Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Transhuman

transhuman

Ben Bova, Transhuman. Tor, 2014, 387 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6932-1

Rating: 7 out of 10

Ben Bova is a rather prolific writer and one of my favorites. Basically, I just buy any book of his that comes out. Invariably, his books are great fun to read. Transhuman is no exception. Unlike most of Bova’s work, it is a standalone novel that is not part of any series. The story follows Luke Abramson, an elderly scientist of 75-years-old working on telomeres, the capping regions of chromosomes. Telomeres differ in size among people and this fact has generated a lot of interest from scientists in different fields because of several reasons. To start with, it has been observed that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer. With successive cell divisions, telomeres become shorter until they are so short that cell division becomes impossible. Importantly though, it is not clear whether shorter telomeres are just a biomarker of cellular aging or whether shortening actually causes aging. It has been speculated that restoring telomere length might be a way to rejuvenation. However… It has also been shown that telomeres may play a role in cancer; hence, manipulating them is not necessarily benign and may carry significant risks.

When the story starts, Abramson’s granddaughter is dying from an incurable brain cancer. Of course, he is convinced that by shortening her telomeres, he can cure her, because that will force the tumor cells to stop dividing, giving the girl’s immune system the chance to rid her system of any malignant cells. An expected side effect is progeria, a rare disorder in which children age rapidly and die of old age by the time they reach adolescence. Of course, Abramson thinks he can treat this by elongating the girl’s telomeres again, although that has the risk of re-igniting the cancer. Meanwhile, Abramson has been running all over the country: because his daughter and son-in-law, the child’s parents, refuse to let him use their child as a guinea pig, Abramson, convinced of his treatment, has abducted the kid. Conveniently, the physician treating the child decides to run off with him, although initially she is opposed to his experimental treatment and does not really have a good reason to put her whole career in jeopardy. She is also an attractive young woman. Do I really need to add that in the end, she and Abramson end up a couple? Oh, right, he’s 75. No problem! When the fugitive life becomes too taxing, Abramson injects himself with a treatment intended to increase the length of his telomeres and, presto, he starts to look younger and younger.

Bova’s protagonist, Abramson, while working in two of the hottest areas in science (cancer and aging), is described as a kind of lone wolf. Sure, he has some grad students and postdocs, but apart from that does not seem to collaborate with anybody. Needless to say, this is not really the way science works and I don’t think that any scientist working alone with a few grad students will find the cure for cancer, let alone that he would simultaneously come up with a rejuvenation therapy. Worse, Abramson loses his NIH funding, despite the fact that everybody agrees that he’s a brilliant scientist. He then secures funding from a rich benefactor. Nevertheless, his university pushes him to retire, something I find highly unlikely given Abramson’s active funding status (unless this benefactor is not paying any overheads to the university, which I think is unlikely, too). This is not the first time that I have noticed that Bova, although a lot of his novels feature academics, is not really familiar with the way university research works.

Back to the telomeres. Unfortunately for Bova, who at 84 most likely is interested in a treatment that would restore his youth (aren’t we all…), things are quite a bit more complicated than he presents them in his book. Simply elongating or shortening telomeres is unlikely to be a cure for cancer or to reverse the effects of aging. But, one might argue, this is science fiction. We should suspend some of our disbelief in the interest of the story, right? I agree and would be less harsh about the scientific part of this novel, if, for example, the treatment had just been a writer’s gimmick to explore the effects on society of something that cures cancer and significantly expands our life span. Unfortunately, Bova doesn’t go down that path.

We have his usual bone-headed politicians, who just can’t see the importance of things or, when they finally do, get it all wrong. Early on, the US president and her advisers get all up in arms about the life-expansion treatment. If people live till 150, Medicare will go broke! Our pension system will break down! It takes them several hundred pages to realize that if people stay healthy much longer, they don’t need to retire at 65 or 70 any more but can work until they’re 110 or so. Medicare and the pension system are not the problem, of course. What would be a problem is the population explosion that we would face if such treatments became available suddenly instead of very gradually. But that aspect is not even mentioned in this novel.

