Take THAT, Ringworld. Long before Mr Niven was inserting tons of science into science-fiction, Hal Clement was coming along and giving us the rather interesting world of Mesklin, a world with such a high spin that the planet essentially becomes flattened out and its gravity in some places is high enough to make a person pancake flat if they happened to land without protection. And yet life does exist here. And it sails. And it turns out to be really curious.
Hard science is interesting because it proves to us in an entertaining fashion that the universe on its own is a fairly fascinating and exciting place and you don't have to invent hyperspace and teleportation beams to really have fun with the story, you can take the natural quirks of science to create fascinating scenarios and have it be justified as more than just a flight of the imagination. At its best, it stretches the mind and instills wonder at how vast and variable the universe we live in really is. At its worst, it reads like a science lecture you didn't intend to sign up for. Generally that has nothing to do with the degree of the author, there are perfectly good authors who sport doctorates in physics. Hal Clement was one of them.
The collection consists of two big novels, a short story and an essay where he takes us through the process of designing such a bizarre planet. "Mission of Gravity" is the first and the acknowledged classic, where Mesklin trader Barlennan is sailing and exploring areas he has never been able to venture into before due to the help of his new human friends. The humans have contacted him to help them out while also giving him a chance to make some extra money by finding new trade routes and much of the story deals with the trials and travails the crew faces as they journey from one place to the other, eventually in search of a downed probe.
The whole concept of it is fascinating and makes for some interesting reading, almost ground breaking on several levels. Mesklin doesn't have the later sophistication that Frank Herbert would bring to world building with Dune but the science is well thought out down to even the smaller levels (like how Barlennan perceives his world as a bowl due to the strange shape of it) and is a far cry from the Edgar Rice Burroughs stuff that we had seen previously, where planets existed just to be pillaged and adventured on. Here, the planet becomes part of the plot and is vital to it. The story can really only happen here, and it adds a certain sense of place. Also, the relationship between the Mesklinites and the humans isn't something we normally saw in SF, where both of them were treating each other like adults. The Mesklinites aren't a hundred percent trusting, but willing to take whatever information they're given to use to their advantage, while the humans are trying to make sure the Mesklinites are useful while questioning at what point do they cross the line into outright exploitation. But they have several and many rational conversations, and nobody ever pulls out ray guns and threatens to shoot. It's rather refreshing.
Unfortunately, it does make the novel a bit of an even experience. While there is action and some conflict, everyone is so mannered and accommodating that you wish that someone would flip out and start screaming or somebody would start shooting. The story winds up being a near episodic experience as the crew ranges over the planet and overcomes various obstacles, which are difficult to easily overcome due to said planet's weird gravity. That' pretty much it and so if you're in this story, you're in it for the sense of wonder and exploration. To me, that was a little harder because we're never given a real good and clear explanation of what exactly the physics are of the world . . . everything is clearly thought out and the entire cast is reasonably well informed, but the rest of us have to figure it out as we go along. A little hand-holding would have been nice, as things are often described from the Mesklinites' frame of reference, so it takes a bit to square it back into human thinking (a nice move in itself) . . . this isn't really a complaint because Clement seems to be assuming that he has an intelligent readership but there were a few parts where the crew was figuring out an obstacle and it took me a while to realize why it was a problem. But it introduced Barelennan as a true character in SF, an alien with a distinctive personality and viewpoint different from people who was still relateable. He's even out for himself and profit, mostly.
The sequel to the story both accents and betters the flaws of the first novel. This time the Mesklinites are working for the humans on a different world with a similar set of physics, and everything is going smoothly until one ship gets stranded in the weird ammonia sea that they're traveling in. The crew scrambles to figure a way out and the humans try to gather whatever information they can to help. A lot of the novel is devoted to the science of the planet and how they have to manipulate said science to get what they want but this time the science seems more talky and bogs down what little momentum the book has. Again, nothing is really terribly exciting (I never get the sense that the crew is in imminent danger) but the pendulum swings too far in the other direction in terms of explaining stuff to us, stopping short of giving us the mathematical equations on the page itself. This, coupled with the aforementioned lack of wonder and excitement from the story, almost sinks the book.
Almost. The key here comes with the interactions between the humans and the Mesklinites. Because it becomes clear that the aliens are playing a bit of a deception to get what they want, something the accident is about to reveal and the exciting portions of the novel are the ones that focus on everyone's motivations as they dart and dance around each other trying to decide how the others' brains work. Barlennan is reduced to almost a guest star in his own novel but one of the best scene has all the humans gathered around debating what he's actually after and you realize that they don't quite understand him after all. All the maneuvering and plotting adds layers of complexity to the book and focuses on much more than a language or even cultural barrier, but a barrier of an entirely different method of thinking. Some of the detailed discussions between various people who aren't even in the same room as each other prefigures work he would do much later in novels like "Half-Life", only taken to more of an extreme there.
So yeah, neither of them are perfect. Part of that is because Clement definitely wants to show off the new world that he's painstakingly figured out the science behind (I can't blame him, the essay depicts the incredible amount of thought that went into it . . . but it is a problem for hard SF authors everywhere) and sometimes forgets that a little action is better than a pure travelogue. His refined and erudite SF won't spark any fires but Barlennan is a pure SF treasure. Those who miss the days when SF actively sought to teach us about the marvels of science (as opposed to explaining all the horrible things that can happen with it) can't go wrong with these novels, PhD or not.