Hal Clement

Noise is the best example I have yet found of the evolution of science fiction. Clement is best known for Mission of Gravity and is justifiably famous for his world building. “World building” in this case is not the namby-pamby soft science, let’s explain the culture and society of neat people variety that one sees in epic fantasy. No, Clement literally builds worlds, starting with stars, orbital mechanics, physics and geology, before moving on to exotic aliens and societies that form on whatever bizarre setting he has concocted. He is at his best when cooking up extreme environments and seeing what happens to the characters he drops there. This is Hard SF at its hardest.

Noise is more of what Clement enjoys the most, though this time there are no aliens, only Polynesians. Everything takes place on Kainui, and all-water world where seafaring types have somewhat inexplicably settled. What makes someone emigrate to a planet with no land, a poisonous atmosphere, and constant storms and tsunami? I have no idea, but these people seem to like it. (The title refers to the constant natural volume of the weather and ocean.) We follow Mike Hoani, an anthropologist and linguist who visits for research purposes and gets more than he bargains for. He accompanies a ship that sets out from the main Kainui city, they see the world, discover some crazy mysteries, face peril, and give Clement a chance to show off his creation.

If this were The Golden Age, Clement’s efforts would suffice. The story isn’t packed with gripping action, but it has a rigorously shaped world and some engineering challenges; this seems to have been enough for readers of the time. We tend to be a bit more demanding now however, expecting such luxuries as character development and compelling plot arcs. In this sense, Clement proves to be product of his time. Kainui is a fun backdrop and I am impressed with its construction. On the other hand, I remember almost nothing of the characters or what happens to them, despite finishing this book only recently. There is nothing wrong with the book, in the sense of comically bad writing, plot holes, or the like, but neither is there any magic or sparkle to it, nothing that reaches out and grabs me, forcing me to take notice.

In this sense, Noise works best for me as a milepost showing how much SF has changed over the last fifty odd years. I can’t really give it a strong recommendation, except to readers who want their Hard SF uncut. There is no commentary on the human condition, no exploration of philosophy or ethics, and no pushing of any boundaries. It is a solid, competent work, but will disappoint those looking for more.

Rating: Werder Bremen. A comparatively well known team in a comparatively prominent league, but not one of the elite.


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