Fiction Reviews

Mission of Gravity

(1953 / 2005) Hal Clement, Gollancz, 6.99, pbk, 203 pp, ISBN 0-575-07708-5


This is a must for, ahem, younger readers (that is those under 40) who may have missed out on some earlier landmark works. It is hard to believe, indeed it came as a small shock when I checked, that it has been over half a century since this Hal Clement SF classic was originally printed -- and just hold on and absorb those words 'SF classic'. In fact when I did check I found copyright assertion in this edition was for a year later: because, as the cover blurb reveals, it appeared in Astounding first. Anyway this does not detract from the fact that Mission of Gravity has to be one of the top twenty hard SF books published in English from the middle of the last century. And guess what? It stands the test of time and is as perfectly readable today as it was then.

OK. So what about the plot...?

Well, as you might have guessed from the title, it concerns gravity. Low gravity planets and high 'g' ones have been used numerous times within SF, but what about a planet whose gravity varied? Hal Clement solved this one with his vision of the world Mesklin. A high gravity world rotating so fast that its equatorial diameter was more than twice its polar diameter. It therefore has a very short day of just eighteen minutes. Someone weighing 180 lb. on Earth would weigh only 540 lb. at the equator, due to centrifugal lightening, and an incredible 60 tons at its poles. And so the scene is set for an Earth astronaut at his equatorial base to send the native high-gravity adapted alien sea merchant, Barlennan, across the methane seas (cf. Titan but not known in Clement's time) to the poles on a salvage operation: a probe has crashed at the poles and part of it needs retrieving.  Mesklin is a brilliantly conceived world.

Unfortunately for Clement, the Hugos had only just started when they had a year break in 1954, otherwise he surely would have at least been nominated.  However, such is its reputation that Mission of Gravity has been in print every decade since its publication, and Mesklin a world-concept that rivals Niven's Ringworld. This re-print is part of the largely very excellent Gollancz SF Masterwork series. In fact, since Tony and I have compiled Essential SF (from fan polls and voted awards as well as longevity in print) we have found that you can use the Masterwork series to fill in gaps in your collection as identified from Essential SF's citation appendix. (Mission of Gravity is included in Essential SF on reprint longevity terms).  Enjoy.

And if you do get it and enjoyed it then I also recommend another of Clement's world-building novels (except it is not so much world-building as being an alternate world perspective) and that is Iceworld (1953).

Jonathan Cowie

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