In the mathematics of infinity, some infinities are bigger than others. Let’s say that there is one Earth-like planet for every one billion planets in the universe. That’s not very many Earths. Yet if it is an infinite universe, a truly infinite universe, then there are also an infinite number of Earth-like planets. There’s still only one for every one billion planets, but there is an infinite number of them. If the idea of one infinity being smaller or larger than another seems confusing, don’t worry, as you probably share that mindset with everyone who doesn’t have a doctorate in mathematics. The point is that, in an infinite universe, there are infinite possibilities, which means that everything that can possibly come to pass will come to pass. At its best, fiction allows us to explore some of those possibilities, even the more outlandish ones that we are unlikely to encounter in reality, at least in our lifetimes.
Like, for instance, lifeforms living on a giant planet with an eighteen minute rotational period, a gravitational pull of some six hundred times that of Earth at the poles, and only about three times that of Earth at the equator. That is Mesklin, the feature of the collection of stories included in Heavy Planet (two novels and a couple of short stories). It was invented because, as Clement says, “there are stories about very high gravity planets, and very low gravity planets, and spinning planets, but there are not stories about very fast spinning planets with extreme changes in gravity between the poles and the equator, and so I created Mesklin.” Its inhabitants are centipede-like creatures with many eyes, many cheela, and an innate acrophobia.
Like their neutron star cousins, the Mesklinites are accustomed to things falling so fast that they are invisible until they hit the ground. Also like their neutron star cousins, these creatures are remarkably human in their civilizations and cultures. In fact, they are frequently described this way, and when the author attempts to convey their more alien attitudes and perspectives, he usually resorts to simply telling the readers that it would be impossible for a human to understand, and so there’s no point in trying to describe the differences. To me, this is the main weakness of these stories. No matter how technically correct such an answer might be – a truly alien creature probably would be indescribable using our language, at least in a reasonable number of words (just look at the number of words we’ve expended over the centuries trying to describe ourselves) – I found it very unsatisfying in the story context.
Despite that, this was an enjoyable read, and had some significant strengths. Aside from the mostly rigorous scientific treatment of the exotic physics and environments involved, the most intriguing aspect of the story, to me at least, might have been the nature of the interactions between the star-faring humans and the pre-industrial Mesklinites. Star Trek may have elevated the concept of non-interference to the level of a Prime Directive, but the idea is prevalent throughout science fiction, as well as sociological and cultural studies and philosophies on more human, less imaginative lines. The assumption, of course, is that an advanced civilization will have necessarily detrimental effects upon a less advanced civilization if technology and knowledge is shared. Heavy Planet does not ignore these ideas, but it does challenge them, and it does so very well. The concept even leads to the interesting story elements in the second novel, where the Mesklinites and the humans are both keeping things from each other, and the Mesklinites are exploring an extreme planet on their behalf in advanced transports with solid-state fusion drives…and rigging like a sailing ship.
As with much of the science fiction of the period, there is the usual, amusing juxtaposition of technologies. On the one hand you have a star-faring human civilization that has made alliances with three alien races, explored a planet as extreme as Mesklin, developed solid-state fusion energy, and comfortably has a twelve year old on an interstellar research station. On the other hand, you have engineers whipping out their slide rules when they need to make a calculation. In other words, we may have access to nearly unlimited energy generation, but we still can’t make a pocket calculator.
I don’t think this was quite as strong a science fiction story as Rocheworld or Inherit the Stars, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. If you’ve enjoyed the other, similar science fiction that we’ve reviewed here on the site, then I would recommend you consider visiting Heavy Planet. Or, alternatively, sending your favorite, pre-industrial, centipede friend to do it for you.