ffb: The Essential Hal Clement: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter

The Essential Hal Clement: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter by Hal Clement [Harry Clement Stubbs], NESFA, 1998, hardcover omnibus,science fiction

Clement-1NESFA (New England Science Fiction Assoc.) continues to publish excellent collections of often forgotten authors. This collects three short novels: Needle, Iceworld and Close to Critical. Clement is a significant writer and the reading was enjoyable and went quickly. All three works have children characters and might be suitable for younger SF readers. (three reviews below)

Needle, – originally published in Astounding Science Fiction 1949

I read this a long time ago in Astounding and I really didn’t remember much about it other than it seemed enjoyable. I didn’t expect it to read like a juvenile, but then I was a juvenile when I read it and liked it just fine. Now it seems wordy and dated.

The introduction says that one of the reasons Clement wrote this was in response to a remark by John W. Campbell Jr. that a fair play mystery could never be written in the science fiction genre. Clement’s solution was to have the detective be an alien inhabiting a human body, hunting another alien who is doing the same. In this case Hunter is inhabiting the body of Robert Kincaid, and they are working together to find Killer who must by deduction be in the body of one of the inhabitants of a small Pacific island on which Robert lives.

One by one the suspects are eliminated, there is no violence, and clues are provided. I guessed the answer about halfway through the 201 page novelette, but didn’t see the clue for it until the end.

Iceworld – originally published Astounding Science Fiction (1953)

Longer than Needle, this story hinges on the answer to the question: ‘How would someone from a furnace planet, say someone who breathes gaseous sulfur, react to Earth, which would seem extremely cold?’ The story then postulates a plant material from Earth which in gaseous form is addictive to natives of the furnace planet, and a drug runner who is trying to increase his supply of ‘tofacco’.

All that’s a stretch, but much science fiction is based on the willing suspension of disbelief. The fun of the story is really the chemistry. The rest is pretty humdrum, but Clement writes well enough to pull us along. The main character becomes addicted early in the story, and no magical cures are found, though he expresses the hope for one at the end. Meanwhile the gift of a carton of cigarettes enables him to free himself from the control of the drug runner and return to his home planet. Okay, not great. (2003)

Close to Critical – originally published in Astounding Science Fiction 1958

Though well written and interesting, this is probably the weakest of the three novelettes in the collection. It hinges on two concepts: humans from an alien perspective, a theme also in the other two works, and vast physical differences on the planet portrayed, a theme also found in Needle.

In this case humans are exploring a dense high gravity planet with an atmosphere that changes to liquid state at night and slowly “dries” to gaseous state in daytime. A robot has gone to the surface, found and stolen some eggs of the dominant intelligent (cave dweller level) species and has educated them for about 15 years. Now these adolescents are beginning to map the planet, the original purpose of the entire venture.

Unfortunately about the time the mapping begins the original clan is encountered and they follow a member of the robot’s clan to their village and threaten to steal the robot so it can teach them about stuff like fire and domesticating animals.

Meanwhile, back at the ship, the humans are guiding – and speaking through – the robot and conducting other scientific work. A pair of ambassadors arrive, one human, one alien, each with a child. By misadventure the two children are trapped in a not quite completed exploration vessel which enters the atmosphere and lands. A rescue operation must take place, with the parents, particularly the alien, in a dither. With these storylines merging the situation comes “close to critical” but the clever human daughter and the alien’s son save the day.

There’s lots of chemistry in this one, but the story didn’t interest me as much as the others, and the ending seemed contrived. This one also seemed better in 1956 than in this recent reading. These are okay, but none are as good as Clement’s best novel, Mission of Gravity. (2003)

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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23 Responses to ffb: The Essential Hal Clement: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter

  1. Todd Mason says:

    And CLOSE was a direct sequel to MISSION OF GRAVITY…but only rarely is it brought up as a truly worthy one.

  2. Todd Mason says:

    The 1987 film THE HIDDEN owes no little to NEEDLE and to some extent Heinlein’s THE PUPPET MASTERS. And, to be fair, other similar work.

  3. macavityabc says:

    Loved NEEDLE when I was a kid. Haven’t read it since, which is probably just as well.

    • Richard says:

      Bill, I didn’t mean to say these aren’t good, just not as good as MISSION OF GRAVITY. Any Clement is better than no Clement, and I’m glad I have this omnibus volume, one of three in the NESFA set. The others are better, and worth owning and reading.

  4. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Thanks for the reviews, partly because I do not now feel any reason to seek them out and read them.

  5. Richard says:

    Jeff, see my comment to Bill, above.

  6. I liked Clement but he was never among my favorite authors.

  7. Jeff Meyerson says:

    That reminds me – “Heinlein” was the answer (or, actually, question ) on Jeopardy last night or the night before.

    No one got it right but I did of course.

  8. I love all these NESFA volumes! They keep classic SF novels in print.

  9. tracybham says:

    I don’t have a lot of experience with sci fi writers so it is not surprising I have not heard of this author. The short novels sound interesting and I would be interested in trying something written around this time. I love the title. It looks like a text book. Takes me back to when people actually used slide rules for calculations.

    • Todd Mason says:

      Stubbs was a high school science teacher, and by all accounts an excellent one.

    • Richard says:

      I need to review some more mysteries so I might have something more of interest to you, Tracy. Or perhaps The Curve of Time (the post below this one)? Unfortunately, the library books keep rolling in and none are mysteries just now.

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