Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hal Clement's "Halo" (short story, science fiction): Good & bad of the heavy micro-meteor density in space around earth

Quote from short story titled Halo by Hal ClementKey premise is: space within the orbit of asteroid belt has a far greater concentration of micro-meteors than is normally typical of space. I didn't know this; I assume it's a fact because the reliable Mr Clement is saying so. But it's a story from 1952; "facts" then might not be the same as today's "facts". Title refers to light reflected by all these particles that can sometimes be picked up by telescopes from earth.

At least the premise of the story makes it sound like this heavy meteor density occupies a spherical volume around sun rather than just the plane of planets!

Plot of the story is the most fanciful I've yet seen from Clement.

It also has a thread of slavery running through it - slaves employed as farm labor, & treated as lowly animals. I wonder if it's modeled after the US' slavery days; my familiarity is limited to Alex Haily's "Roots", & there is some level of similarity in the attitude of masters (though it's much less graphic than "Roots").

Story summary.

Most of the story - may be 90% or more - is an aliens' story; humans make a short appearance near end, long after aliens are gone, just to put things in perspective - particularly the idea of heavy concentration of micro-meteors in space around earth.

Aliens involved are massive beings of very cold - each about the size of a small celestial body, with "a body composed largely of methane, oxygen, & similar solids", normally comfortable at temperatures "of about half a degree absolute", talking to each other by "radiating speech", & with an "analytical sense that was his equivalent of both taste & smell". In fact, the comets we see today are what remains of some of these long dead aliens! They're used to travel interstellar space with their own bodies without any external contraption.

This also is the story of the creation of Sol, earth, planets, etc. They didn't evolve naturally from interstellar dust in a nebula.

These aliens own farmlands in far flung area of the galaxy. Sol is one such farm. Sun is the apparently artificial "radiator" whose heat output can be regulated based on farmer's needs. Planets are individual plots that can be moved around, fertilized, harvested, etc.

Sol was such an unimportant farm that its setup was delegated to a young & inexperienced student. Along with his complement of slaves, he will get some time to work the farm. The boy did some experimenting the result of which was blowing up of the fifth planet - what we now call asteroid belt. Heavy density of micro-meteors inside the orbit of asteroid belt is a result of this.

That is when he asked for advice, & now a supervisor is here, & the supervisor is not happy. We learn many of the facts of the story as interrogation of apprentice & a dying slave by supervisor.

Third plot, earth, turned out a particularly good harvest (life) - only it's completely inaccessible. Turns out - while these aliens are great at traveling interstellar space & can easily avoid normal complement of meteors, they're no good at avoiding the heavy concentration here.

Many a slaves sent earthward to harvest have died of severe wounds received - of these micro-meteors & also heavier hits in asteroid belt. Supervisor himself will nearly die of this before being rescued by apprentice.

So now we know why we are here. Because our remote ancestors could not be consumed as food by these aliens!

Fact sheet.

First published: Galaxy, October 1952.
Rating: A
Related: All stories of Hal Clement.