(Joe Mugnaini’s cover for the 1954 edition)
Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1953) is generally considered one of the early classic (and most influential) novels of the hard science fiction subgenre. The care in which Clement lavishes on the fascinating world of Mesklin is manifest on virtually every page. The inherent logic of the unusual scientific properties of the planet Mesklin provides the superstructure for Clement’s development of the intelligent species that inhabits it and generates the majority of the plot. Clement, a Harvard educated astronomer, applies the (remorseless) logic of the world to almost every situation and every paragraph creating a convincing, if rather laborious and dry, reading experience. As a reader (albeit I am one who did not become devoted to science fiction through any interest in science), this technique can be incredibly taxing but Clement does intrude on his scientific extrapolations with a few fascinating societal observations.
A more frustrating theme becomes quickly apparent: Clement believes that all aspects of how a society functions and views itself are the result of purely scientific phenomenon. I have rarely read a work where nomological determinism was so rigorously applied (take this as you will)! Thus, all development paths of Mesklinite society are solely rooted in and guided by scientific causes.
Or, one might argue that Clement’s descriptions of his alien culture and society never move beyond simple discussions of how the scientific properties of Mesklin have shaped them. Religion and other influential cultural constructions are absent. The Mesklinite culture does change but only due to the fact that the humans have educated them about the scientific properties of their own world.
The ramifications of the “act” of first contact, the unequal intellectual relationship that is established, and the clearly superior knowledge of the humans appear as mere afterthoughts in Clement’s narrative. Our Mesklenite hero does demand a more equal relationship but he is clearly the eager student asking his professor to actually tell him how the atom actually works. Once again, the worldview of the Mesklinites change but Clement chalks it up solely to the increased scientific knowledge they acquire about their world.
Regardless of the very 1950s ideology driving the work, Mission of Gravity remains one of the best hard science fiction works of the 50s and deserves to be read by all fans of the subgenre. Or those (like myself) who normally stay away from hard science fiction but are intrigued by the early history of the genre and 50s science fiction in general…
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
Mesklin is a spheroid shaped planet with incredibly fast days (around eighty Mesklin days in twenty four Earth hours). At the poles the gravity is an incredibly 700g — at the equator a mere 3g. Extreme conditions — liquid methane, frozen ammonia — create difficult surface environments for non-natives. Human explorers, who have established a research base on an orbiting moon, are only able to land one astronaut (by the name of Lackland) at the equator with special equipment to survive in the gravity.
By chance Lackland encounters a member of the Mesklinite race named Barlennan. Barlennan is a fifteen-inch long caterpillar-like creature (who weighs hundreds of pounds) who travels across the surface of Mesklin in a special sailboat looking for rare materials. His race normally lives closer to the poles. Due to the fact that they are from the areas with incredible gravity (700gs) they do not have a concept of flying, throwing, etc. All things that are virtually impossible and could easily result in their deaths (falling a mere inches would kill them).
Barlennan and Lackland become friends and soon the Mesklinite learns English. I found aliens as friends/partners a very appealing and refreshing position to take. Too often aliens are the evil that must be destroyed — especially in science fiction from this era (and earlier). Barlennan spends a great deal of his time on a ramp looking into Lackland’s habitation watching educational videos and engaging in conversation. Lackland spends most of his time floating in a special pool of water to combat the stresses of the gravity.
Soon the real reason that the humans have landed on the planet are revealed — an important scientific probe has landed in near the pole and the humans need assistance to recover the information it contains.
(Wallace A. Wood’s cover for the 1958 edition)
(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for the 1962 edition)
(Yves Tanguy’s cover for the 1963 edition)
(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1969 edition)
(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1974 edition)
(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1976 edition)
(H. R. Van Dongen’s cover for the 1978 edition)
(Tony Gleeson’s cover for the 1980 edition)
(H. R. Van Dongen’s hideous cover for the 1995 edition)
(John Picacio’s cover for the 2005 edition)
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