Close to Critical, 50 years later

One of the earliest science fiction novels that I ever read was Close to Critical by Hal Clement. I read it in the late 60s, while in high school, in a Dutch translation from our local library. Years later and now a student at Nijmegen University, I found a copy in a used book store and re-read the book. I clearly remember how both times I was blown away by the strange world that was being described and the obvious attention to scientific detail. This was pure “sense of wonder” reminiscent of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Again years later, I had the privilege of meeting Hal Clement, whose real name was Harry Stubbs, at the 1990 Science Fiction WorldCon in The Hague. Clement/Stubbs turned out to be a kind elderly gentleman and was, as far as I know, the only one who came to his book signing session accompanied by his wife, an equally kind lady. Unfortunately, none of his books were offered for sale by any of the book sellers at the convention, so very few fans came up to him to ask him to sign a book. Luckily, I found a very old, used copy of one of his novels (albeit in German), which he graciously signed for me.

For those among you who are not familiar with Close to Critical, here’s a short synopsis. As in many of Clement’s novels, the main “character” of the novel is actually the place of action, a planet called Tenebra. It’s hot and heavy, with a very dense atmosphere. Because of the thick atmosphere, the surface is rather dark to human eyes and conditions are directly around the critical temperature of water (a pressure of over 200 atmospheres and a temperature of 374° Celsius) and the resulting frequent changes of water from the liquid phase to the vapor phase plays an important role in the narrative. Despite these extreme conditions, the planet teems with life and one of the species has developed intelligence. By means of a robot, with some irony being named Fagin, humans living on board a space ship in orbit around Tenebra are in contact with one of the indigenous tribes. The story then evolves around two children, one human, the other a member of yet another alien species, who crash on Tenebra aboard a bathyscaphe and the efforts of humans and Tenebrians to save them.

Because of my fond memories of this novel, I recently decided to re-read it, as I often do with books that I really like. Many of them turn out to be still quite readable, if one is willing to overlook anachronisms such as scientists using a slide-rule (I still have one myself, which shows my age, I fear…) to calculate an orbit for their spaceships or using punch cards to program their computers (I used those myself only once and had trouble finding a card reader, making me feel a bit younger than the slide-rule…). For example, Jack Vance‘s Planet of Adventure, which I also recently re-read, has withstood the test of time quite well, I think (perhaps I’ll write more about that book in a future post). Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Close to Critical. Yes, it still is an easy read. A quick one, too: this was written in a time when a science fiction novel was supposed to count about 150 pages, not the trilogies counting thousands of pages that are the norm today. The description of Tenebra and its conditions still is impressive in its detail and, as far as I can see, scientific correctness. Apart from that, however, this novel has aged too much. The story is overly simple and reads more like a juvenile novel than anything an adult might want to read (and I write this as someone who still enjoys reading the occasional juvenile…) Worse, the characters are flat and exchangeable. Fagin’s tribe consists of 10 individuals, but apart from their leader, Nick, they only differ in their names. Early on in the story, two of the tribe’s members (that’s a whopping 20%) are killed by another tribe, but nobody seems to pay more attention than the occasional mention of the fact.

In short, the story suffers from the fact that, all too obviously, it’s just a coat rack used to describe the planet, the real subject of the novel. So why, given the above, do I still recommend reading this book? Well, exactly because of the detailed descriptions of Tenebra. Clement is not for nothing famous for designing extreme worlds. Writers like Vance excel in describing weird cultures, but their worlds are basically all copies of Earth. With Clement you immediately know that you’re not in Kansas any more. Curious about the crucial difference between a milky and a clear rain drop (both many meters in diameter)? Read Close to Critical and find out, because if ever you find yourself in a place with 200 atmospheres pressure and a temperature of 374° Celsius, it may mean the difference between life and death!