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HalClement

Harry C. Stubbs died peacefully a week ago; he was 81. As "Hal Clement" he wrote science fiction novels — quietly precise stories where physics, chemistry, and mathematics were the central characters.

Mission of Gravity epitomizes Clement's love of learning. That love comes into sharpest focus near the end of the book, when alien-protagonist Barlennan demands to be taught — taught essentially everything that humans know about the universe. (Minor spoiler note: if you wish to maximize suspense, finish the book before you look at what follows. But the story will still be wondrous if you read on.)

One of the Earthmen replies to Barlennan's ultimatum by sketching out the levels upon levels of complexity upon which science is built:

"Barl, you seemed to have some contempt in your tone when you referred to our excuse for not explaining our machines to you. Believe me, we were not trying to fool you. They are complicated, so complicated that the men who design and build them spend nearly half their lives first learning the laws that make them operate and the arts of their actual manufacture. We did not mean to belittle the knowledge of your people, either; it is true that we know more, but it is only because we have had longer in which to learn.

"Now, as I understand it, you want to learn about the machines in this rocket as you take it apart. Please, Barl, take my word as the sincerest truth when I tell you first that I for one could not do it, since I do not understand a single one of them; and second, that not one would do you the least good if you did comprehend it. The best I can say right now is that they are machines for measuring things that cannot be seen or heard or felt or tasted — things you would have to see in operation in other ways for a long time before you could even begin to understand. That is not meant as insult; what I say is almost as true for me, and I have grown up from childhood surrounded by and even using those forces. I do not understand them. I do not expect to understand them before I die; the science we have covers so much knowledge that no one man can even begin to learn all of it, and I must be satisfied with the field I do know — and perhaps add to it what little one man may in a lifetime."

Barlennan, however, is smarter than the Terrestrials realize. In the course of his reply he captures the joy and magic that deep study can bring to every student, and to every society:

"It was actually when you were teaching us about the gliders that I began to have a slight understanding of what was meant by your term 'science.' I realized, before the end of that episode, that a device so simple you people had long since ceased to use it actually called for an understanding of more of the universe's laws than any of my people realized existed. You said specifically at one point, while apologizing for a lack of exact information, that gliders of that sort had been used by your people more than two hundred years ago. I can guess how much more you know now — guess just enough to let me realize what I can't know.

"But you can still do what I want. You have done a little already, in showing us the differential hoist. I do not understand it, and neither does Dondragmer, who spent much more time with it; but we are both sure it is some sort of relative to the levers we have been using all our lives. We want to start at the beginning, knowing fully that we cannot learn all you know in our lifetimes. We do hope to learn enough to understand how you have found these things out. Even I can see it is not just guesswork, or even philosophizing like the learned ones who tell us that Mesklin is a bowl. I am willing at this point to admit you are right; but I would like to know how you found out the same fact for your own world. I am sure you knew before you left its surface and could see it all at once. I want to know why the Bree floats, and why the canoe did the same, for a while. I want to know what crushed the canoe. I want to know why the wind blows down the cleft all the time — no, I didn't understand your explanation. I want to know why we are warmest in winter when we can't see the sun for the longest time. I want to know why a fire gloes, and why flame dust kills. I want my children or theirs, if I ever have any, to know what makes this radio work, and your tank, and someday this rocket. I want to know much — more than I can learn, no doubt; but if I can start my people learning for themselves, the way you must have — well, I'd be willing to stop selling at a profit."

Note the verbs: understand, comprehend, measure, know, explain, learn, ....

Note the refrain: I want to know ....

Pure Hal Clement. Rest in Peace, Harry Stubbs.

(see also FanLetterFeedback (7 Mar 2001), ... )


TopicLiterature - TopicScience TopicProfiles - TopicPersonalHistory - Datetag20031105



Mark, this was a wonderful entry; thank you. At the risk of sounding like an ignoramus, can you please explain to me why you made "note" of the verbs and the refrain?

I guess that I just felt those words resonated most strongly with what I felt about Clement's spirit ... certainly the passages quoted have stuck in my mind over the decades since I first read them ... — ^z


I rather enjoyed most of HC/HS's SF. The character development did often strike me as weak, but the science and speculative science very well crafted for the time. -- Bo Leuf


(correlates: DavidCopperfieldAndMissMowcher, Giant of Marathon, LineariZation, ...)

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