Hal Clement (Harry Stubbs) was famous throughout the Golden Age and beyond as one of the patron saints of hard science fiction. While he would allow for the existence of an FTL drive to get his protagonists to some particular location, Clement's works were almost entirely focused on constructing worlds that, as far as we knew, didn't exist – but could exist, based on what we knew, and from these hard-edged foundations build stories of first contact, of investigation, of exploration, and of friendship across the boundaries of worlds.
Clement produced a number of novels and short stories in his lifetime, of which the most famous is probably Mission of Gravity, featuring the voyage of the centipede-like Captain Barlennan across his native world of Mesklin, to humans a bizarre flattened spheroid of a world that spins so fast that gravity of several hundred times Earth's at the poles becomes a mere 3g on the equator.
However, my favorite of Clement's works remains the first of his novels I read, called Iceworld.
Sallman Ken is a science teacher, recruited by his planet's government to investigate the source and nature of a hideously addictive and lethal drug which could pose a terrible risk to his people, as it appears to be addictive in a single does and able to be dispensed as a gas.
Because there appear to be challenging problems of both physical and perhaps chemical nature in the acquisition, storage, transport, and dispensing of this drug, the organization supplying it has been seeking people of technical capability to assist them in solving these problems. Ken, as a jack-of-all-trades scientifically, is one of the best candidates they can find (and with proper publicity prepared by the police, appears the sort of man with whom they can deal).
Ken quickly finds himself in far deeper than he ever expected, because he is transported in secrecy to the world from which it comes – a world so cold that normal air is a solid, a world on which no life could ever be expected to evolve… but yet something does live there, for the drug is obtained by the smugglers by trading with those somethings. The hellish conditions of that world – where ordinary metals become as fragile as glass and flexible joints become rigid, where simply exposing oneself to the outer atmosphere would be almost instantly lethal – explain why the mysterious drug has always been in terribly short supply.
Ken must try to convince Laj Drai, captain of the drug-runners, that he will solve their problems, while preventing them from fully succeeding, and at the same time find some way to return home with the news… all while facing the dangers of a world where sulfur is a solid and even dihydrogen monoxide a liquid.
Iceworld managed its reveal very well – both subtly and overtly – and was able to lead one to both become connected to the main character,and realize his essential alien nature, in a single chapter. I used the same technique – quite consciously – in writing the chapter in Phoenix Rising which introduces Poplock Duckweed.
I found Iceworld fascinating for a number of reasons. Here were undoubtedly alien creatures trying to understand Earth, and the description of their difficulties gave me a different perspective of my own world – a realization of how challenging the investigation of things that seem completely ordinary to us would be for someone who knows nothing of them to begin with. Sallman Ken's methodical attempts to understand Earthly conditions were well thought out and gave me more connection to him, while he was simultaneously placed under tremendous pressure to find a way to increase production of the drug "tofacco" by Laj Drai.
The book also counterpoints Ken's adventures with the activities of the Wing family on Earth, who happen to be the people with whom Drai made unwitting contact years before. The Wings could prove to be the real key to Ken's success – if Ken can figure out how to communicate with them.
The interaction of the two species was also one of the things that most interested me. Here were two sets of people, so physically different that were either one to step into the environment of the other they would die almost instantly, yet still clearly people of the same basic kind. Sure, Sallman Ken breathes sulfur and drinks, occasionally, copper chloride, but in basic feelings, drives, and personal honor and morality he's not very different from us at all. His people are recognizable and believable as people, which makes it possible to tell most of the story from his point of view without requiring the reader to somehow come to an understanding of a completely alien viewpoint.
Some people might consider that a failing (though possibly forgiving it for being written in the Golden Age); I considered, and still consider, it to be an advantage. Not only is it a useful approach for storytelling, but also it reflects my general belief with respect to aliens, if they do exist. They'll have to go through similar problems, and create similar solutions to them, that we have over your evolution, and I believe that if we ever encounter alien intelligences, we will eventually find that no matter how bizarre and even frightening their exteriors, inside they will be not all that different from us.
I was fortunate enough to meet Hal Clement twice. The first time was many years ago, as a very young man, when he was attending one of the Albany-based conventions (I'm not quite sure which one) on Wolf Road. I came across him in a side room, where – in retrospect – he had obviously come to get away from the noise and bustle for a while.
Despite that, he never once gave me the impression of feeling I had intruded; he listened to my typical fanboy blathering, gently critiqued some world-design concepts that I had, and in general made me feel as though we were equals, rather than telling me that he needed to be left alone for a while.
I saw him for the second, and final, time at Albacon 2003; I was able to thank him then for his amazing and wonderful tolerance and courtesy that day, and greet him as a newly-minted member of the SF author fraternity. He was once more as gracious, pleasant, and friendly as I remembered, and solidified in me the determination to remember that this was what an author should be like at a convention.
I was more fortunate than I realized at the time to have seen him at that convention; for on October 29th, 2003, only a few weeks after I had spoken with him, Hal Clement – Harry Stubbs – passed on.
Hal Clement gave me – and us – many excellent stories, and was a demonstration that one can build worlds using only the tools that the real world gives us and still tell exciting SF stories. He was also a personal example to me of the way an author – or any public figure, really – should interact with his or her fans, and I hope I will never forget his lesson.
And I will always be most fond of Iceworld, especially for one last part of it: that he left the story open, showing that while Sallmen Ken's mission might have been completed, the true story was only beginning.