Heavy Planet is an omnibus of Clement’s best known series. It includes Mission of Gravity, Star Light, and some supplementary short stories and articles. The first is widely credited as being an early benchmark of Hard SF; the stories related to Mesklin, the strange planet where Gravity takes place, are reputed to be his most popular works. Coming to this after a run of books that push the cultural envelope of SFF, there was something comforting about 400 pages of competent, two-dimensional white men acting rationally. Clement does indeed fix the pattern for most Hard SF with these books, so how one feels about Hard SF in general is probably a good indication of how one will feel about Heavy Planet.
Star Light takes place on a different planet, but the other stories are all on Mesklin. Clement reasoned carefully through his odd creation, which orbits a double star, has an 18 minute day, and has gravity ranging from three times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth at the flattened out poles. The Mesklinites are 15 inch long centipede-like creatures, the protagonist of which bravely sails the methane seas of his planet with his hearty crew of merchants. Barlennan, for that is his name, meets with space-faring humans while he is settled in for the equatorial winter, who employ him to travel across Mesklin to help them retrieve an unresponsive space probe. This is about as deep as the plot goes, since the focus really isn’t on the story, but on Mesklin and its inhabitants.
Clement’s world is a quintessential science fiction creation: brilliant, odd, unforgettable, and yet utterly plausible. Mesklin is what places like Ringworld would later be, fantastic lands that dazzle the reader, even as details of plot and character slip away. The Mesklinites too are complete creations. Little details that might go unnoticed otherwise, like their transparent roofs or lack of a jumping reflex, are carefully planned and explained. (When under 700 gravities you live, jumping will you too avoid.) All of these make Barlennan’s journeys a source of adventure and discovery for the reader too. The Mesklinites also show some traits of Clement’s ideal people. As a race, they are hardwired without feelings of panic or impatience; the Mesklinites are calm under virtually all circumstances and able to carefully reason their way through problems. Perfect engineers, though I am sympathetic to Clement’s unvoiced wish that people were a bit less flighty. However, like much of Hard SF, the invention starts and stops with the universe and its scientific justifications.
Instead of a narrative arc, all of the stories are more like a procession of engineering problems. Barlennan and his crew run into trouble of some sort, reason their way through it, move forward, find a new problem, rinse and repeat. In Mission, these are sometimes trouble with other Mesklinites. The other stories are almost exclusively physical obstacles. Clement clearly enjoys these puzzles, as he gives detailed explanations of how something happened, the principles underlying it, the equipment used to solve the problem, and the final, step-by-step solution. The reader will learn much about ammonia-oxygen reactions and varying gravity effects. There is less insight into human psychology or the meaning of life. If one is looking for a book to give to the non-SF reader in one’s midst, Heavy Planet should not be at the top of the list. It is everything critics of Hard SF complain about: shallow characterization, thin plot development, and an obsession with scientific detail.
I will admit, however, that after recent forays into near-future San Diego, magical Tenochtitlan, Ho Chi Minh’s revolution in space, and Japanese mythology, I felt right at home on Mesklin. Something about the calm, Anglo competence, the complete absence of any demands made on me emotionally or philosophically, the carefully explained alien landscape, and the problems that answered to rational explanation were like a hamburger and fries for dinner. Mileage will vary, however, since everyone has a different background. I spent my formative years buried in Hard SF and Big Mysterious Objects, so I know how these stories are supposed to work. Golden Age SF is what it is; if the reader understands this and doesn’t demand more than the story is prepared to give, nobody will be dissatisfied. Heavy Planet is essential reading for Hard SF fans, but cautions go out to those who demand a little more depth with their aliens.
Rating: The Long Ball – a staple of the traditional English game, direct and unsubtle, much derided by advocates of “finesse.”