Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hal Clement's "Iceworld" (novel, science fiction): What we see depends on what we are!

Quote from the novel titled Iceworld by Hal ClementIf you intend to read this novel soon, take my advice - any review (& book blurb too, at least for some editions) will spoil the magical introduction to Iceworld near the end of chapter 1; rest of the story is gripping - & sometimes amusing - but spoilers probably won't hurt. Read any reviews only after you are through chapter 1.

If you haven't read anything by Clement yet, please note that he is not for everyone. This note gives some idea of what to generally expect from his stories, hopefully without spoiling the fun.

Table of contents.

It's a very long post - hence ToC.
  1. Executive summary.
  2. Sarr, the planet.
  3. Sarrians, the intelligent star faring aliens.
  4. Sarrian protagonists.
  5. Human protagonists.
  6. First contact.
  7. Main story.
  8. Fact sheet.

Executive summary.

Sallman Ken has been recruited by policeman Rade as a mole in the drug peddling gang of Laj Drai. Drai expects him to help increase supply of the exotic drug he has been sourcing from the natives of a very cold alien world. Idea is to figure out the atmosphere & soil of this alien world, & set up their own farm to grow the drug in bulk.

Story is primarily about the fun of figuring out this cold world.

Sarr, the planet.

Main protagonists come from this world.

Its star is 212 parsecs from our sun.

It's a very hot world; local beings consider 500ºC as normal comfortable temperature! Standing under a vertical Sun on Mercury, at 400ºC, the alien visitors feel very cold. This is the key feature of the story - Sarrians exploring earth ("Iceworld" of the title) that is way too cold for them.

A day there is "about thirteen Earthly hours".

On this world, sulfur plays the role that oxygen does on earth. Local life breaths sulfur; local plants produce it.

A Sarrian year is 1.5 times that of earth.

An alien visitor is given some information about earth on arrival, in the form of comparisons with Sarr: earth "atmosphere has a pressure around two thirds of Sarr normal, and at its base the temperature is low enough to freeze most of the regular gases out of our own air - I believe it would even freeze potassium... and lead, and tin! ... The planet is about three-tenths larger than ours in diameter, making its volume rather over twice as great as that of Sarr. Its mass is also over twice ours, though its average density is a shade less. Surface gravity is one and a quarter Sarr normal. Mean temperature is a little below the freezing point of potassium. Atmospheric pressure uncertain, composition unknown. Period of rotation, one point eight four Sarr days."

Sarrians, the intelligent star faring aliens.

They are the main protagonists in the story. Humans play a secondary role.

While visitors are from planet Sarr, it's not the home world of their race; it was colonized by their kind some time in the past.

We don't know much about their physical build except the following:
  1. They have 6 limbs. 4 in places where we have arms; 2 where we have legs. Story refers to their arms as tentacles. There is a scene where humans see a Sarrian for the first time. Humans aren't very scared because he doesn't look so different when wearing his heavy suit - he has two of his tentacles tucked in each arm of the suit, so looks like he has two arms & two legs!
  2. This bipedal also has his height that is just right - a bit less than that of European male, but not by much.
  3. He has two eyes, but they normally move them independently - to simultaneously take in two scenes.
They are technologically way too advanced compared to humans. Star travel is common for them. Visitor's ship is "capable of exceeding the speed of light by a factor of several thousand".

Sarrian protagonists.

Sallman Ken is a school teacher (science teacher?), recruited by the "narcotics chief" Rade. To be planted as a mole in the gang of Laj Drai, a ruthless drug peddler.

The most profitable venture of Drai is tobacco that he sources from a human supplier on earth. I could not figure out why carbon-based tobacco is so dangerous for these beings, but let's believe the author. "The special menace of this stuff seems to lie in the fact that it is a gas, and can therefore be administered easily without the victim's consent; and it seems to be so potent that a single dose will insure addiction." Note tobacco is a "gas" at Sarrian temperatures. The "stuff doesn't keep at normal temperature. It has to be held under extreme refrigeration; when exposed to normal conditions it breaks down in a few seconds."

Drai has been running this business now for 20 earth years - in the year of the story, around 1950 (30 years after World War I). He runs this off a base on Mercury. In the story, Mercury is tidally locked to sun, always showing the same face to sun (now known to be factually incorrect). His base is, of course, on sun facing side of Mercury, & that still is not hot enough; they need artificial heating.

But it wasn't Drai who discovered that earth was inhabited, & had the valuable tobacco. It was someone unnamed & now dead, 30 earth years ago. An earlier owner of the ship Karella - "a fairly common type of interstellar flyer, somewhere between one hundred fifty and two hundred feet in length, and about one third that diameter. It would be shaped like a cylinder with slightly rounded ends." Drai had "inherited the ship and got into this trading business" 20 years ago.

Since it has been the same human involved all through, I didn't quite figure out how the contact was kept alive during the first 10 years.

Earth & tobacco are a closely guarded secret of the gang. The reason the gang doesn't directly travel from Sarr to Sol, & take a longer round about route.