So the story is flimsy and full of Bova’s trademark clichés: the smart protagonist who sees everything correctly and knows how to deal with all the problems facing him, the people around him that don’t believe him, the bone-headed politicians that don’t see the obvious and only look after their narrow self-interest, the ruthless industrialist who wants to use the invention to make as much profit as possible and to hell  with the consequences, and finally the pretty young woman who falls for our hero in the end. If that all sounds a bit formulaic, well, it is. So, why do I still rate it 7 out of 10? Well, Bova is quite simply an excellent writer. The book kept me captivated and even though it was easy to foresee several turns of the plot, somehow it is comforting to revisit familiar haunts. Altogether, the book provided several hours of simple diversion, not more, not less. And let’s face it, that’s not something that one can say about every book!

Recent Reads: David Weber et al., A Call to Arms

call to arms

 

David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope, A Call to Arms. Baen Books, 2015, 477 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8156-3

Rating: 8 out of 10

 

David Weber is not the guy you go to for deep ideas and thoughts. Weber writes space opera and he does that exceedingly well. This book is another good example of his talents, even though this time he has been assisted by two co-authors. A Call to Arms is the second volume in the Manticore Ascendant series set in his “Honorverse“. This series tells the story of the early Star Kingdom of Manticore and its rise to prominence among the nations of the known galaxy. As with other books in the series produced by Weber, the strongest part of his stories is his description of politics and how decisions are being made.

Although his characters are certainly not interchangeable and individually clearly recognizable personalities, characterization is not always his strongest point. For example, much is made of the fact that the protagonist of this series, Travis Long, yearns for rules and a structured environment. Despite this, Travis seems to be functioning best when things are at their most chaotic and after a while the repeated references to this character trait becomes a bit tiresome. Nevertheless, Weber generally succeeds in making his characters believable, even the “bad guys”, something that many writers usually have the most problems with.

There’s one notable exception to this. This book describes a period in the development of the Star Kingdom where some local politicians try to defund the Navy as much as possible to further their own political goals. Of course, they are shown to be at the wrong side of history when the Kingdom is attacked by mercenaries and only barely escapes being conquered, thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the severely underpowered Navy. When the dust settles down, it turns out that these politicians stick to their positions and continue to work to deny the Navy the funds it needs. Here, Weber fails to make this believable. Faced with the clear-cut evidence that there are dangers to which the Kingdom is exposed and against which it needs to defend itself, one would expect even the most hard-headed idiot to change his position. Instead, Weber’s characters maintain their obviously wrong stance and he fails to make it clear to his readers why on Earth (or, rather, on Manticore) these otherwise not stupid people would do this.

One thing I have come to appreciate more and more was that the names of characters in this series are “normal”. What I mean with this is that we don’t have to deal with the unpronounceable (and almost impossible to remember) names used in his Safehold series or the gimmicky names that he used in his early Honorverse novels (remember the cheesy “Robb S. Pierre”?)

A Call to Arms provides good reading, an engaging story described in a believable way. If you’re allergic to politics, you’d do better to avoid this book, and most of Weber’s other work, too. Weber does not provide high literature, but then, he does not pretend to nor (as far as I can tell) does he even aim to do so. Still, I always look forward to a new book of his, certain that it will provide a number of hours of enjoyable reading and diversion. If I have one quibble with Weber, it is perhaps that lately his story lines seem to slow down more and more, with each new book in his different series advancing the greater story only incrementally.

Recent Reads: Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise

Burning Paradise

 

Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise. Tor Book, 2013, 424 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6917-8

Rating: 7 out of 10

 

Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of books, using some quite original ideas as the basis for his stories. I have not read all of his work, but enjoyed Spin and its sequels, Axis and Vortex. Like in the Spin series, this story is based on rather enigmatic aliens interfering with humankind. Unlike that series, this book is not set in the future, but in the present of an alternate history. In this alternate history, the last threat of a big war was the Great War, known to us as the First World War. It was nipped in the bud and never became the deadly meat-grinder that it was in our timeline. In consequence, Germany never was beaten and the Russian Revolution did not take place. That the war did not break out and instead became the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace is thanks to an alien “entity” living in near-Earth orbit. This alien has inexorably nudged human history towards less violence and, after the “Great Armistice of 1914”, the League of Nations has become an important force of peace, not the toothless organization that it has been in our timeline.

