29 August, 2012

Review: Mission of Gravity

Mission of Gravity Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aliens and humans collaborate in a grave mission to save a downed scientific instrument in this pinnacle novel of hard science fiction.

Mission of Gravity occupies a place of honor among my book collection as my favorite fiction novel of all time. This is definitely Hal Clement's best work, and is certainly the best pro-science hard scifi novel I've ever read. While I know not everyone likes science fiction, and, of those who do, most cannot stand hard science fiction, for those people who truly appreciate hard scifi, Mission of Gravity will definitely rank among the best books ever written.

I realize these are grandiose claims, especially considering Clement's status as only an above-average writer. This novel hasn't the depth of Joyce's Ulysses or the romance of Gabaldon's Outlander. It doesn't have the intensity of Card's Ender's Game, the shock value of Palahniuk's Fight Club, the epic nature of Asimov's Foundation series, nor the stark philosophy of Plato's Republic. And yet I seriously consider Clement's Mission of Gravity to be my favorite of all (not counting nonfiction), merely on the basis of setting and message.

For those who are unfamiliar with hard scifi in general, setting is generally the most important character in the story. It isn't the people who interact or the relationships they make; it isn't the development of character agents, or the dramatic arc connecting the pieces of the book together. Rather, when it comes to hard scifi, the most important aspect is the creation of a believable scientifically accurate setting onto which a story is played. The best books integrate good stories, but even when the story itself is only above average, hard scifi can still be considered extremely good if the setting is immaculate. Clement is just such a master of hard scifi settings, even if he lacks considerably when it comes to writing about human relationships.

In Mission of Gravity, Clement has managed to combine an amazing story with a strong pro-science message into an absolutely enthralling setting beyond anything I can relate in this review. The setting is, quite simply, the best hard scifi setting I have ever seen, and the buildup throughout the book to the final two chapter conclusion encapsulates a philosophical worldview that never ceases to cause depths of emotion, no matter how many times I read it.

While I can't guarantee that others will enjoy Mission of Gravity as much as I, if you have any interest in pure science for science's sake, science fiction that is heavy on plausibility and light on fantasy, and can be okay with reading a story where the character arcs move glacially slow, then you will enjoy reading this book.

(Note that, for best impact, Mission of Gravity should be read before reading any other books by Clement, as he tends to reuse a lot of his philosophical ideas in his books, and so each subsequent book will become more predictable on the first reading.)

If you have not yet read Mission of Gravity, please stop reading this review here. Spoilers follow below.

Every book has flaws. Ulysses is inscrutable without searching for parallels you would never find on your own while reading; the Foundation series was written over too long a period of time to connect properly together; and the Republic gets too preachy on what have since been fairly settled issues that wastes a lot of today's readers' time. For Mission of Gravity, the problems are very easy to spot, despite the overall awesomeness of the book itself.

First, Clement is horribly dated when it comes to computing power. Modern readers cannot go through Mission of Gravity without mentally scoffing at the idea that a rover sent to an alien world for exploration would not be constantly recording data continuously. Every time Clement writes that a picture has to be manually taken or that the view for human eyes is the same port through which a high speed camera is used just makes the story seem completely wrong. It is not Clement's fault; he could not have anticipated the advances of computing power which would be used to dominate such scenes. Nevertheless, it does take away from the capability of the reader to suspend their disbelief during these segments. (...and slide rules? Really?)

Second, the language barrier. I know it seems strange to harp on something that the author had to compromise on for the sake of the story, but the time frame in which mesklinites learn english is literally incredible. The same goes for the social similarities between our species, let alone the physical ones.

Third, the stark emotionlessness of the characters. Sure, the humans involved are scientists at work, so we can forgive them for not showing much emotion. And the aliens are, well, alien, so we can forgive them for having completely different psyches than we may expect. But since I've read a lot of Clement's work, I know that the truth is just that Clement is unable to really write great depths of emotion in his stories. Still, despite the character deficiencies, it is entirely plausible that, in this world, the fault of the deficiency is in the characters, and not the author's.

Despite these flaws, I still maintain that Mission of Gravity is my favorite fiction novel of all time. Every conflict in the story is resolvable by the reader in advance; instead of using technobabble like most soft science fiction or some deus ex machina by the introduction of some technology not already established, every single time something happens in the story, it arrives naturally and is resolved scientifically in theoretically predictable ways. Yet, at the same time, the story is not predictable, as the action proceeds faster than any conceivable human could think through all the variables and make accurate predictions of what will happen next.

It is in this sense that Mission of Gravity is rather like a game played between the author and the readers. The author put a lot of effort into ensuring the story is coherent and realistic -- but as Clement himself points out, once written, the author can make no more moves. Since publication, it has been the readers' turn, and so far quite a few things have been found. Clement's initial calculation was that the poles would have 655g (the published book rounded to 700g), yet his math was flawed; the correct value should have been 275g. The MIT Science Fiction Society has also calculated that Mesklin would have a sharp edge at the equator; a fact that Clement missed when writing Mission of Gravity.

However, my favorite part of the book comes at the end of the second to last chapter. Barlennan's speech is perhaps the most moving fictional speech I've ever read. It is the culmination of everything he planned from page one, and is a passionately strong defense of the value of pure science. This is the kind of speech that every student of science should read at least once in their lives.

Well done, Harry Clement Stubbs.

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