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Book 2

  1. Pohl, Frederik — Gateway (278 pages)
  2. Clement, Hal — Mission of Gravity (193 pages)

Page count: 471 of targeted 12,500.

This was a fairly uninteresting read. I thought Clement would make more of the fact that his story takes place on a high-gravity planet, but most of the narrative takes place on the oddly-shaped planet's low-gravity areas. Thus, there's nothing very peculiar or different about most of the story. The plot ends up being a list of moderately challenging situations with their fairly straightforward resolutions, and that doesn't make for very exciting reading. Plus, one thing in particular bugged the hell out of me: the author is obsessed with hard science and goes to great lengths to ensure that the oddities of his planet are adequately explained and scientifically plausible; yet he never explains how a species equipped only with pincers for hands can become so proficient at skills that require a high level of manual dexterity. For a novel which is all about the science, this oversight felt like a letdown.

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
lillibet
Jan. 15th, 2007 04:21 pm (UTC)
For a novel which is all about the science, this oversight felt like a letdown.

Ah, but that's biology--a soft, mushy, science--not hard, manly, interesting science like physics or geology!

spwebdesign
Jan. 15th, 2007 04:51 pm (UTC)
The thought occurred to me, too, that his interest is in physics, specifically the effects of a high gravity environment, and not biology. But he spends a few pages talking about the Mesklinites specific adaptations: their chitinous shells, their lack of lungs, how speech is possible without respiration, etc. I felt that made the whole pincer issue that much more glaring.
am0
Jan. 18th, 2007 02:32 am (UTC)
Clement
I have a copy of the volume "Heavy Planet" before me right now. It contains "Mission of Gravity" and the sequel "Star Light", as well as some essays about the stories. Among the errors Clement admits to are saying the Bree would sail faster with the wind behind it and ... having messed up the calculations he did before 1952 using a slide rule. Several decades later, when he had a computer, he re-did those calculations and discovered the planet Mesklin as he conceived it would have been a flat disk with a razor edge at the equator, having 3g at the equator and 275g at the poles. He also said that his mathematical weakness was part of the reason he spent four decades teaching astronomy instead of doing physics. Just finding a substance for a body of creatures living on such a world, one that would remain sufficiently solid without freezing up completely, was a major challenge he and Isaac Asimov spent considerable time discussing. A lot of work went into figuring out something that might work. He concludes the discussion of his errors with "... the advantage is yours; I can make no more moves in the game, and you have all the time you want to look for the things I've said which reveal slips on the part of my imagination."

Remember that he started working on the book in 1943, finishing it in 1952. We know a lot now that we didn't know then.
spwebdesign
Jan. 18th, 2007 02:37 am (UTC)
Re: Clement
Of course we know a lot now than we did then, but that's completely irrelevant. I can't fault an author of speculative fiction when science changes. And I'm certainly not advanced enough in my knowledge of physics and mathematics to begin to catch mistakes in those areas. But it doesn't take a genius in any scientific field to realize that some of the things the Mesklinites are supposedly capable of are pretty darned near impossible when you have pincers instead of fingers.
am0
Jan. 19th, 2007 02:21 am (UTC)
Re: Clement
I disagree somewhat about it being irrelevant. Writing a book is pretty complicated. I find -- frequently -- that I have forgotten what I wrote in a segment of Chosen. I usually have a bright idea about what I can add, only to find I included it initially and then forgot about it. Add to that confusion the problem of inventing a world ... and remembering what ideas you've included and which you've discarded. Even though he worked as an astronomy teacher, he was well aware of his weakness in mathematics and his total inability as a biologist.

I'm pretty sure that using pincers is a lot easier than what we do with chopsticks. I am fairly proficient with chopsticks, but I'm aware there are others out there far more skilled than I. Most terrestrial creatures that use pincers also have some smaller manipulative organs like little pincers, usually somewhere near the mouth. As a writer, I'm not sure how I'd describe the use of those additional manipulators without the story getting so bogged down in extraneous detail that the reader loses track of the story and drifts away from the book itself. You have to sacrifice detail in order to maintain a suitable pace. Just assume the Mesklinites had the equipment necessary to perform the described actions but that talking about them would have made the story unreadable.

