Star Light

Hal Clement
Star Light Cover

Star Light


The Mesklinites are back. These sentient, caterpillarlike creatures made their first appearance in Hal Clement's 1954 novel Mission of Gravity. On their home planet, the Mesklinites survive crushing gravity by their low-to-ground bodies and great caution around heights of even a few inches. They thrive on an ammonia rich atmosphere, and oxygen is a stinky poison. Earth has contacted the Mesklinites and we were using them to retrieve an earth probe lost on their disc-shaped planet. Genuine alien/human bonds are formed, but the Mesklinites are merchants who always look toward the own advantage in any deal they make.

Star Light takes place 20 years after the events of Mission of Gravity. Humans have transported a crew of Mesklinites to the giant planet Dhrawn. Its crushing gravity and ammoniac atmosphere makes it impossible for humans to do more than orbit it from an observation craft. The Mesklinites are the surface explorers. They are following human directives, but as in the first novel, they have their own agenda.

I thought Starlight was Clement's sophomore slump, but I see there was a second Mesklinite novel in 1964. Although the doughty caterpillars remain engaging protagonists, Clement's plot takes the conventions of hard science fiction to their wonkiest extreme. The land craft humans have given the Mesklinites gets caught in a flood and becomes stuck on a rock as the water and ammonia mix that surrounds it refreezes. Getting the craft off that rock takes up most of the novel. I thought I was reading a very wordy French nouveau roman or some postmodern exercise where all the action surrounded fixing a flat tire. Once again, the Mesklinites have in mind an endgame for their human overseers, but the novel is lots of talk and more detail than I wanted about how to dislodge the stranded land craft. I admit I was skimming for the last hundred pages.