Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hal Clement's "Uncommon Sense": Curiosity saves a man his life on a weird world

Quote from Uncommon Sense by Hal ClementClement seems to specialize in imagining weird worlds & their weird life forms. While I find his worlds interesting, I'm not so sure of his weird life forms - consistent with the world, but... Later plays a key role in this story.

Read this with a bit of suspended credulity when you are in wild imagination mood, & it'll be an interesting story. Large parts feel like distractions, but are not - their rationale will be visible near end.

Story summary.

Laird Cunningham is a rich man with a curious hobby - he likes to travel to distant worlds in the galaxy "in search of bizarre life forms", & is an amateur collector of sorts.

On one of these trips with two assistants - one named Malmeson, & other unnamed - he overhears their plan loot the ship after they get rid of him. He forces a crash landing on a (presumably nearby) world, sabotages the drive unit of ship, & escapes in a light space suite before the villains can get him. It's local night. The crash has seriously damaged the hull, & the two companions don't yet know of sabotaged drive unit. The hull can probably be repaired - but we are not sure yet.

This is a weird world - unnamed through the story. For, its sun - Deneb - is "one of the fiercest radiating bodies in the galaxy". While planet itself "had much in common with Luna as regarded size, mass, & airlessness, its landscape was extremely different. The daily terrific heatings which it underwent, followed by abrupt & equally intense temperature drops each night, had formed an excellent substitute for weather... As on the Earth's moon, the products of the age long spalling had taken the form of fine dust, which lay in drifts everywhere. What could have drifted it, on an airless and consequently windless planet, struck Cunningham as a puzzle of the first magnitude".

He finds refuge in a cave a half mile from ship. It affords him a clear view of ship, but he himself is invisible to the two companions. They can, however, talk via suite's radio. Both Laird & the villains realize getting stuck on this planet is sure death; how does Laird outsmart the two?

Next day, we find Laird distracted by local life - plants, plant eaters, & carnivores. He spends a while observing them, even dissects a few that enter his cave. Turns out the "blood" of local animals on this super hot world is liquid metal! And they seem to have curious "eyes" - sort of small peepholes that are more akin to nose rather than eye we are familiar with. While there are no molecules to sample by nose on this world, gas released in its vacuum is apparently seen by these local life forms! Not only that - they can use it distinguish between interesting & uninteresting stuff - e.g., edible local life releases metallic stuff, the human space suit leaks small quantities of light gases. Later is not only uninteresting, but to be wary of - because of its unfamiliarity.

We learn these attributes of local life through musings & some action scenes - including a hunt inside cave that could have killed Laird. But this local anatomy will form the basis the plan that will save our hero.

In the meantime, his companions have been assessing damage to ship's hull & doing some welding. They are not yet done when night falls. They go inside for rest.

At night, Laird kills two little animals that have wandered into his cave, collecting their "blood" in a small groove in dust that is everywhere. Metallic blood immediately freezes in the cold of the night. He will take these little bars of metal & attach them to faults in the ship's hull.

Next morning, the villains have come down to weld the faults. This melts the local "blood" attached to faults - also helped by rising sun. This smell attracts many local predators, giving Laird chance to enter the ship with a sprint. His companions easily fend off predators with a "flame pistol" & welding unit. In a rather idealistic ending, Laird allows them inside the airlock, but not inside the ship - so they don't die but cannot do him harm.

He has summoned help, now on its way.

Fact sheet.

"Uncommon Sense", short story, review
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, September 1945.
Rating: A (Actually, I think it deserves a B rating rather than A. But that puts it below many stories worse than it in my big short story list by quality. Perhaps I've been more liberal with A's than I should have been. Will look into it later.)
Hugo Award 1946 awarded retrospectively in 1996 in short story category.