There are two other Sarrian characters that play a major role:
  1. Feth Allmer is the reluctant handy technical man of Drai. He himself was a police mole, but was forcibly made an addict by Drai to ensure loyalty.
  2. Ordon Lee is very loyal to Drai, & pilots his ship Karella.

Human protagonists.

All human protagonists are from US, somewhere near "the border of Montana". And from a single family.

John Wing is the head of the family, & the only one who knows the secret of trading with aliens. He accidentally got into the trade as a young man a little after World War I - sells tobacco in the form of cigarettes in return for solid "platinum and indium nuggets"! Apparently, platinum is as valuable to Sarrians as iron is to us; they can pick it up in any quantity from all over the place. This trade is the main source of income for John.

Close to their holiday home "near Lake Pend Oreille" is a homing beacon planted by aliens; this is where alien unmanned trading "torpedoes" arrive. "We've sort of fallen into a schedule over the years. I'm never here in the winter any more, and they seem to realize that; but from two to three days after I snap this switch off and on a few times, ... the exchequer gets a shot in the arm." Family spends winter elsewhere.

Note: Google search shows "Lake Pend Oreille" is in Idaho. I'm not familiar with the US geography, but story only mentioned Montana. Do the two states share border?

Rest of the family thinks John is a platinum miner - & owns a secret mine. At least in the beginning of the story. Family includes his wife (either unnamed, or I must have forgotten marking the name), & 5 children - Donald, Roger (13), Edith, Marjorie (8), & Billy (6). By the end of the story, not only will the family know the secret, but we will learn that it comprises of super-smart kids. Roger plays quite a substantial role in the story.

First contact.

Interesting story in its own right - for what it's worth.

Unnamed alien adventurer had been moving through Sol in his ship Karella a little after World War I when he noticed an apparently lifeless earth. His ship was equipped with any number of "torpedoes" - unmanned remotely-guided exploration vessels that could not actually move on planetary surface, just land somewhere & observe the surroundings.

The earth is so cold for them - pretty much all their instrumentation failed in upper atmosphere. The only thing that survived is sound system - a loudspeaker, & a microphone. This is how contact & trading will begin - "We don't exactly talk to them, but they can apparently hear and produce sounds more or less similar to those of our speech." But that is later.

First 19 torpedoes were sent "to make the landings on one of the relatively smooth, bluish areas; they seemed the least complicated." (oceans - aliens are unused to the concept of any kind of liquid existing at normal temperatures). "most of them were reaching the surface - and going out of action the instant they did so. Something was either smashing them mechanically or playing the deuce with their electrical components... this steady loss of machines could not be due to chance; somewhere there was intelligent intervention... a race lived on the flatter parts of the planet; a race that did not want visitors." (apparently sunk - either the remote signals don't penetrate water, or its machinery is damaged).

This myth of hostile beings on flatlands will be finally broken near the end of the story.

They finally try landing something in rougher parts. As chance has it, John will be the only human near the place of landing. First contact will be a sort of advanced version of first story in Arthur Clarke's "
2001 A Space Odyssey": Wait a while after landing, listening to local sounds. Then make a noise. Notice any responding noises - probably local animals.

Finally some complex sounds that indicate the being is somewhat intelligent. Show him a "swap box" (by opening a compartment near the bottom of torpedo) - "two trays, hinged together, each divided into a number of small compartments. One side is empty, while the compartments of the other are filled with various articles that are for sale. A glass lid covers each of the full compartments, and cannot be removed until something has been placed in the corresponding compartment of the other tray." A few iterations, & both parties know what the other values - tobacco for platinum! In the process, aliens also learn the sound of a very few English words, & guess their meaning.

Aliens don't mind giving "platinum-group nuggets ... - they're easiest to come by; there's an outcropping of the stuff only a short distance from this station, and it's easy to send a man out to blast off a few pieces. I don't know what they use them for - for all I know they may worship the torpedo, and use the nuggets as priests' insignia."

Main story.

Ken is the hero; most of the story is told from his perspective. After recruitment, he is taken by Drai & gang to Sol via a rather roundabout route - journey lasted 22 days (Sarrian, I suppose). "Twenty-two days was a long journey - if it had been made in a straight line". He will first be shown moon, then earth - we see some horrified reactions about these obviously inhospitable worlds & the "remarkably feeble sun... It was dim enough to view directly without protection to the eyes; to Ken's color sense, reddish in shade and shrunken in aspect. No world this far from such a star could be anything but cold."

Finally they go to gang's base on Mercury where he will meet & befriend his future alley Allmer.

What Drai really wants out of Ken is: figure out a way of growing tobacco so they don't have to depend on earthmen. His main problem is not the price or effort of trading, but the quantity: "We get it ... in trickles... Basically, your problem is - how do we get more of it"? "I don't mind the price - it's the quantity. We only get a couple of hundred cylinders a year - one of Three's years, that is. That doesn't let us operate on a very large scale." "Cylinder" is a cigarette. "Three" is earth - planet #3.

