Mission of Gravity

Hal Clement
Mission of Gravity Cover

Mission of Gravity: A Case for Pure Science

Scott Laz

Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (1954) is a love letter to science. Serialized in Astounding in 1953, it's often pointed to as a prototypical "hard" science fiction novel of the '50s, with the story driven more by the solution of scientific problems and the achievement of scientific discovery than by character or plot. Clement, a science teacher, specialized in this sort of science fiction, which may be why he seems to be one of the more neglected of the Grand Masters from the perspective of modern SF fans. But Clement's third novel is a cut above much of the hard SF of the time, which has a tendency to become dated as science advances, because of the way Clement melds the scientific explanations with the characters' motivations, which in turn drive the plot and create suspense and interest in the story.

Another way Clement infuses his narrative with science is by making the exploration of the setting a major source of interest for the reader, as well as the source of the obstacles that must be overcome in order for the plot to advance and the characters to achieve their goals. The protagonists' quest involves overcoming the environmental difficulties created by the setting itself. That setting is the planet Mesklin, a disc-shaped world with an intense gravity field. The gravity ranges from three times that of Earth's along the equator (the "rim") to seven-hundred times at the poles. Intelligent life, capable of living under the extreme gravity, has developed there. The Mesklinites are hydogen-breathing, chitin-shelled, caterpillar-like creatures fifteen inches long and two inches in diameter, with "dozens of suckerlike feet," and pincers functioning as hands.  The point-of-view of the novel is that of Barlennan, a merchant trader and leader of a Mesklinite crew that sales the methane oceans of the storm-tossed planet in search of profit.

Clement has carefully conceived the details of both the planet and its inhabitants, and part of the novel's interest lies in the way he parcels out descriptive details as the story progresses. The Mesklinites and their strange home thus become both more alien and more familiar as we follow the progress of Barlennan's mission. Since the story is told from Barlennan's point of view, the nature of his race and his planet are revealed by way of occasional descriptive details that pertain to the story, rather than by the sort of descriptive exposition that might arise if the aliens and their planet were being described directly by a human observer. We learn that the Mesklinites have pincers when "Barlennan waved his pincers in a manner denoting a smile." Descriptions like this one provide one revelation after another of the strangeness of the story's world:

…now a warm breeze laden with a taint of melting ammonia began to blow from the point where the exhaust struck the ground. The drops of semiliquid spattered on Barlennan's eye shells, but be continued to stare at the slowly settling mass of metal. Every muscle in his long body was at maximum tension, his arms held close to his sides, pincers clamped tightly enough to have shorn through steel wire, the hearts in each of his body segments pumping furiously. He would have been holding his breath had he possessed breathing apparatus at all similar to that of a human being. Intellectually he knew that the thing would not fall—he kept telling himself that it could not; but having grown to maturity in an environment where a fall of six inches was usually fatally destructive even to the incredibly tough Mesklinite organism, his emotions were not easy to control… After all, it was still hundreds of feet up…

In this passage, Barlennan is witnessing the landing of a rocket belonging to human explorers and scientists who have come to study Mesklin and run experiments in the most intense gravity field yet discovered. Charles Lackland has been sent down to the rim in order to convince Barlennan to undertake a mission to retrieve a grounded rocket, sent down by the human expedition to collect data on the gravity field, but which has malfunctioned and been unable to return to the humans' base on one of Mesklin's moons. This data is considered to be extremely valuable (it's hinted that it might be used to help develop anti-gravity technology), but humans cannot survive in the environment through which they would have to travel in order to retrieve it. Lackland makes a bargain with Barlennan, promising to trade goods and information, such as maps of Mesklin and weather forecasts to help with Barlennan's trading operation, in exchange for the Mesklinites agreeing to incorporate a journey to the grounded rocket into their travels and transmit the data from the rocket. Barlennan and his men are both curious and acquisitive, and are thus willing to take on the longest journey ever undertaken by any of their race, with the help of Lackland and his colleagues, who can provide aerial reconnaissance to assist the mission. Lackland spends a few months on the planet, which he survives with the help of special body armor, but once they leave the rim and gravity begins to increase further, Lackland must return to the base, leaving Barlennan with specially designed radios to maintain communication.

As the journey continues, we learn more about Mesklin. Barlennnan and his "men" encounter storms, groups of natives, some of whom are hostile, a monstrous predator, and geographical obstacles culminating in a cliff face that presents a near-insurmountable challenge to a race whose members can literally be driven insane by the prospect of leaving the safety of the ground. Barlennan, with some help from the ongoing communication with Lackland, manages to overcome all of these obstacles, ultimately reaching the plateau on which the rocket is grounded. Despite their lack of technological prowess, we gain increasing respect for the Mesklinites' reasoning powers, courage, and tenacity, while Barlennan for his part becomes increasingly impressed by the advantages he could gain through the use of human technology, which has given him a new perspective on his world and his place in it.

I noted at the start of this review that the novel is a love letter to science. The human expedition to Mesklin is motivated by pure scientific research.  ("When the rocket failed to respond to the takeoff signal, it rocked the government of ten planets. We must have that data, " as Lackland explains to Barlennan.) Barlennan, already motivated by the joy of exploration, becomes increasingly interested in acquiring the humans' science, despite the awareness that much of it will be incomprehensible at first. In both cases, scientific knowledge is seen as the route to a better life, as well as being fascinating for its own sake, a case Clement makes by drawing the reader in with the "sense of wonder" that hard SF strives for.

Sometimes the scientific exposition does drag a bit, generally when Lackland is trying to explain a scientific concept to Barlennan, who then becomes a stand-in for the readers' attempts to grasp the physics behind the strange environment of Mesklin. But even if these paragraphs lack interest for some readers, the narrative doesn't lag for long. Barlennan's newfound desire for knowledge has the potential to bring him into conflict with his human friends at the novel's climax, but the pursuit of knowledge is what unites humanity and the Mesklinites, despite their radically different environments and modes of thought. The final image of the novel is especially memorable, symbolizing this unity of culture and technology in a most uplifting way. That may seem a bit corny, but I found myself wishing that Clement's message from nearly six decades ago had had a larger impact on the present. The triumph of reason and technological progress seems much less assured now than it must have in 1954.