Clement, Hal

Tagged: Author

Working name used for his sf by US author Harry Clement Stubbs (1922-2003); he used his full name for science articles, and painted as George Richard. He held degrees in astronomy, chemistry and education, and was long employed as a high-school science teacher. His first books were very well received; he fell out of favour in his middle years, but his last decades saw him enjoy an Indian summer. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1998, and was given the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2000.

From the beginning of his career Clement was associated with Astounding, where his first story, "Proof", appeared in June 1942, at the peak of the Golden Age of SF. His work was from the first characterized by the complexity and compelling interest of the scientific (or at any rate scientifically literate) ideas which dominate each story. He was not noted as a stylist, nor was his interest in character depiction very strong. Many of his books – especially the highly abstract later ones – can for pages read like a dramatized exposition of ideas, absorbing though at times disconcerting for the novel reader. This is intermittently the case even with his first novel, Needle (May-June 1949 Astounding; exp 1950; vt From Outer Space 1957), a rather ponderous Alien-Invasion story with detection elements and a juvenile protagonist in a tale with a carefully delineated Island setting where the invader is both a symbiote requiring a human or animal host (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) and a policeman who is chasing and must deduce the location of another, malign member of his species concealed somewhere amid the human population. The boy becomes a first unwitting and then co-operative host to the good alien; it eventually emerges from logical deduction that the bad alien is inhabiting the boy's own father, and the son comes up with a ploy to drive the invader from his Dad. This internal symbiosis is a highly loaded theme, but Needle was published as Children's SF in the Doubleday Young Moderns sequence, and is told without any of the necessary queasy resonance; nor does its sequel, Through the Eye of a Needle (1978), written for the evolving Young Adult market, manage to cope any better with the human implications of its material.

Clement's most famous – and far better – work is contained in his main series, the loose Mesklin sequence consisting of Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954; text restored with additions and one added story, as coll 1978), Close to Critical (May-July 1958 Astounding; 1964) and Star Light (June-September 1970 Analog; 1971); all of this material is contained, with additional matter, in two volumes in the Essential Hal Clement series: The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter (omni 1999) contains Close to Critical plus other, unconnected stories; The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 3 Variations on a Theme by Sir Isaac Newton (omni 2000; vt Heavy Planet: The Essential Mesklin Stories 2002) contains everything else. Star Light is a direct sequel to the first, while some of the characters in the second appear in the third as well, Elise ("Easy") Rich in Close to Critical being the "Easy" Hoffman of Star Light, 25 years older. Mission of Gravity, one of the best-loved novels in sf, is set on the intriguingly plausible high-gravity planet of Mesklin (see Sense of Wonder), inhabited by Clement's most interesting Aliens. The plot concerns the efforts of the Mesklinite Captain Barlennan and his crew to assist a human team in extracting a vital component from a crashed space probe; the humans cannot perform the feat, because Mesklin's Gravity varies from 3g at the equator to 700g at the poles. Barlennan's arduous trek is inherently fascinating, but perhaps even more engaging is Clement's presentation of the captain as a kind of Competent Man in extremis, a born engineer, a lover of knowledge. Though less vividly than in the depiction of Barlennan, these characteristics permeate the texts of everything that Clement wrote, even those stories whose protagonists are no more than pretexts for the unfolding of the genuine text – which is the physical Universe itself.

Clement's most successful novels apply the basic Thought Experiment structure of Mission of Gravity to fundamentally similar basic storylines – a character, usually human though often alien, must cope with an alien environment, with or without the help of natives, as in Iceworld (October-December 1951 Astounding; 1953) whose titular world is Earth as seen by a high-temperature being to whom it is initially unimaginable that substantial quantities of water can exist in liquid or solid form; Cycle of Fire (1957), an early Hard SF example of a world whose Great Year comprises hot and cold seasons each forty years long; and the stories variously assembled in Natives of Space (coll 1965) and elsewhere, and fully represented in The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 2: Music of Many Spheres (coll 1999). Clement's only collaboration, "Planet for Plunder" (February 1957 Satellite; 2011) with Sam Merwin Jr, demonstrates his fascination with alien environments and viewpoints, as he initially wrote the story entirely from a nonhuman standpoint; Merwin, acting for Satellite, where it appeared, wrote an additional 10,000 words from a human point of view.

In Clement's later novels, particularly Half Life (fixup 1999), this intense focus on the solving of problems within a strict sf universe becomes even more extreme; Half Life, set on another puzzle planet, in this case Titan, confronts various protagonists – none of whom actually meet one another, as they are in quarantine due to the opportunistic plagues which are destroying Homo sapiens on Earth – with challenges of a dauntingly impersonal nature; though the creation of disease-resistant strains of life may be the saving outcome. For half a century, Clement almost unfalteringly sought to maintain the relevance and seriousness of Hard-SF sf focused rigorously on the physical sciences; and his vividness of imagination – his sense that the Universe is wonderful – generally overcame the awkwardness of his narrative technique. He is a figure of importance to genre not only for the ingenuity of his applications of science to the universe, but also for the vividness of his imagination, which in his best work overcame any awkwardnesses of narrative technique. What Clement best conveys from the Golden Age of SF is something of continuing relevance: a sense that the Universe is wonderful. [JC/DRL]

see also: Conceptual Breakthrough; Crime and Punishment; Ecology; Fantastic Voyages; Robert Hale Limited; Scientific Errors; Skylark Award; Stars; Sun; Under the Sea.

Harry Clement Stubbs

born Somerville, Massachusetts: 30 May 1922

died Boston, Massachusetts: 29 October 2003





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