Mission of Gravity

Hal Clement
Mission of Gravity Cover

Mission of Gravity


A dip into 1950's hard SF which has some great ideas but doesn't fully work on all levels.

The general premise is that humans have crashed a rocket on the planet Mesklin where gravity is 700 times greater than Earth at the poles but three times at the equator. Since gravitational pull is so significant the humans cannot get at the rocket and the scientific data it holds. Consequently they engage with the planets inhabitants, the Mesklinites to help them get the data from the rocket.

The Mesklinites have perfectly adapted to their environment and can be best described as intelligent 15" centipedes - their body structure designed to stay as close to the surface as possible.

The central Mesklinite character Barlenaan is a great character. He's pretty much a trader / entrepreneur / explorer who takes risks in the quest for knowledge, exploration and profit. He interacts with the humans on ship on a quest to search for the rocket. He's funny and intelligent and has a real free adventuring spirit.

As a novel which has an incredible journey across strange landscapes this novel works. Barlenaan has a sea faring raft and a crew which he uses on his voyage. Much of the action is at sea or on river but the overland sections are interesting too. The crew encounter problems which they solve with or without the humans help, other Mesklinite civilisations (which are predominantly hostile) and generally come through - there is a 'boys adventure / journey into the unknown' thing going on which seems a little dated now but it's fun and it works.

Where the novel falls down is the significant volume of physics and mathematical problems the Mesklintes overcome through knowledge and collaboration with the humans. Much of the novel I found myself skimming over or not fully understanding, I'm not really sure I got what was going on until about a third through. There is a LOT of gravity discussion and it's impact to get one's head around. It's interesting but I'm not sure it's entertaining. I can't help but feel that the 'hard SF' gets in the way of a good romp.

One pleasing aspect of course is the collaborative efforts of humans and an alien species to work together for common goals - a nice change from the 'alien as threat' prevalent in much SF of the time.