The Classic Mesklin Stories by
Orb Trade: ISBN 076530368X PubDate Nov 02
Review by Ernest Lilley
416 pages List price $15.95
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Ironically, though not small, this is a really light book. It would have been fitting if Heavy Planet had come out in hard cover instead of the big trade that Tor decided to issue it in. It would have been perfect if they had sown lead into the cover or some neutron star stuff. Why? If you can ask then there's a treat in store for you, especially if you like the old Hard SF, because this is the purest quill ever written.
Together in one volume, no doubt for the first time anywhere and certainly for the first time generally accessible, Tor has assembled the novels and stories that made Hal Clement the master world builder that he remains today. Frank Herbert's intricate ecology of Arakis has its own special place in SF, but the high gravity world of Mesklin is the foundation of a genre in itself.
Mesklin is a high gravity planet spinning like a top. At the poles the gravity is awe inspiring, while at the equator it's merely bone crushing. So, in Mission of Gravity, scientists decide they have to send a probe to study the effects of high gee fields. Since it's highest at the poles of the madly spinning world, that's where the probe sets down, but in a twist of fate all too familiar with watchers of space probes, it refuses to take off again.
Fortunately, there is a race of sentient centipedes on the planet who range far and wide on trading missions and can be talked into making the voyage to the pole to recover the rocket, though ultimately at a price of their choosing.
When I first met Hal Clement (Harry Stubbs) I went on and on about how I loved the characters he'd created in Mission of Gravity. Hal looked at me like I had two heads, since the standard criticism of the book was that his characters had no depth. Unless that's supposed to be a joke about living in a high gee environment, ala Flatland. No, I don't think so. Despite what I'm sure is well meant criticism, I really like these aliens.
Barlennan, captain of the trading raft "Bree", is as intrepid an adventurer/voyager as ever there was, and the travails of his crew as they go through different regions of geography, gravity, and culture are equal to anything Thor Heyerdahl ever experienced.
That would be the Kon Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl, who sailed a raft across the Atlantic to prove it could have been done by ancient mariners.
Clement's trick of having different tribes in different latitudes develop technologies that take advantage of their relative gravities is a delightful tour de force in technology and anthropology. I still enjoy reading this book years after having read it the first time.
So, I was delighted to find that there were two short stories and another novel I'd never read, waiting for me.
"Under" and "Lecture Demonstration" both take place on the surface of Meskalin, though at opposite ends of the gravity spectrum and while both are fun, the real treasure here is Star Light, originally serialized in Analog between June and September of 1970.
In Star Light our favorite cast of crawling characters has signed on to explore another high gravity world for the Human/Alien scientists, and they've been shipped off to Dhrawn, which is either a really big planet or a really tiny star that didn't turn all the way on. Either way, it's the sort of thing that fascinates the scientists in Clements stories, and the sort of place a Mesklinite is perfectly at home in, in a space suit to keep out the noxious oxygen that is.
All along, the Mesklinites have been out to get hold of the knowledge and technology they need to break free of their world's grip, while the Human/Alien scientists they work with have policies that limit the transfer of knowledge. In Star Light this political cauldron is much more apparent than in Mission, in fact it wasn't really an issue in the first novel, but shows up here in an attempt to mix character conflict in. I don't mind it, because it also serves to show the difference between humans and Mesklinites.
Mesklinites are idealized scientist explorers of the old Hard SF school. It's not that they don't have a lot of personality, or deep emotional conflicts, I mean deeper than the rabid fear of falling under a couple hundred gees or having (this being nearly unthinkable) something fall on you.
They are instead, the distilled essence of rational humans. The don't seem to be driven by sex, rarely get angry about anything, and when things look hopeless, they give up. Well, the latter trait is more or less worn out of them by association with humans, even if it's over radio/tv sets to their human collaborates in space stations light minutes away.
Mesklinites are driven by a thirst for knowledge and a yearning to explore that represents the best of the drives in Golden Age SF. Like Hobbits, Hokas or Hominids, they're a stand in for humanity that the author can imbue with the qualities he wants them to have, not the ones he necessarily finds around him.
For a book about such high gravity, Heavy Planet is surprisingly hard to put down.