, for example; it’s still a mystery because no females were mentioned in the story. Not enough attention was paid to the animal life: we do see two examples of megafauna – odd for a high-gravity world, of course, but they were both in the 3g zone, where the human character was able to survive in his tank for a short period, and one of them was also underwater (well, under-liquid-methane); and not much in the way of land creatures apart from the Mesklinites and one related sentient species, although we know that the Mesklinites eat meat. It’s never quite answered how their respiratory system works in an atmosphere of hydrogen, and it’s never quite clarified what the plants are, apart from vaguely describing them as ‘like trees’.

Hints are made that the Mesklinites follow a different life cycle pattern to humans, especially when the main character Barlennan notes that humans go to sleep and eat on a roughly 80-day cycle, but we never see the Mesklinites sleeping, eating or going to the toilet, and it’s strongly implied that they don’t go to sleep overnight, and nor do they live at a faster rate than humans, given that they carry on conversations during the night and can converse happily in English at normal speed with humans. This, indeed, was the book’s biggest handwave; when a supporting human character marvels at the way Barlennan learnt English in just 6 weeks (and his first mate Dondragmer picks it up after merely listening in on some conversations… argh!), he is puzzled and remarks that this was 1300 days for him, and therefore quite a long time. But this seems to contradict what I’ve just understood about them apparently not living on a vastly different timescale to us.

The weirdest moment for me when reading the book was that I instinctively imagined Charles Lackland, the main human character, as a kind of Nigel Thornberry-type intrepid colonial explorer with a moustache, only to wind up hearing him saying something that only an American would say. His name just sounds like that of someone lifted straight out of the British Empire. Oh well. He was a bit of a boring character, anyway, who only served to show the extreme differences in what the 3g gravity does to humans and Mesklinites – they’re liable to be whipped about by the wind, and their powerful muscles send them flying if they move too brashly… while humans are bogged down completely by gravity and have to essentially spend loads of time in a swimming pool. The really interesting ones were the Mesklinites, of course.

Anyway, I’ve said enough. I enjoyed this book. I guess that’s all I ever need to say, but then what would be the point in writing a review? Answers on a postcard.

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2 Responses to Book #4: Mission of Gravity (1955)

  1. RC says:

    Was this written in 1955???? Astounding. I remember a book where a planet was in captive rotation with the sun, like Mercury, or the moon to the Earth, but was big enough to have an atmosphere. Life was only possible in a rather thin band round the poles at the junction of light and shade. Can’t remember what it was called, but gravity and planetary dynamics are fascinating. Sounds though as if tidal forces on Mesklin would have torn it apart long ago and made it into an asteroid belt.

  2. Finlay says:

    I think I’ve heard of that one, but no idea what it was called either. I have heard that in that case the differential between the hot side near the sun and the cold side away from the sun would make it thunderstorm central.

    As for Mesklin, I kinda think that too, but I read that the author was quite insistent that he’d done all the calculations properly, although did come back and alter his estimate of the gravity at the poles some years later. He had a globe made and everything, so that he knew where all the continents were – shame he didn’t print it in the book.

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