Without going into too much detail of the plot, the main issue that the novel addresses is the price of freedom. Is a peaceful world without major wars something for which it is worth to give up our freedom? What the main characters obviously do not know is how the world would have developed without alien intervention, something we, the readers, do know, of course. And then the price humankind pays for this peaceful world becomes a mixed bag of good and bad things. Technology has developed much slower than in our world. No nuclear energy, for example. But also, no nuclear weapons, no MAD. No rockets either: the alien does not want us to intrude upon its domain or even discover its existence.

Of course, as a science fiction fan, the latter restriction weighs heavily. However, the moon landings are now almost 50 years ago and we have not advanced much since then. Were those few trips to the moon really worth the untold millions of people killed in World War II (not to speak of all those other 20th century wars)?

It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, the novel’s protagonists choose freedom and the destruction of the alien entity. Much more interesting is the question whether we, knowing how murderous the 20th century became, would have made the same choice…

Interesting as the story is, near the end it becomes rather predictable. In addition, I found the characters to be rather bland, without much development. Thomas, the younger brother of one of the main characters, for example, just remains one-dimensional and clearly was only added to the plot for one surprise at the end (which, by the time I got to that point, I had already guessed anyway). The other characters are fleshed out more, but never to the point that I actually felt like understanding them and the choices they make.

In summary, I think this book is clearly worth reading. The underlying ideas are intriguing and reasonably well worked out. The characters could have been developed better and the plot is in places a bit predictable. All in all, I found this book entertaining and intriguing and rate it 7 points out of 10.

Favorite science fiction classics (I)

Below I briefly describe some of my favorite science fiction novels, in no particular order, together with some of the reasons why I love these books.

Soon to come: how the experience of science fiction writers can help us write better scientific articles, so stay tuned.

This is the story of Lazarus Long, who by chance of genetics (and selection for longevity)  basically is immortal and at the start of the story is about 2000 years old (and the ancestor of a large part of the human population of the inhabited galaxy). The book can be read on different levels and if read as just an adventure story, provides ample diversion and amusement. On a deeper level, the book has more to offer. Once the more liberal mores of the Sixties allowed it, Heinlein started exploring the bases and boundaries of our traditional morals. Where Stranger in a Strange Land addressed religion and even cannibalism, this book is about love, not skirting touchy issues like incest. The book contains many challenging ideas. Let me give just one example from the many that fill this book to the brim. At one point the main character gets cloned, but with an original twist: his clones are female because they got two copies of his X chromosome. When his clones fall in love with Lazarus, we are faced with serious moral questions. As always, Heinlein doesn’t fail to challenge the reader. As a hard-core libertarian, it should be no surprise that Heinlein’s ideas of what is permissible between consenting adults diverge rather drastically from those of most people. But agree with him or not, he does make one think, which is what a good book should do. It made me reflect a lot about the concept of sin and what is right or wrong. My personal conclusion was that sin is when you harm somebody else and this harm could have been avoided by your (in)action. Time Enough for Love provides food for thought, much thought, almost enough for a lifetime.

Although Schmitz is perhaps best known for his short stories, I personally love his writing most because of two novels. The Demon Breed (1968) is a true space adventure and, although skillfully written, not a high flyer. The earlier The Witches of Karres, however, is a completely different caliber. I remember reading it for the first time and I still wish that it would be possible to read it for the first time again! It’s unadulterated space opera, but not an ordinary one. It’s a crazy book, but fun crazy. From the main character’s home planet (“Nikkeldepain”) to the invaders from another universe (“Worm Weather”), to the magic beings (” vatches”) governed by mysterious klatha energy, this book is big fun from beginning to the end. Sure, it’s not grounded in any real science, which usually for me is a big no-no, but if you are having as much fun as this book provides, who cares?

