So, you’ve probably encountered your fair share of unusual protagonists in books over the years, but I am willing to bet I can top them all. Think of the most unusual lead character in a book you’ve read.
Got someone in mind? What are they? A wookie-like creature? A demon? A dragon?
Okay, now meet Barlennan, a merchant seaman who is fifteen inches long, has thirty-six legs, is essentially an intelligent millipede living in a medieval level of society on a massive high-gravity world that spins so fast it’s shaped like an oval.
Mission of Gravity was written by Hal Clement in serial format in 1953 for Astounding Science Fiction magazine, published as a novel the following year, and is one of the best early examples of complex SF world building I’ve ever come across. One based solidly on the best understandings of science at the time.
The story takes place on the world of Mesklin, a massive world with an enormously high level of gravity. At the poles it reaches almost 700G, but the planet is also spinning so fast that at the equator it drops to a close-to-tolerable 3G.
Barlennan is the captain of the Bree, a sailing vessel on a trading expedition to the equator. He has established relations with a human there, Charles Lackland, who is on a mission to try and recover a scientific probe that crashed at one of Mesklin’s poles. Lackland is barely able to tolerate the 3G environment, requiring special equipment to cope. He’s taught the Mesklinites English and enlists Barlennan and his crew to recover the probe in exchange for weather information that they can’t normally get themselves (a boon for any sailing merchant).
As the Bree goes on its mission and the crew encounter various perils, Charles helps them along via radio (which various denizens encountered see as magical) with advice and explaining certain things to help them past various obstacles. However, what we quickly learn about Barlennan is that he extremely clever in his own right, and has a very eager mind. He soon gets frustrated at how the humans try to avoid explaining anything scientific to him. He sees there is more to the world than he once knew, and this mission might just provide him an opportunity to understand more of it. After all, they need him if they’re going to get their probe back.
Mission of Gravity is a truly classic style SF novel, where much of the focus is on explaining how everything works. The nature of the planet’s gravity, how that affected the weather and geology, how the Mesklinites’ technology and society works, and their evolution. Everything is explained with just enough detail, without ever getting too bogged down by it.
The modern day equivalent of this kind of storytelling might be by someone like Andy Weir. Not that Weir would ever go to these kind of crazy extremes, but the mix of story and science feels about the same. You tell the story like any other story. But when encountering a problem? That’s when the science comes out.
Even though the science has become outdated (Hal himself later said that 700G was far too high and the poles were most likely closer to 250G), his explanations are detailed and convincing. He really makes you believe in this incredible world, and logically thinks through what existence for life on such a place must be like.
More importantly, Clement captures that sense of wonder that is so important to the genre, making the reader part of the process, comprehending and eventually understanding the world as they go along. As such, it’s been cited by many SF writers that came after him as a reason they got into the genre. The novel was even nominated for a Retro Hugo Award for 1954.
If the book has a shortcoming it’s this: Despite being tiny intelligent millipede-like creatures on a high gravity world, they are all too human in terms of character and personality. But that is largely an unavoidable problem if you’re having the alien a protagonist. To make them truly alien and yet keep the actions and narrative relatable to a human would be a whole other level of challenge, one that the book simply choses to avoid.
Like some other books reviewed in the past, this one is not currently in print, but if you can track down a copy online or in a used bookstore, it’s simply a must for fans of classic science fiction. Or just wild imagination, since this contains both in equal measure.
Fun fact: I found my copy at a garage sale while bicycling across Canada almost twenty years ago. Still have it!
Tor Books looks at the history and significance of this novel in FAR more detail than I could for a short review:
Originally Published in KODT #257