Hal Clement

Writer from the Golden Age of science fiction

Friday 31 October 2003 01:00

Harry Clement Stubbs (Hal Clement), teacher and science-fiction writer: born Somerville, Massachusetts 30 May 1922; married 1952 Mary Elizabeth Myers (two sons, one daughter); died Boston, Massachusetts 29 October 2003.

Harry Clement Stubbs was a decent man who fought a good war (he co-piloted bombers in the Second World War), and who spent most of his life teaching in high school. But under the name of Hal Clement he was, before his death at 81, continuing to write some of the purest science-fiction stories ever written; and he was one of the very few active figures in the field to have learned his trade as early as 1940, in the middle of the Golden Age of the genre. With his death, that age has almost closed.

So there are two lives to note. Stubbs was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1922, and made that state his lifelong home. He took a BS in Astronomy at Harvard University; an MEd from Boston University in 1947; and an MS from Simmons College in 1963. He began teaching high-school science after his war service, retiring in 1987 from the Milton Academy in the Boston suburb of Milton, 15 miles south of Somerville. He had married Mary Elizabeth Myers in 1952; they had three children.

The second life was that of Hal Clement, and it was also a life of surpassing decency and seeming calm. Clement became a science-fiction fan in the 1930s; from the first, his main interest was in the genre as a forum for the examination of scientific problems. His first story, "Proof", which came out in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in 1942, could have been written by Hal Clement 60 years later; just as his last novel, Noise (2003), meticulously adhered to the format and goals Campbell espoused in 1940.

Clement was, in a sense, his best pupil: in his stories, decent healthy adult men encounter a physical problem, quite often one posed by the very nature of an alien planet, and come to grips with that problem strictly in accordance with the principles and methodology of science.

That Clement's fiction sometimes suffered from an expositional dryness, and that his human or alien protagonists sometimes seemed facelessly interchangeable, goes almost without saying; and indeed, for the two decades after 1960 or so, very little was actually said about Clement, who until the splurge of creative activity that followed his retirement seemed all too perfect an example of the industrious nerd with nothing to say about people.

But this retroactive judgement, though superficially fair, does not begin to explain the allure of Clement's most famous and most loved single work, the novel Mission of Gravity (1954). An unmanned research ship has been lost near the south pole of the immense heavy-gravity planet Mesklin, which boasts a rotational velocity so great that days last only 18 minutes, and gravity itself varies wildly, from three Earth gravities at the equator to 700 Earth gravities at the poles. A human lands at the equator and persuades a native methane-sea captain - a one-foot-long, two-inch-high, exoskeletonic creature named Barlennan - to embark upon a great odyssey to retrieve the research ship.

Barlennan himself is something of an Odysseus figure, for he is cunning, clever and sagacious, the only vividly realised protagonist Clement ever found the need to imagine; and his adventures, none of them in violation of the physical nature constraints of Mesklin, have enthralled several generations of readers.

Others of Clement's 15 or so novels provided environments, and challenges, more deeply argued, and more scientifically interesting, than anything in Mission of Gravity; but the magic of Barlennan was never found to be wanted on the voyage. But his first novel, Needle (1950), posits an interesting problem - how to detect a symbiont who invisibly inhabits its human host, without damaging that host; Iceworld (1953) envisions Earth through the eyes of an alien for whom its normal temperature seems close to absolute zero; and The Nitrogen Fix (1980), which does feature an entire family of humans who recognise one another, chillingly depicts an Earth transformed by environmental degradation into a hecatomb; the ending, however, is upbeat.

Clement's last decades were professionally sunny, and he continued to participate actively in science-fiction conventions and symposia until a few days before his death. Public acclaim came later, but amply. He was guest of honour at the 1991 World Science Fiction Convention, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1998, and received the SFWA's prestigious Grant Master Award in 1999. He was almost the last true science-fiction writer still around to receive last-moment accolades of this sort, almost the last survivor of the years when American science fiction began to create the icons of a progressive future, a future which already seems a thing of the past.

Harry Stubbs had diabetes, which he handled without any fuss, and his death - he died in his sleep - seemed peculiarly appropriate for a man whose fictional protagonists lacked much interest in matters of the flesh. They were purely interested in the problem. So was Hal Clement.

John Clute

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