I read this book shortly after it came out and it was one of the first LeGuin novels that I read (the first one having been City of Illusions). It is part of the Hainish Cycle, a number of novels that are set in the same universe. The novel plays on a cold world, named Gethen. In a poetic way and a style that was completely new and fresh, Le Guin describes the world and its climate and, more importantly, its inhabitants. Although never confirmed with certainty, it appears that the Gethenians are the result of a genetic experiment to create a human race adapted to the severe climatic conditions of Gethen. Besides some obvious metabolic modifications, the most important difference between Gethenians and the rest of humanity is that they are sequential hermaphrodites: most of the time they are neuter and not interested in sex, but once every month they become sexually receptive and in a complex interaction with their sexual partner differentiate into either a male or a female form. They have no predisposition to being male or female and the same individual can be the father of one child and the mother of another. Being androgynous most of the time obviously has implications for a society that is much less focused on sex than ours. Le Guin was not the first to describe a society made up of human hermaphrodites (Theodore Sturgeon‘s 1960 Venus Plus X may have been the first), but this novel is deeper and more poetic than anything that came before. Again a novel that makes you think: by describing an alien, albeit human, society, Le Guin stimulates us to reflect on our own society, and its morals, conventions, and idiosyncrasies.

 

Postscript: All of the above works were written in the sixties and seventies of the last century. That does not mean that I don’t like contemporary science fiction. On the contrary, I think that some of the stuff produced nowadays far surpasses anything written before, even in the Golden Age. But the above books I read in my formative years and they have stayed with me my whole life. Several of them have influenced my life in a very real ways. Not because I wanted to emulate anything in these books, but because they made me think and showed me that many things that I took for granted were, perhaps, not as self-evident as I thought. In a future post, or more likely several posts, I’ll discuss some contemporary novels and writers that I particularly like.

The science in fiction: From gravity to microbiota

When talking about the science in science fiction, we often concentrate on technology or cultural developments that were correctly predicted in a novel. Of course, we all know that science fiction is not written to come up with correct predictions about the future, but comparing older novels with current developments is fun, nonetheless. At least as much fun is the opposite: where did novels get it completely wrong and why. One of the earliest examples is of course Jules Verne‘s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon; 1865) in which three explorers are sent on a voyage to the moon aboard a “spaceship” that basically is a huge hollow bullet, fired from a gigantic cannon. Apart from the possibility (or, rather, impossibility) of such a launch mechanism, the novel contains a big mistake that nowadays even a kid in high school will immediately spot: the travelers are subjected to gravity all the way to the point where the gravitational fields of Earth and Moon cancel each other out and then experience a short period of weightlessness. After this their capsule turns around and they are henceforth subjected to the gravity of the moon. However, while the physics of the late 19th century certainly would have been able to predict accurately the weightlessness that the travelers would have experienced throughout the trip (apart from a brief moment at launch), it is easy to see how Verne could have made this mistake. Even much later, in the 1960s, even educated writers got much wrong about acceleration and the effects of its presence or absence. Hugh Walters (and not just him, either) had his astronauts lose consciousness at every launch because of the g-forces they were subjected to, for example.

Another mistake that probably only few people have noticed (mainly because the book is much less popular than Verne’s) is Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column (1941). It’s far from Heinlein’s best, but, then, even Heinlein’s weaker books are always worth a read. It was published almost a year before Pearl Harbor and portrays a future in which Japan and China are unified under a common emperor as “Pan Asia” and on a conquering spree. After annexing India, they take on the United States and after an apparently rather brief war occupy the country. The story follows a group of researchers hidden in a secret base in the Rocky Mountains who, just at the moment of surrender, discover a new powerful weapon. It is based on a kind of hitherto unknown radiation (not from the common electromagnetic spectrum, but from spectra resulting from different combinations of electrical, magnetic, and/or gravitational forces). These new types of radiations can have several effects, ranging from inducing severe fear to killing specifically some groups of organisms, while leaving others unharmed. Indeed, the researchers get on the trail of this weapon at the start of the novel when a mishap kills almost all people in the base, but not their laboratory mice and rats.

