Review – Cycle of Fire

Cycle of Firecyclefire

By Hal Clement

Published 1957

Score: 7/10

 

I have in the past labelled some science fiction stories as ‘hard’, without fully explaining what that means. To quote Wikipedia; “Hard Science Fiction is a category of science fiction categorised by an emphasis on scientific accuracy.” Originally terms like ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ differentiated between the ‘soft’ sciences (i.e, social sciences) and ‘hard’ sciences (natural sciences), however the distinction has since become more about the relationship between the science and the rest of the story.

Science Fiction stories can be thought of as existing on a spectrum between soft and hard. For example, Star Wars explains none of its technology, and the Force is almost a fantasy element. The story in Star Wars is a very space opera one, that could conceivably be retold as an adventure or western with a bit of creativity. Meanwhile, Star Trek often has episodes that revolve around technology or bizarre alien biology. Hence Star Trek is ‘harder’, science fiction-wise, than Star Wars. However, a lot of the technology in Star Trek isn’t fully explained, and whilst there is usually an internal consistency, Star Trek technology and worldbuilding isn’t always scientifically accurate. Thus, Star Trek is still on the ‘soft’ side of the spectrum.

At the very end of the ‘Hard’ end of the spectrum, you’ll find Hal Clement. Clement and some other hard SF authors of the time saw their stories as a game. The objective of the author was to create a crazy world and crazy situations whilst adhering to the known laws of reality. The objective for the reader was to find mistakes. This approach leads to some amazing worldbuilding, but it also results in less emphasis on story and characters, and whilst I have enjoyed everything I have read by Clement, his work is dated, and not just because of 1950s morality (though, this story does contain a Human going to a planet and meeting pre-industrial age aliens and we know how that is usually played in this era. I think Cycle of Fire treats the subject better than most other books of the time, but it is a very 1950s worldview at work here.) The prose itself isn’t something that modern writers would do. The narrative switches between the thoughts of both main characters without any type of break (though I feel this works, given the narrative voice) and towards the end of the book we get pages and pages of exposition about the planet’s history and the biology of the aliens on it.

Keep in mind though, that Hal Clement is a master worldbuilder. Reading pages about Humans researching an alien planet and reporting their findings is fun if you enjoy natural history and the research is being done on a crazy Hal Clement world with two suns, or 250x Earth’s gravity. Also, Cycle of Fire is short. I’ve read a lot of hard SF that occasionally gets bogged down in the technical details and I end up skimming, but such books are usually huge doorstoppers. Meanwhile, Cycle of Fire is under 200 pages, so the info dumps are out of necessity kept short and are better integrated into the story.

If you can keep in mind the time period in which Clement wrote, and the aim of his stories, then it quickly becomes apparent why he is considered a Grand Master of science fiction. In his most famous story, Mission of Gravity, we are taken on a romp on a planet with 250x Earth’s gravity and a day length of about nine minutes. Cycle of Fire isn’t as well known, but the worldbuilding is still amazing and almost as crazy.

We find ourselves on planet Abyorman, following Dar, a native pilot who has crashed his glider and must traverse a barren volcanic landscape to get his precious cargo – his books – to the Ice Ramparts. Along the way, he meets another castaway; space cadet Nils Kruger. Kruger was part of an exploration team, but was left behind after an accident which led the team to conclude he had died. The two must travel on foot across a planet in a binary star system, and use a combination of Dar’s supreme intellect and knowledge of the planet and Kruger’s willingness to experiment and experience with higher technology to overcome a range of challenges.

The characterisation of Dar and Kruger is somewhat lacking, but it was enough that I came to believe they had a close bond and found their last conversation touching. Of course, the draw of this book isn’t the characters. It is the world. Abyorman is the only planet in a binary system, and it goes through intense seasons that kill Dar’s people en masse every 60 odd years. The true nature of the world and its people is obscured for most of the book, until Dar and Kruger’s journey comes to an end, and then they help some researches find out everything they can about the world. We get many chapters about the geological and evolutionary history of Abyorman, and it is fascinating stuff. I also loved how all this new knowledge impacted Dar. His whole view of his world and his place in it was upturned by the humans and he took it in stride.

An interesting thing about this book is that Dar’s people are shown to be more intelligent than Humans, even though they’re level of technology is so much lower. Kinda progressive for the time, but the way the Humans respond to meeting supposedly superior aliens says a lot about the time period this was written in. But writing about colonialism and racism in old SF could make a post of its own.

