Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mission of Gravity

In the world of Sci-Fi, Hal Clement's 'Mission of Gravity' crops up a bit. In a couple of centuries, humanity loses some very expensive equipment (aimed at studying gravity) at the North Pole (or South Pole, I can't remember which) of a strangely shaped, but huge planet. The gravity is such (several hundred times that of Earth) that they must befriend and engage some of the native aliens to go forth, explore new lands and somehow get that data back.
This is why I hate hard Sci-Fi. Effectively we are following a band of sea-faring lobsters as they have mild adventures encountering other lobsters. Whenever there is a problem, a little help from their can-do (American) human friends helps to sort things out. Captain Barlennan, a lobster, has some devious plans up his shelly sleeve, but ultimately there is nothing more threatening here than a lobster with a Christopher Columbus complex. Problem: the ship must get over a cliff. Problem: the ship must get out of a stream. Problem: the ship must sail uncharted waters. You get the idea.
There are a couple of human characters, principal among them being Charles Lackland (oh, the name!) and his grumpy boss, Rosten, but to dignify these bland entities with the term 'character' is to lend them a weight their cardboard substance simply won't support. When any of the other human scientists talk there is nothing to distinguish them, not even from Lackland, though apaprently they don't warrant names. No, this is the lobsters' show.
It's also Middle America writ large. The lobsters, as they admit themselves, are first and foremost traders, and petty bourgeois can-do capitalism drags down every ounce of imagination this sorry tale can muster. The grocer on the corner doing a McGyver is really what this amounts to. If we all pull together - and we can because we are all so fundamentally decent and we all want to make an honest buck - we can get through this thing. Psychological complexity - and surely even lobsters are capable of a little of that - is abandoned, as indeed is anything that might challenge the seven year old this novel is apparently aimed at. So, like the humans in their approach to the lobsters, the writer gives the reader some elementary science (look what you learnt today!), but the science never gets too esoteric. No, none of Gregory Benford's tachyons here! Instead we find out why a canoe sinks under heavy gravity, or why the horizon on this make-believe world is above our lobster heroes, or why my head doesn't explode reading this drivel when so self-evidently it should. I have no one to blame but myself. Indeed a few months back I got into a minor squabble with another blogger when he complained about the sub-standard quality of most Sci-Fi. All right, maybe I was a little too hasty in my defence of the genre.
Actually no, I wasn't. Despite junk like this, there is a great deal of creditable work done in the genre that could not be done in so-called mainstream literature. That this is so can be seen by the number of Sci-Fi works the mainstream appropriates for itself when it feels like it (eg. '1984', the works of Pynchon or Vonnegut, 'Frankenstein', etc.). Well, be that as it may, the mainstream can have this if it wants, because I can't see anyone else claiming it.
As a lifelong lover of seafood, I cannot even recommend this book to all lobster lovers, though I suppose that some, lobster lovers of the more perverse variety, might find something in it.

Labels: , ,


At 10:15 am, Blogger Robert A Vollrath said...

I've always loved this book but I haven't read it in 20+ years so maybe you're right. I guess I like junk science fiction as some of the worst of the books I read as a kid are still my favorites. My oldest son has made fun of my taste in bad sci-fi but to each his own.


Post a Comment

<< Home