Later on as the story unfolds, one of the scientists realizes that the weapon can also be used for good, namely to cure infectious diseases. To put this to the test, he infects himself with anthrax and then heals himself by using the appropriate radiation to kill the anthrax bacteria. In fact, he also notices that a heavy head cold also disappears and realizes that by killing all microorganisms in his body, he has significantly improved his overall health. When I read this in the middle 70s or so, I already knew that this was incorrect: killing all his gut bacteria would at least have caused some digestive problems for this brave self-experimenting researcher… By now, of course, we know that such a treatment would have much more profound effects.

Recent research has revealed that the composition of our microbiota can influence almost anything you can think of. Having the right gut microorganisms may provide children with a more adaptive response to malnutrition (see also here). And your gut microflora may influence your susceptibility to psychiatric disorders such as depression. Of course, there is no way that Heinlein could have foreseen any of this, as microbiology was just in its infancy at that time: the first antibiotic, penicillin, had been discovered only a decade earlier and did not come into general use until more than a year after Sixth Column was published.

The discovery that our gut bacteria influence our brain and affect things like mood and such was probably a surprise for many people, even neuroscientists who have rightly described this finding as a paradigm shift. In retrospect, as with so many things, it’s much less surprising of course. We habitually try to influence our psychological state by using chemicals, be they recreational drugs or psychopharmaca like antidepressants. That different gut microorganisms, by producing different chemicals (or different quantities of the same chemicals) eventually entering our bloodstream, influence our psychological state is therefore perhaps unexpected, but not really too surprising. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, this has made the view that our behavior is molded by our genes in interaction with environmental influences even more simplistic than it already was. After epigenetics, now our microflora adds additional complexity. And just like genotype and environment complicate things by displaying complex interactions and covariations, it is to be expected that effects of our microbiota will depend on our genes and our environment (and any combination thereof), making things even more complicated. It really makes one wonder, given the current state of our knowledge, about the chances for success for the hugely expensive Human Brain Project.

Given the state of science in 1941, we should probably also credit Heinlein with some insights that were ahead of his time. In the same staff meeting where the above-mentioned scientist confesses to having infected himself with anthrax, the commander next directs the discussion to how best to use their discoveries for propaganda. The head scientist leaves the meeting disgustedly: he’s only interested in science, clearly implying that social science is not real science. In response, the commander reflects on why mass psychology, and psychology in general, would not be a valid field of scientific inquiry. One of the biologists knows the answer to that one: psychology is not a science, because it is too difficult. In a time when experimental psychology was still in its infancy, that’s quite a remarkable insight. In fact, given the above remarks about genes, microbiota, interactions, and what not, things are quite more complex than even Heinlein could have thought. Despite all the advances that we have made since the 1940s and the concomitant improvements in, for example, mental health, we are not at risk to be out of a job anytime soon, as we are still far from understanding how our brains work.

As I have said before: good science fiction makes you think

What happens on Tschai…

I recently wrote about Close to Critical, a 1950s novel that I first read in the late 1960s. Some time after that I read City of the Chash and its sequel, Servants of the Wankh  (in Dutch, it wasn’t until the late 80s that I started reading mainly in English), the first two volumes in the Planet of Adventure series. It took me some time to convince myself to read the books: the blurb on the first one said that it was “brilliant and hallucinating” (‘briljant en waanzinnig’) and that somehow put me off as it sounded like some experimental prose that I had tried (and failed) to read. However, I was a voracious reader (during school vacations 2 or sometimes even 3 books per day) and ever since I had read Robert Heinlein‘s Orphans of the Sky while at an astronomy camp in the summer of 1968, I did not read anything but science fiction. So at some point, I had actually read all science fiction books that our local library offered and found myself forced, despite the off-putting “maniacal” and the fact that I had never heard of the author (Jack Vance, 1916-2013), to give these books a try anyway. That was a fateful decision, leading to a lot of joy (reading many more wonderful Vance novels and stories) and a lot of anguish (impatiently waiting for the next volumes in the tetralogy to appear, which took more than a year – something close to eternity when you’re 16 years old…).

