Home > Clement's Game, Hal Clement > Science Fiction Round 36: Noise

Science Fiction Round 36: Noise

We’re back to Clement’s Game in the most direct sense, since I recently read Noise, one of Hal Clement’s novels.

The story is set on a water-world, but that isn't how I pictured the sailing ship...

The story is set on a water-world, but that isn’t how I pictured the sailing ship…


Poor Communication (Almost) Kills

Arrrr.  I find this trope very frustrating.  Worse, it shows up in two different ways in this novel.

First, there’s the planet itself.  Kainui is a waterworld, with constant storms and frequent tectonic activity in the depths.  The cities float, and can easily maintain the same latitude by watching the stars, but between currents and weather, can’t really maintain a steady east-west position over long periods.  I’m actually a bit surprised by that — the combination of an accurate clock with watching the day-night cycle or star positions can let you know the longitude quite well.  (It’s why accurate clocks were historically so important for sailors.)  They are rather large, so perhaps we can give them that — it’s not worth fighting the currents to keep constant longitude.  But they should still always know what it is.

Now, communications on Kainui over radio are very difficult due to frequent storms.  But, given that the storms aren’t constant… it really seems a bit silly that they don’t try to call out using radio at all.  Precisely one floating city has laser-based communications with things in orbit, which is presumably expensive, since the lasers have to be strong enough to get through any clouds.  The water is deep enough that mining the bottom is infeasible, and metals come from sifting the water.  Nonetheless, for this planet, I would have thought that having a set of satellites in orbit, capable of sending and receiving messages when the weather is clearer, would be really useful.

Worse, and even more annoying, is the lack of communication between characters who are working together.  Mike Hoani, who is visiting the planet to study the local languages, is on a sailing expedition with three other crewmembers.  There are numerous occasions where he doesn’t ask questions, where his hosts don’t ask questions, where they refuse to share information for any number of pointless reasons, when that information is important to their welfare and survival.  They muddle through well enough, but I find it extremely frustrating.

Artificial Biology

There’s no native life on the planet, so instead we’re left with the “artificial biology” constructed by the local humans.

Some of this artificial life makes a degree of sense, at least at first blush.  There are large leafy “fish” which bear a passing resemblance to a bunch of seaweed.  They are designed to collect solar power, sink, and sift metals out of the ocean, then rise when low on power to allow the small pods of pure metal to be collected.  They also produce pure water as a secondary product of the reactions necessary to bring the metals out of solution in the oceans.  This works in the broadest sense — it’s really hard to make get metals on a water world.

The self-growing boat pontoon, however… that was a bit odd.

Not very much explanation is given for how this technology actually works.  The only life that scientists have been able to reconstruct in reality are viruses, which are about as simply as you can get (there’s some discussion of that here).  The varied expression of different cells in a multicellular organism, and making sure growth happens in the desired order?  That’s much, much harder.

One important point that is discussed in the book is limitations on population growth.  Most of the artificial life can’t reproduce without a human sitting there to turn the key, so to speak.  Which is good — you control which kinds grow, and so forth.  Realistically, there’s also discussion of artificial life “hackers” and those who thing it should be free to reproduce, which has some effect on the travels of the protagonists.

Have I Seen This Plot Before?

Two of Clement’s other novels — Mission of Gravity and Still River — have plots that could be mish-mashed to concoct that of Noise.

We have local merchants who deliberately hide some information in an attempt at improving their position (like Mission of Gravity) and we have a visiting scholar who’s trying to figure out something about how the planet works, despite some information being deliberately withheld (like Still River).

I’m not terribly impressed.  Using similar plots isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I guess I was hoping for something a little bit different.

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