Friday, March 28, 2014

Hard Science Fiction Flashback: Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity and Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night

My copy looked like this.  I sold it.
There's a fun review of Hal Clement's 1953 Hard SF classic Mission of Gravity at the science fiction and fantasy book review blog From Couch to Moon.  Check it out!

I read Mission of Gravity in 2007, and while I can't disagree with any of the criticisms the reviewer at From Couch to Moon levels at the book, I think I enjoyed it more than she did.   On August 30 of 2007 I posted the following review (in which I fall into the its or it's trap) at amazon.com:
I read a 1950s hard cover of this Hal Clement novel, a sort of hard SF archetype well worth reading.

"Mission of Gravity" is suffused with what some might call a naive optimism about science and technology-- its like a love letter to physics and mechanical engineering. Lacking any literary pretensions, it is a straightforward account of how explorers deal with a series of technical challenges on a planet with a very unusual environment. Clement's fascination with science is infectious, and the book charmingly succeeds in accomplishing exactly what it set out to do; unlike some later hard SF novels which get loaded down with incompetent character development or boring philosophical digressions, Clement keeps his book lean and focused, and never tries to do something he isn't good at. A classic.
Someone who liked Mission of Gravity much more than I did is Thomas Disch.  I have been reading bits and pieces of Disch's 1998 book Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of over the last few weeks.  Much to my surprise, in the middle of this book, a book which seems to have been devised to offend every possible type of SF fan, I find Disch praising Mission of Gravity to the skies.  "When I first read Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, which ran as an Astounding serial in 1953, I thought it the best account of alien life on another planet that I'd ever read.  Forty-three years later my opinion has not changed."  Wow! Disch is full of surprises.       

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I think mine looked like this.  Also sold.
Hal Clement set out to write a SF book about science, and did just that, and I praised him for it.  I wrote my positive review of Mission of Gravity still smarting from my encounter with Gregory Benford's 1977 In the Ocean of Night.  I had read In the Ocean of Night in February of 2007, and in my opinion Benford's effort to include a lot of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in his hard SF tale was a total disaster.  I bitterly assaulted the book on February 18, 2007, on amazon.com thusly:

Entombed in this 420 page novel is a decent hard sf short story about Earth's first contact with robotic aliens. Unfortunately, Benford takes on the ambitious task of marrying his traditional space alien story with a literary story about human relationships and the meaning of life, a worthy project he is not equipped to bring to a successful conclusion. So, the interesting alien encounter plot is buried under hundreds of pages of tedious domestic drama (the main character, a British-born astronaut, has a menage a trois marriage, and one of the women is terminally ill) and political infighting (the astronaut is a Bob Dylan- and John Lennon-loving rebel who refuses to play the dishonest games of the warmongering bureaucrats and religious fanatics in the U.S. government.) Benford gets an "A" for effort as he unleashes literary allusions, unconventional prose techniques, and scads of metaphors and similies, and piles on chapter after chapter about the sex lives, religious beliefs, cocktail parties, drug use, day trips to the beach and vacations of the astronaut and his circle, but the characters are uninteresting and the only parts of the book that really work are those two or three dozen pages in which a character is in the cockpit of a space ship or Lunar craft. Too bad.
Gregory Benford was, from a literary point of view, more ambitious than Clement, but it seemed to me all the sex and other soap opera stuff just got in the way, and I was disappointed.

(For those scoring at home, my hostile review of Benford has netted 26 helpful votes out of 31 total votes, while my kind review of the Clement got 4 "helpfuls" out of 6 votes.)

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It was fun to think about these books again - thanks to From Couch to Moon for inspiring this little space trip down memory lane.

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