Where Hal Clement had shown me the wonderful and amazing worlds that science fiction writers can imagine, Jack Vance blew me away with the strange and alien cultures that his mind produced. Some of his most alien cultures were actually human… In fact, as I learned later, the Planet of Adventure series is a somewhat atypical example of Vance’s work, which most often describes human worlds and cultures and much less often includes alien species. Well, Tschai, the world on which these novels are situated, contains not just one, but at least four separate and very different alien species: the Chash (which come in three very distinct varieties: the decadent Old Chash, the more dynamic Blue Chash, and the barbaric Green Chash), the Wankh (in later editions called “Wannek”), the Dirdir, and the indigenous Pnume. There’s a fifth alien species, the Phung, but it remains unclear whether this is really a separate species or an insane variant of the Pnume. When an explorer from Earth, Adam Reith, crashes on Tschai, he finds to his bewilderment that it is also inhabited by humans, in an even more bewildering diversity of peoples, races, tribes, and varieties. These humans are the descendants of Neanderthals and other humans taken from Earth by some of these aliens in prehistoric times. Each one of the four alien species has a specialized variety of humans to serve them (with the interesting exception of the Wankhmen) and that have evolved to resemble them physically (the Dirdirmen, for example) or mentally (the Pnumekin). The other peoples of Tschai are descendants of members of these client races that for some reason or another were expelled from their communities.

Over the years and decades, I re-read these novels several times. So much so, that I actually could point out on a map of Tschai the different places visited by Reith in sequence. I don’t recall when I read my old Dutch copy of the tetralogy for the last, umpteenth, time, but recently I decided that I wanted to read the novels yet again, but this time in their original English. I wasn’t disappointed. Within a week of the arrival of my new copy, I had finished it (it was a busy week, so I could not read as much as I wanted…). The books, I am happy to report, have withstood the ravages of time quite well and are still a fascinating read.

The narrative follows Reith, who tries to obtain a spaceship to return to Earth to warn humanity for the threat that these alien species represent. His quest takes him all over Tschai, which provided Vance with the canvas on which to paint dozens of different human cultures, each with its own peculiar habits and strange religious beliefs. Vance is not a writer who waxes philosophical about how such customs, rituals, and religions emerge or how a culture gets established. However, when reading a book like Planet of Adventure, I really cannot imagine that someone would only read this as an adventure novel and nothing more. One simply is forced to wonder how all this came about. In some cases, this is obvious. The Dirdirmen, for example, believe that they originate from a Primeval Egg, which lay partly in the sun, partly in the shade on the Dirdir homeworld. When it hatched, the Dirdir emerged from the sunny side and the Dirdirmen from the shaded side. As one of Reith’s travel companions, the Dirdirman Ankhe at afram Anacho says: “They are Sun, we are Shade… The Dirdir are the highest form of cosmic live; Dirdirmen can only emulate and this we do, with pride”. To approach this ideal Dirdir form as much as possible, the Dirdirmen have practiced selective breeding for many millennia, supplemented with surgery and the use of artificial body parts. The Dirdir, in turn, mostly seem to barely acknowledge the existence of the Dirdirmen. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the origin of this creation story must be the Dirdir themselves, who have made it up to keep the Dirdirmen in their place as useful servants.

The books are filled to the brim with inventive concepts and ideas. For example, on Tschai money does grow, albeit subterranean, not on trees. One might expect that this would make it easy to become rich. Not so. Money remains scarce, because it only grows in one particular region and the Dirdir use this as their hunting ground, where they return to their pre-civilized feral state and hunt the humans that search for money, roasting and eating their prey. Fascinating and puzzling are the decadent Yao, where individuals have a plethora of personal names, each to be used only in precisely defined circumstances that are almost impossible to grasp for outsiders. Some rituals look silly to us, like the sect that considers the act of ingesting nourishment to be something intrinsically personal, not to be performed in public, much like we think about sex. My favorites in the book are the mysterious Pnume, with a recorded history of millions of years. Although the fourth volume of the series plays almost exclusively in their underground realm (somehow, “subterranean” seems out of place and “subtschaian” is awkward), they remain at the end only slightly less mysterious than before.

When reading these descriptions of wonderful, mysterious, silly rituals, cultures, and religions, I find it impossible not to reflect on how real-world religions, rituals, and cultures came about and wonder whether some of our beliefs and habits have perhaps a similar, almost trivial, origin, where someone or some group made up something to further some selfish goal. That, of course, is what good science fiction does: it makes you think.

