Worldbuilding: missions of gravity

Does anybody remember Hal Clement’s Mission Of Gravity? A 1953/54 hard science fiction tour-de-force set on a giant world, Mesklyn, that spun so fast it was discus-shaped. Its surface gravity varied from three Earth gravities at the equator to around 700 at the poles.

I was reminded of it a little while ago by a post on Gene Lempp’s blog. Back in 1953, the concept of this novel was kind of weird. Clement (1922-2003, real name Harry Clement Stubbs) was riffing on the fact that Jupiter, in particular, isn’t spherical – thanks to a 10-and-a-bit hour spin, it’s wider than it is tall. That’s because it’s gas. But a rocky world? That was Clement’s genius. Hugely imaginative, albeit bending the rules to get the gravity effects. Clement later re-calculated polar pull at between 655 and 255g,

Curiously, we’ve found a world pulled dramatically oblate by its spin in our own solar system, albeit on a miniscule scale; Haumia, which is rugby ball shaped. It appears that the star Altair is also pretty heavily flattened. The laws of physics and planetary formation probably mean a rocky world of the scale Clement imagined can’t happen. Probably.

The thing is that world-building for writers can literally mean that – building a world. Imagining something oddball. Like a cube world. Richard Lupoff imagined a coin-shaped world, a weird homage to an alternative 1920s in which the evil Richtofen brothers Lothar and Manfred were racing Amelia Earhart around the far side. Pratchett’s disc-shaped world was sitting on some elephants which are standing on a turtle. Or you could envisage a long suspension bridge held together with strong nuclear force in some unaccountable fashon, which closes a circle around a star at Earth orbital distance and has scenery like a Roger Dean album cover (think Yes, Yessongs, 1972). Or you could envisage an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant which looks like a Roger Dean album cover (think Yes, Yessongs, 1972). Nobody’s done Yes, Relayer (1974) yet, except Tolkien.

But this is only the first step. The setting means nothing without solid characters and storyline. Coming up with an Earth-world orbiting a gas giant and then setting Pocahontas–in-Vietnam-meets-Dancing-With-Wolves on it, to me, isn’t the way to do it. (I fell asleep during that movie. Both times I tried to watch it.)

Clement did a better job of that side. The star of Mission of Gravity may have been its planet (no pun intended), but the real strength was its plot and characters. It was an absolutely solid expression of a quest plot – the humans had to rescue a probe stuck in the 700 gravity area, to do which they had to have help from the locals and then drive across to it from the three gravity area. It had everything a good story should have – conflict, obstacles, a driving theme, and characters, all set against an exact structure. Barlennan, the alien captain, was by far the most rounded in the book.

Is there a science fiction story set on a weird world that’s struck you as brilliant? Do share – I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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2 comments on “Worldbuilding: missions of gravity

  1. Gene Lempp says:

    Fascinating information and ideas, Matthew. I’m going to have to take a look at my old album covers now – totally missed that as a source of inspiration. Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock has a “user-adaptable” Earth, same planet, only with the inhabitants having the power to manipulate the environment against the laws of nature, which I found to be another interesting twist. Thanks for the linkage and the thought-provoking post!

  2. I am always fascinated by SF that takes the principles of physics and pushes them – credibly – into an astonishing story. Clement did it. Clarke was a master at it. All good stuff.

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