Thursday, April 7, 2016
A really alien Alien.
In my mind, Space Opera and Hard Science Fiction are two different (though equally valuable) genres. If I'm reading a Space Opera, then I'm perfectly okay with giving Mars a breathable atmosphere, sword fights freely mixed in with ray gun battles, and space craft that dog-fight in a vacuum as if they were in an atmosphere. I'll happily ride across the Martian desert with a Thark or take a trip on the Millenium Falcon with a Wookie.
A good writer still has to give all this a sound internal logic, but none of it has to make real-life sense or agree with real-life science.
But if I'm reading a Hard SF story, then I expect more rationality and proper science. I'm not looking for Tharks and Wookies here. I'm looking for aliens who are truly alien--not just in their body shape and physiology, but also in their culture and thought processes.
One of Hal Clement's early stories was "Impediment," published in the August 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It's not surprising that Clement found a home for his stories in Astounding. At the time, the magazine was edited by John Campbell, arguably the man most responsible for bringing scientific realism and maturity to the genre.
"Impediment" tells of a crew of insect-like aliens who arrive on Earth in need of supplies. They've got plenty of food and fuel, but they've still need something important.
These aliens are indeed Alien. They communicate through a sort-of telepathy, picking up electrical impulses from other brains via their antenna. So when they contact a human (a young college student named Allen Kirk), the first hurdle to overcome is realizing that humans actually make sounds to communicate with each other. Clement does a magnificent job of succinctly introducing us to the aliens, presenting the problems rationally, then allowing his characters to find rational solutions based on the situation.
That's what Clement always did in his stories--Lester del Ray referred to him as a Rationalist. His stories would create a problem or problems, then force the protagonists into finding solutions that make sense.
"Impediment" adds another layer to this by remembering that Allen Kirk and the aliens can never truly understand each other--their basic attitudes, ingrained thought processes and ideas of right and wrong are simply too different. When Kirk learns the aliens are essentially what he would consider pirates, he wonders with he can ethically help him even though he now feels real friendship for Talker (the alien with whom he learns to communicate). But Kirk's assumption that Talker feels (or is capable of feeling) the same friendship is erroneous. At the same time, assumptions that Talker is making about all humans--based on his interactions with Kirk--aren't necessarily sound either.
I don't think I've every run across a Clement story or novel that I didn't enjoy enormously. Few other writers every made logic and problem-solving this much fun.