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A Heavy Trip
on 20 April 2003
First published in 1953, this book was the progenitor of the modern 'hard' SF sub-genre. Using only the known science of the day, it imagined a world so wildly different from our everyday experience that it dazzles the mind, showing just how wild the universe really can be.
The world is Mesklin, a very large planet that rotates on its axis in just eighteen minutes, leading to gravitational forces of 700 gravities at the poles, and just 3 gees at the equator. But this is just the first of the items that make the world unique: its average temperature is a toasty -160 degrees Celsius; a methane/ammonia atmospheric composition that at these temperatures act much like water on Earth - phasing between solid, liquid, and gaseous forms; a wildly ecliptic orbit and planetary axial tilt that has strange consequences for the weather. Now add an intelligent native life form that is fifteen inches long and just three inches tall, looking very much like an overgrown millipede with pinchers, an Earth probe stranded at one of the poles that Terran scientists would very much like to retrieve for the data it contains about high gravity environments, and you have the ingredients for a great scientific adventure story.
Clement, a high school science teacher for much of his life, writes very much in the mold of a much earlier SF writer, Jules Verne. As such, the emphasis is on the science, the puzzles and oddities extreme conditions can present, rather than on character or thematic messages. Every detail of this world was very carefully worked out, right down to why the native inhabitants would 'see' their world as a hollow flattened bowl, complete with accurate maps, and would reject almost out of hand the idea that the surface they could see was really the outside of a sphere. In fact, a good bit of the charm of this book is the portrayed alien mind-set, showing just how much environment shapes the way people look at things. This also applies to the Earth scientists, who have great trouble at times seeing how the extreme conditions lead to important technological conclusions, such as why a canoe is not a viable shape for an ocean-going vessel at super-high gravities.
The plot is pretty much a series of adventures occasioned by various scientific oddities as the Mesklinite party travels across the world from equator to pole in search of the Earthling's probe, with little in the way of character development or any deeper meanings. There is some severe dating of some of the technology used: slide rules, film recordings, environmental suit mechanical linkages, etc. There is one item here that was quite a bit ahead of its time - the use of a water bed as a method for staying in high-gee environments for extended periods of time (but was Clement aware of Heinlein's description of the water bed in Beyond This Horizon, written in 1941?). But the dating does not seriously detract from the main focus of the novel, which is Mesklin itself, just as timelessly incredible as the day this first saw print. Recommended for those who enjoy the scientific puzzle, those who still see the universe as an incredibly varied, complex, and beautiful composition, where scientific fact really is much stranger than fiction.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)