Mission of Gravity

Hal Clement
Mission of Gravity Cover

300 Gs of detail-burdened plot


Clement's acclaimed 1953 novel Mission of Gravity reminds me of a song we used to sing in my Girl Scouts Brownie troupe:

Goin on a squeegie hunt…
Oh, no, it's a tall tree!
Can't go over it…
can't go under it…
have to go through it…

(Repeat the verse with a new obstacle… and it goes on and on and on. I dropped out soon after. The song may or may not have had something to do with it.)

And thus it's the same for our missioneers, human and alien alike, who encounter new obstacles in each chapter, but overcome those obstacles with sensible, pragmatic solutions, talking out every detail in a calm, relaxed manner that may be just a wee bit boring to witness. Reading this book is like eavesdropping on a housing development planning committee, with the engineer and the architect doing most of the talking. I would totally go on an adventure with these people because I know I would be safe, but I don't think anyone would want to read about it afterward.

When human space explorers lose their probe on the planet Mesklin, a giant oblate planet with extreme variable gravity and methane oceans, they enlist the help of native Barlennan, a merchant shipper who resembles a 15-inch caterpillar. Barlennan and his human partner Charles Lackland, guide his Mesklinite crew through unexplored Mesklin territory, discovering unknown civilizations and topographies, and often relying on basic physics principles to overcome unforeseen obstacles. They venture from Barlennan's comfort zone of 700 Gs to the equatorial region of 3 Gs, to the opposite pole of 700 Gs again, sharing and learning about each other's civilizations, as well as withholding and conniving a little, too, because, after all, Barlennan is a trader and profit is his game.

Mission of Gravity is a great example of world-building at the expense of plot. I read somewhere that Clement's contrarian nature spawned the idea for this novel because he was tired of reading SF stories about low-grav only or high-grav only planets. He wondered if a planet could be both, so he invented this planet of extremes: extreme size, extreme spin, extreme bulge, and calculated the types of gravitational forces it might produce. However, character development only succeeds as far as their interaction with the environment: Mesklinites fear heights (falls are deadly under 700 Gs), they have no concept of throwing (again, the 700 G thing), and the winds on the lower grav equator frighten them (because… well, you get it.)*

And the plot?
"Oh, no. This obstacle is in the way of our trip…"
"Can we go under it?"
"No, because (insert scientific principle)."
"Can we go through it?"
"Well, maybe, but because of (insert another scientific principle), it might be dangerous."
"What if we go over it?"
"That just might work. Do you Mesklinites know about anything differential pulleys?"
"Why, no. We are so burdened by gravity that we are too tired for science learning. I am curious to know more about your superior Earthling ways."
"Then let me tell you how it works…"

That happens in EVERY chapter. It's a physics textbook posing as an adventure saga.

Which is unfortunate, because it could be a really cool idea if the story went beyond "two science geeks on a camping trip." The book blurb hints at Barlennan's ulterior motives for the trip, but it's buried in the daily tedium of problem-solving chatter, and then escalates to nothing by the end. The novel hints at themes of the importance of scientific knowledge, the difficulty in obtaining such knowledge, and the responsibility of humanity to share that knowledge (when it is appropriate– sort of a "Prime Directive" conflict here), but the focus on the world-building detracts from that easily-loaded premise. It could have been so much more.

My version of the story goes like this:
"The equator has fewer Gs because my planet is shaped like a bowl. That's why you see the horizon go up."
"A bowl? First of all, it's interesting that you have the concept of bowls on your planet, considering you have no hands and you eat like a wild animal. Second of all, why don't you come up in my rocket, so I can prove to you that your world is not bowl-shaped."
"Really? Normally I would say no, but when you carelessly picked me up and placed me on top of your tank, you not only demonstrated your casual disregard for my personhood, but you also cured my fear of heights. So, yes, please take me to space, so I can see my world as the oblate sphere that you describe."

If you're picking up on any sarcasm, it's only due to my frustration at Clement's meticulous care to get the world right, while he gets the people completely wrong. Even the obstacles that Barlennan and Lackland encounter seem contrived and pointless. A few of the struggles with "the natives" (because every planet has a backwater, I guess) could have been easily countered by some human-instigated deus ex-machina: Like, "Rawr, I'm a big human!" or sending down probes to scare them off. Also, many of the geographical obstacles occur because the entire science team sitting in space failed to map out the planet correctly. You mean to tell me that humans can travel 11 light years into space, but they can't manage a 3-D panoramic satellite image?

It's too bad the story is so boring and ill-contrived, because Clement's purpose is admirable. Mission of Gravity goes beyond the idea of imagining an impossible-to-imagine world. The point is to prove that physics is universal; the laws that apply on Earth, apply on every planet regardless of the differences. It's a great point that's well-illustrated… too bad nothing else is.

Still, it's not a total loss. It's an ideal read for physics fetishists, and SF completionists who have housework to do (because this book will make you realize how much more fun it is to mop the kitchen floor).

*Thanks to the MIT Science Fiction Society, we now know Clement's calculations were wrong and the poles of Mesklin could only be about 275 Gs. Not that the human body will notice the difference.