In short, these books have remained as fascinating as when I read them for the first time, almost half a century ago. Of course, knowing these books so well, by now the surprise is gone for me, although the sense of wonder remains. So I envy you, if you don’t know Tschai yet, because there is no equivalent to the sensation of discovery that you get when you read these books for the first time.

Close to Critical, 50 years later

One of the earliest science fiction novels that I ever read was Close to Critical by Hal Clement. I read it in the late 60s, while in high school, in a Dutch translation from our local library. Years later and now a student at Nijmegen University, I found a copy in a used book store and re-read the book. I clearly remember how both times I was blown away by the strange world that was being described and the obvious attention to scientific detail. This was pure “sense of wonder” reminiscent of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Again years later, I had the privilege of meeting Hal Clement, whose real name was Harry Stubbs, at the 1990 Science Fiction WorldCon in The Hague. Clement/Stubbs turned out to be a kind elderly gentleman and was, as far as I know, the only one who came to his book signing session accompanied by his wife, an equally kind lady. Unfortunately, none of his books were offered for sale by any of the book sellers at the convention, so very few fans came up to him to ask him to sign a book. Luckily, I found a very old, used copy of one of his novels (albeit in German), which he graciously signed for me.

For those among you who are not familiar with Close to Critical, here’s a short synopsis. As in many of Clement’s novels, the main “character” of the novel is actually the place of action, a planet called Tenebra. It’s hot and heavy, with a very dense atmosphere. Because of the thick atmosphere, the surface is rather dark to human eyes and conditions are directly around the critical temperature of water (a pressure of over 200 atmospheres and a temperature of 374° Celsius) and the resulting frequent changes of water from the liquid phase to the vapor phase plays an important role in the narrative. Despite these extreme conditions, the planet teems with life and one of the species has developed intelligence. By means of a robot, with some irony being named Fagin, humans living on board a space ship in orbit around Tenebra are in contact with one of the indigenous tribes. The story then evolves around two children, one human, the other a member of yet another alien species, who crash on Tenebra aboard a bathyscaphe and the efforts of humans and Tenebrians to save them.

Because of my fond memories of this novel, I recently decided to re-read it, as I often do with books that I really like. Many of them turn out to be still quite readable, if one is willing to overlook anachronisms such as scientists using a slide-rule (I still have one myself, which shows my age, I fear…) to calculate an orbit for their spaceships or using punch cards to program their computers (I used those myself only once and had trouble finding a card reader, making me feel a bit younger than the slide-rule…). For example, Jack Vance‘s Planet of Adventure, which I also recently re-read, has withstood the test of time quite well, I think (perhaps I’ll write more about that book in a future post). Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Close to Critical. Yes, it still is an easy read. A quick one, too: this was written in a time when a science fiction novel was supposed to count about 150 pages, not the trilogies counting thousands of pages that are the norm today. The description of Tenebra and its conditions still is impressive in its detail and, as far as I can see, scientific correctness. Apart from that, however, this novel has aged too much. The story is overly simple and reads more like a juvenile novel than anything an adult might want to read (and I write this as someone who still enjoys reading the occasional juvenile…) Worse, the characters are flat and exchangeable. Fagin’s tribe consists of 10 individuals, but apart from their leader, Nick, they only differ in their names. Early on in the story, two of the tribe’s members (that’s a whopping 20%) are killed by another tribe, but nobody seems to pay more attention than the occasional mention of the fact.

In short, the story suffers from the fact that, all too obviously, it’s just a coat rack used to describe the planet, the real subject of the novel. So why, given the above, do I still recommend reading this book? Well, exactly because of the detailed descriptions of Tenebra. Clement is not for nothing famous for designing extreme worlds. Writers like Vance excel in describing weird cultures, but their worlds are basically all copies of Earth. With Clement you immediately know that you’re not in Kansas any more. Curious about the crucial difference between a milky and a clear rain drop (both many meters in diameter)? Read Close to Critical and find out, because if ever you find yourself in a place with 200 atmospheres pressure and a temperature of 374° Celsius, it may mean the difference between life and death!