Thursday, April 23, 2015

My New Favorite Alien

I read Hal Clement's classic science fiction novel Mission of Gravity (1953) some years ago--I think while I was still in the Navy. I usually have a clear memory of really, really good stories, even if it's been years since I last read it. One of my co-workers has often remarked about my "steel-trap memory" when we talk about books or films. Of course, I can't remember my parent's anniversary each year (pretty sure it's sometime in November), but by golly I can reel off the names of all the pilots in Luke Skywalker's squadron during the Death Star battle; or who drove what jeep in the Rat Patrol; or tell you the name of those twin girls who appear in crowd shots of the kids in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

You know--the really important stuff.

But for whatever reason, the details of the plot and the main characters in Mission of Gravity didn't stick in my mind. I have no idea why, because I just reread it and it is fantastic. The main character--an alien named Barlennan--is now my favorite alien ever, edging out Nessus the Puppeteer.

The action takes place on the planet Mesklin, which has a gravity of about 3 Gs at the equator and about 700 Gs at the poles. It has an 18 minute day and is cold enough for the oceans to consist of liquid methane. The atmosphere is hydrogen.

The intelligent species inhabiting the planet are 15-inch long centipedes who can not only live but thrive at the high-gravity poles. But there are things you have to get used to when you live in a 700 G environment. You never EVER leave ground level, because even a short fall can kill you. In fact, a dropped or falling object would accelerate so fast you wouldn't see it fall. Consequently, the idea of being up high is terrifying to the Mesklinites.

You can't throw anything because it won't go anywhere but down. In fact, you don't even have a word for throw. Or a word for flying, for that matter.

That isn't to say that Mesklinites can 't be adventurous. Barlennan is a merchant ship captain (his ship being a low-lying raft) who sails the seas, practicing the Mesklinite version of the spice trade to make a living. He even travels as far as the equator, where the gravity drops to a mere three times that of Earth, so he and his crew are careful not to pick up any bad habits involving heights or falls.

Barlennan is always looking for a profit, so when he meets a human being named Lackland, he learns English and makes a deal. Lackland is part of an expedition that had dropped a probe into the high gravity north pole, hoping to learn enough from this odd planet to develop anti-gravity. But the probe is broken and stranded. Though Lackland can move about in an armored suit in three gravities, he certainly can't travel to the 700 G areas. Barlennan agrees to make the epic voyage to recover the probe's information. In return, he'll get information that will help him better deal with Mesklin's often violent weather.

The ensuing journey (with the humans staying in touch via an audio/visual transmitter) is indeed epic. Barlennan and his men have to sail seas and cross lands that they had never before visited. Along the way, they encounter civilizations in the low gravity areas that can use thrown weapons or (in one case) have developed gliders. Between this and what he learns from the humans, Barlennan becomes willing to take chances involving heights and becomes slowly more appreciative of the advantages of learning new things.

Gee whiz, I like Barlennan. You can think of him as a merchant adventurer from Earth's Age of Sail and you pretty much have a lock on his character. He's brave, sometimes enjoys taking chances for the sake of adventure, always looks for a profit and has a little bit of the con artist in him. But he's not a human being, given to thought processes and attitudes that are different from the Earthmen he's helping.  Remember, he's a centipede and less than two feet long. If you saw him in your living room, you'd instinctively try to squash him. Not that you could possibly squash someone who normally lives in a 700 G environment.

So when he finds the probe but suddenly decides to change the deal he's made with the humans, we can't help but wonder what's what. Is there something about his thought processes we just don't get? Is Barlennan going to turn out to be the villain? Or has his appreciation of learning new things going to make him even more awesome than he already is?

Mission of Gravity is wonderful hard science fiction, giving us an unusual adventure story and alien characters who act like aliens, but with whom we can still identify.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...