Idea is to pick up a natural cavern on the "dark side" of Mercury, make it airtight, fill it up with atmosphere, soil & anything else needed from earth, & then grow their own tobacco. Drai is even considering kidnapping some humans & enslaving them to actually do the tobacco farming for him on the cold tobacco farm.

Ken's first task is to figure out earth's atmosphere. We slowly learn why so little is known to these aliens about earth - Allmer has been quietly sabotaging all attempts to figure out earth.

Anyway, Ken designs chemistry experiments, sets up a lab on board an automated torpedo with Allmer's help, sends it down to earth. Some problems, multiple trips, & finally he is making progress determining the composition of earth's atmosphere.

Ken is also planning a "manned" trip down to earth's surface. A specially built suite is sent hanging outside a torpedo - it's too big to fit inside; he himself will later visit the same way - by hanging outside! They will find, on its return, that the suit leaked. Ken will finally figure out the cause with Allmer - Allmer had sabotaged. Ken convinces Allmer of the need to learn more about earth, & assures the knowledge won't be used to aid Drai.

Things will then move a bit faster.

Drai is getting impatient. Ken thinks the job will take a long time, & will require transporting large amounts of soil from earth - and still won't be sure what minerals are lacking on their artificial farms. Under pressure from Drai, Ken figures other planets of Sol might not be too different from earth. But Mercury obviously is; so is moon. They go to Mars looking for soil - Ken, Drai, & Lee. This happens before Ken & Allmer become friends.

They land near Martian pole, intrigued by the white substance that looks similar to white substance at earth's poles. Cautious exploration, a near-fatal accident, & amazement - their hot bodies ensure ice evaporates as soon as they touch it! Finally, Ken will figure out it's an oxide of hydrogen.

Drai has been getting suspicious about Ken. Ken seems to have figured out the distance to & location of Sarr relative Sol on his own, & also the name "tofacco" (alien's reading of English "tobacco"). On the trip back from Mars to Mercury, Ken will be subjected to tobacco vapor to make him an addict, & to ensure his loyalty - since Drai controls the supply.

I don't recall if they learned much about the soil from the Martian trip - only the existence of ice, & an idea that oxygen can play the role that sulfur does on their world. This, combined with cooperation of Allmer, will substantially speed up the figuring out of earth.

Eventually, the day comes when Ken actually lands on earth. And figures anything he touches seems to burn - grass, wood, whatever. He will accidentally meet Roger. And make humans suspicious - "after twenty years of mere trading, they suddenly are starting to explore?"

Several more trips. Ken is now almost a friend of Wing family. Based on the time lag between the actual arrival of trading torpedo after the ready button is pressed on alien beacon, the family has figured out the aliens come from Mercury; that they like it hot seems to corroborates the thesis.

One fine day, Ken is talking to Wing family near their home. That is when John drops the bombshell - not only displays his knowledge of solar system, but his idea that aliens are probably coming from Mercury. Drai, listening over radio in his ship that is hovering over earth, is suspicious that Ken is playing games. Brings the ship down, causing fire in the woods near Wing family home. Roger & Edith nearly die in ensuing chaos but are rescued in time with help from Ken. This was a trading day, & aliens didn't get their tobacco - because the Wing family was busy fighting the fire.

Up in the ship. Drai proposes violence. To hold the power of creating fire to keep the humans in check. They go down. Fire is still razing, & they consider it prudent to keep invisible to other humans. Hover over a valley. See a lake & try exploring; lose one of their torpedoes in water again. Get some idea of what the flatlands are. Go exploring out to sea & figure of the substance is the same as the one at Martian pole.

Up again in ship. Drai is hell bent on violence; he knows he wields enormous power over humans, now that the threat of hostile flatlanders has been proved to be a myth. Ken stages a coup with the help of Allmer; under threat of exposure to tobacco that Ken had received as gift during one of his trips down, Lee will be made to cooperate.

Before taking the ship back to Sarr to tell their world about earth, humans will receive not only their payment in platinum against gifted tobacco, but also information about Sarr's location & that aliens will be back after a while for peaceful exchanges.

Fact sheet.

"Iceworld", novel, review
First published: As a 3 part serial in Astounding Science Fiction in October/November/December 1951.

Rating: A
Listed in "grubthrower"'s "Top 10 Obscure But Superb Science Fiction Novels".


Anonymous said...

Great post.

1. Yes, Wing summer home is in Idaho, probably. At least they fly into it. I had impression that MT border was near, but seems story would tell us if home was over the border versus just near it.

2. The passage of the ship to Drai and the timing of the start of drug smuggling is murky, perhaps on purpose. Perhaps the previous ship owner also smuggled drugs, or at least traded to consume them. Also unclear how Drai got the ship. Was it really inheritance or violence?

3. I don't quite understand the economics supporting Drai off of a few thousand doses of tafacco a year. Sure, the Pt/Ir is free but what about rocket fuel and other supplies for the team? Also if the supply is so tiny, not sure why Rade would care to the extent of sending several undercover agents.

4. I quite enjoyed the simple inorganic chemistry performed by Ken.