That usually works for me.

On the other hand, I know I have a bad habit of sacrificing too much detail and keeping too fast a pace. My trouble is that detail tends to expand exponentially, rather than linearly, making it hard to balance pace against detail and description.
spwebdesign
Jan. 19th, 2007 02:46 am (UTC)
Re: Clement
It's not that one can't manipulate things effectively with only two opposable digits; it's that those two digits are razor sharp and cut through metal as if it were paper. I can understand being able to weave rope with chopsticks, but how the hell do you weave rope with scissors. And that, essentially, is the problem with having a species that specializes as merchant seamen using pincers for hands. Likewise, some of the other tools used by different Mesklinite cultures seem the sort of thing that would not have been created by a species that uses pincers instead of hands. I believe something along the lines of "form follows function" is being ignored here.

Just assume the Mesklinites had the equipment necessary to perform the described actions but that talking about them would have made the story unreadable.

I have two problems with this. (1) Clement goes to lengths to describe specialized features of Mesklinite anatomy: how they get their air through some sort of absorption through their shells instead of through respiration, how their bodies mimic the principles of rocketry in generating speech, how their shells are composed of a substance very much like chitin that can withstand the enormous pressures in the polar regions, and so on. The pincer issue seems merely an oversight, not a conscious attempt to increase readability. (2) The story is not so eminently readable. I'm not saying it's unreadable, but it's not the smoothest or most interesting narrative. It felt like reading a laundry list of challenges with fairly straightforward solutions. Nor were they particularly interesting challenges and, more importantly, they were the sorts of challenges that were not necessarily unique to a world such as Mesklin.

Currently, I'm reading Timescape by Gregory Benford, and the difference is night and day. Benford does not shy away from detailed descriptions of the science (though he does seem to pull in the reins before he gets too technical for the layman), yet his narrative does not get bogged down. Like Clement, he set out to study a specific scientific idea (the structure of time and effects on attempting to effect change in one part of the structure from another, as opposed to the effects of a world where gravity ranges from 3G at the equator to 400G at the poles), but he does so while lucidly telling an compelling story as well.
am0
Jan. 19th, 2007 09:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Clement
The scissors problem could be solved with some kind of gloves. Assume they were available ... or something equally useful.

[1] Clement had long talks with Asimov about the world he was building. The details he includes reflect the results of those talks. The highly descriptive manner in which the story was presented was typical of SF in the late forties and early fifties; Clement wasn't as bad as some of them: try reading E.E. Smith's Lensman series of stories. Assume there were many oversights, too, as Clement himself admits.

[2] You've read other fiction from the period, including SF. Much of what everybody wrote was awkward by modern standards. This awkwardness so pervades writing of the time that I'm convinced you couldn't sell a story written any other way at that time.

Benford was a practicing physicist who wasn't handicapped by mathematics. He was involved in collaborations with several others who were as astute as he is. He was also writing in a somewhat more modern style, evolved from the earlier styles. He was also a much better writer than Clement. Clement's fame comes from being among the first to extrapolate on what we thought we knew about the universe, about 90% of which we've discovered to be at least slightly in error since the beginning of the space age.
spwebdesign
Jan. 19th, 2007 10:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Clement
One can't assume some sort of gloves. It begs the questions of how gloves were made. I'd have to assume that gloves magically appeared, and then this world would be closer to something by Terry Pratchett than hard science fiction.

Besides, we know they don't wear gloves. Clement goes into great detail about everything the Mesklinites do. He describes how their razor sharp pincers can cut through metal with relative ease. If the Mesklinites were removing gloves to cut through metal or flesh, you'd think Clement would mention that somewhere in his lengthy descriptions of how the Mesklinite proceeded to cut through a piece of metal or a beached carcass. Based on Clement's own words, I have to assume that there are no gloves and that he simply didn't completely think through the Mesklinite anatomy.

BTW, yes, I've read plenty of stuff from the forties and fifties, and I have to disagree that Clement's writing deficiencies are endemic to the era. In fact, a lot of what I've read from that generation is much better written than stuff produced today.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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