Thursday, May 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Needle, Iceworld, and a couple stories by Hal Clement

Today would have been Harry Clement Stubbs' 97th birthday. He wrote SF, of course, as Hal Clement. I haven't written a lot about his work -- I read the greater part of it before I was writing. But here are a few short things, about his first two novels (which I read in serialization), and a couple of lesser known shorter works.


(Cover by Paul Orban)
And finally, I read Hal Clement's Needle, which I had never before read.  It's pretty decent, the story of a shape-changing, symbiotic, alien who comes to Earth chasing a criminal of his race.  To get around, he needs to colonize a human, and he chooses a 15-year old boy, Bob Kinnaird.  Unfortunately, Bob isn't a permanent resident of the Pacific Island near which the aliens crashed -- so the alien, called simply The Hunter, must find a way to communicate with Bob, and then return to the island to search for the other member of his race. The story turns on the alien deducing which human must be carrying the other alien -- I'm proud to say that I figured out who it was for the same reasons the alien did.

One problem, though: I read it in the Astounding serialization, May and June 1949.  It occurred to me that it was a bit short for a full-length novel -- only 40,000 words.  So I had a glance at the book -- which it turns out is almost twice the length of the serial -- 78,000 words or so.  Obviously, I haven't yet read the "Needle" most people are familiar with. Oh well, I'll get to it sometime. [I did, eventually, and I think it's a successful expansion, not a padding.]


(Cover by H. R. Van Dongen)
I read  Iceworld, which was Hal Clement's second novel, in its serialization, Astounding for October,
November, and December 1951.  The trick premise is that the title "iceworld" is Earth: the main character is an alien drug investigator, Sallman Ken, from a hot planet where he breathes sulfur.  Earth is unimaginably cold to him, but it's also the source for "tofacco", a terribly addictive drug (to the aliens) being smuggled in by the bad guy.  Ken is hired (he's working undercover) by the bad guy to try to duplicated Earth conditions on Mercury. (The sun side of Mercury is hot enough for the aliens (in 1951, we still though Mercury kept one face always to the Sun).)  He devises a means of descending to Earth's surface, in a special suit, and makes contact with the remote family that has been trading cigarettes for precious metals. Naturally, he devises a way to foil the bad guy in the end.  It's kind of engaging, but a bit silly, and really not very plausible to me, even using 1951 science.  I noted that Clement, a high school science teacher, makes his main character an alien high school science teacher, recruited as a drug investigator because of his "generalist" science abilities.

Astounding, July 1946

"Cold Front" is about a mildly rascally crew of humans who come to an alien planet, intending to open trade with the locals. They represent themselves as official envoys of the human Federation, but in fact they hope to establish exclusive contracts before revealing their discovery and status as a fait accompli. But what to the aliens want? It turns out the planet is uncomfortably cold, and a meteorologist proposes various elaborate schemes to alter the climate. But the aliens reject all these, and seem ready to have nothing more to do with the humans. The story seems set to revolve around the human criminals being unmasked -- but in the end it turns on a minor and somewhat silly scientific detail, and on the aliens' concern about their "inferiority". One of Clement's lesser outings, I thought

If, May 1963

"The Green World" is set on a planet colonized by humans but regarded as anomalous. It seems to be only 40,000,000 years old but it has life that doesn't seem likely to have evolved in that short a time. It also has some extremely dangerous fauna. A small scientific team travels to a remote site to study the history of this world geologically and archaeologically. They find some intriguing stuff, including ambiguous evidence of an old city, of a fossilized intelligent-seeming being, and of possible technological remains. The ultimate explanation, seemed to me, was just a tad, well, anti-climatic.

Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999

Also good was a very long story by Hal Clement, "Exchange Rate". Like many of Clement's stories, this was about a dangerous expedition on an alien planet. 


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, I like MISSION OF GRAVITY a lot. But I read it long ago, and I've never written anything much about it. Maybe I should read the serial version -- I think I have all those issues. I understand the serial version is longer.