Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mission of Gravity

I've recently slowed down my reading and writing, and it's making me a little cranky. I have no one but myself to blame, though. On the one hand, I was able to participate in beta testing for Star Trek Online, and now I am playing it. I'm really enjoying it, though it has the issues of a new game; it's obvious that the creators of the game are huge fans of the Star Trek mythology. And so it is taking some of the time I would normally spend on reading and writing.

But I also decided, for reasons that I cannot clearly recall at the moment, to read this well-received novel from 1954. I have owned it forever, but I have no recollection of actually finishing it until now. It has a reputation, both for being hard science and being really good, which throws a shadow across any reading or critical thought about it. To be blunt, reading this novel was a chore for me—although short, it took forever for me in good part because it was not very engaging. With a book I enjoy, I can find time to read, but with Mission of Gravity, my reading was confined to bedtime, when I wasn't too tired to give it some time.

How could this be? The premise of the story is very promising—on a planet where men cannot reasonably expect to live, due to horrifically cold temperature, an unsuitable atmosphere, and gravity that begins with three times Earth-normal and runs to 700 times what we experience, men have to enlist the aid of the natives to find a scientific probe. Between an exotic planet—the construction of which author Hal Clement details in an included article—and the potential of a first contact story, it would appear that all the ingredients are present for a fine story. But, when it comes to executing the details, a lot of things get in the way.

For instance, Mission of Gravity is celebrated for its world-building, as it rightfully should. The associated article, "Whirligig World," details the thought processes and calculations that went into the creation of the planet named Mesklin. And those same processes led to the creation of the dominant race that we see there. But the reader isn't given any of this information in the course of the actual story. We are only by implication told that the gravity on this planet is variable and that it spins so rapidly that days are only minutes long. The native Mesklinites already know this and so do not discuss it amongst themselves, and the humans that they interact with also never discuss it since it is a given for their presence in orbit around the planet anyway. And so the reader can only pick it up in dribs and drabs and never without explicit description of what's going on. All we can really figure out, without advanced degrees or the accompanying article, is that the planet is really weird.

And yet that weirdness is belied by the failure of the second component, the first contact story. The action of the story takes place well after first contact has been made between the Mesklinites, in the person of Barlennan, and the humans. In fact, when the story begins, Barlennan thinks of his human liaison, Charles Lackland, as a friend, and they communicate pretty easily in English. So the reader can perhaps expect that part of the storytelling will involve the growing understanding and inevitable communication problems between two peoples as they travel together, but Clement has set up the novel such that the humans can't travel with the Mesklinites and so are only witnesses via radio and television as they travel across the planet. In fact, the humans are very limited in the story, sometimes used for comic relief as they try to understand the things they see or wink knowingly to the audience as the Mesklinites try to figure out science that is obviously beyond them.

Even more odd is that the novel ends up being a story of Barlennan and his crewmates travelling across their own world in a sort of planetary romance that reminds me a great deal of Burroughs's Venus stories, but with the native seeing new regions of his own world and comparing them to the life he already knows instead of the sense of wonder an alien would feel. Barlennan does face danger but it comes in the form of cultures that are different than his, not from exotic and alien life. As a result, the story is told from Barlennan's point of view, further associating the he and his race with the species. A more gifted author could have used this as an opportunity to explore the mind of an alien but, distressingly, Barlennan may as well be human for all the differences in how he thinks and perceives his world. One difference between the species that Clement does play on is the Mesklinites' embedded acrophobia; it feels logical that if you lived on a planet that had a gravity 700 times what we experience here, you would have a fear of climbing more than a couple of inches above ground. But even though Clement keeps returning to this, Barlennan overcomes his acrophobia within the first few pages of the book and then, by the end of it, completely masters it such that he is willing to consider what the author has told us repeatedly is unthinkable.

The book ends up being charming, but not very compelling; the trappings of a hard science adventure but the inner workings of a travelogue with very little depth. It may be that, for 1954, this was ground-breaking stuff and thus seminal to the history of speculative fiction, but it has not aged well at all. There are far better alien encounter stories available now, and while there are probably no planets quite as exotic as Mesklin, less exotic locales have been explored and written about in far more interesting books. Even the twist Clement tries to give the relationship between human and Mesklinite at the end of his story has been foreshadowed in the most heavy-handed fashion, such that it really doesn't surprise so much as meet the standards the book has set for itself. As a result, given that I had other shinier things clamoring for my attention, I found reading Mission of Gravity somewhat tedious. And without context (and I haven't found any on the internet yet; I may have to resort to a real book), I am at a loss as to what the clamor is about.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, this is not directly connected to your blog post, and I apologize for contacting you this way. I sent you an e-mail to tell you that you'd won the Neal Cassady bio "The Holy Fool" plus a signed copy of my book of your choice, but never heard back. Contact me with your mailing address and which book you'd like, and I'll shoot them your way. Thanks for reading (and for linking to my blog)!