It’s also interesting reading Cycle of Fire because it comes before Star Trek made the Prime Directive such a huge part of alien stories. Dar joins the human researches and they encourage him to learn as much as he can from them. In fact, the aliens ask the humans to stop sharing so much science, since they are concerned with how that will impact their way of life. The humans view the alien that made that request as “an opinionated, narrow-minded, dictatorial old fuddy-duddy.” Interestingly though, arguments are made that support the Prime Directive attitude.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who loves classic SF, and anyone who likes hard SF. Even if these two things aren’t your jam, I’d still encourage anyone who loves science fiction to read a Hal Clement book at some point for the historical value. Just keep in mind the time it was written in and the way Clement approached his writing. Also, it’s nice to know that you can write hard SF without destroying an entire forest. Whether I’d recommend Cycle of Fire as the Hal Clement book to read though is a difficult question. The only other books I have read are the Mesklin ones (Mission of Gravity and Starlight). Cycle of Fire is a lot more accessible than that series, and I liked the characters better. However, Mission of Gravity has much better worldbuilding (remember that part about a nine minute day and 250x Earth’s gravity?), which is really what you’re looking for in a Hal Clement book.

 

~ Lauren

 

 

 

 

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Double Review – The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and Frost by M. P. Kozlowsky. Also, I Love Audiobooks.

No real reason to review these two stories together to be honest. I’ve just been falling behind with my reviews, as my followers may have noticed. I enjoyed both novels, but don’t feel like they were anything super special.

I did listen to both these books on Audible, making them my first non-Ada Palmer audiobooks. I must say I am liking this format a lot more than I thought I would. I’ve heard mixed things about audiobooks, but since I spend a lot of time driving alone, being able to listen to a book in my car works for me. Frost is also going to hold a special place in my heart because I started listening to it with my partner in the car. He isn’t a reader, so although I talk to him about the books I read a lot, I’ve never been able to have a conversation with him about a book where he has followed along with the story and come to his own conclusions about it. He hasn’t finished Frost yet, but it was great listening to it together and then coming up with our own theories about it.

Let’s start talking about the actual books though. The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel-length Russian folktale. It is certainly fantasy, with talismans and magic and demons aplenty, but it is also grounded in reality. This story features a lot of information about 14th Century Russian life and politics, and when the fantastical elements weren’t present it almost read like historical fiction.

The more realistic vibe has an impact on the fantasy parts of the story too. A lot of common fairy tale tropes are played with. For example, the Heroine’s mother died giving birth to her, and early on in the book her father remarries. Her step-mother is an ‘evil’ step-mother, but she is not entirely unsympathetic, and her relationship with the heroine deteriorates over time, rather than starts out entirely antagonistic.

This book had great worldbuilding and lovable characters, and a nice coming-of-age story, but I find myself not excited about the sequel at all. Which is okay, since this book feels complete to me. It had a satisfying ending where all loose ends were tired up. The sequel feels like a bonus, but I am just not interested in continuing in this world at the moment. So, I guess I’m going to part amicably from this series. I guess the magic system didn’t appeal to me, though I did like the descriptions of all the spirits of the house and forest. I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t love this book. It could just be that I’m not that into fantasy.

All in all The Bear and the Nightingale is a good book, and really well written. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy and folk tales.

Now we get to Frost, and I can tell you exactly what this book did right, and what it got really wrong. First of all, the narration by Cyrina Fiallo was excellent. She used a lot of filters to get all the robot voices sounding perfect. For this alone, I would recommend the audiobook. The story itself was also interesting. It’s about a young girl called Frost who has spent her whole life in an apartment in a post-apocalyptic city. Her only companions are her pet Roams, a giant pink monster, and her robot Bunt, who has the consciousness of her dead father somewhere inside him. When Roams gets sick, Frost insists on taking him through the city, which is full of all sorts of dangers, hoping to get him to a safe place that may have medicine for him.

So we have this innocent young woman travelling through this terrible city, witnessing all these horrible things as she tries to save her beloved pet. As she meets many different robots and Humans in robot bodies, there are discussions about what makes someone a human, or how to obtain personhood. There were some elements that reminded me of games that had discussed this topic, such as Nier Automata and Soma. There are also zombies in this world, but they’re not really your standard zombies. They are called eaters, and it is made clear that they are still thinking, feeling people, they just have an uncontrollable hunger that they cannot resist. They also can’t communicate, because usually they eat their own tongues soon after becoming infected. I really liked the eaters, as they act like zombies, but their personhood poses a moral dilemma to the protagonists.

The writing style was a mixed bag for me. Kowlowsky uses very descriptive language, which paints a real vivid picture of the world. But some of this descriptive style finds its way into character dialog, which created some really long and unrealistic monologues. Characters were also a mixed bag. I liked Bunt, and I liked the main villain. I liked Frost a lot at first, but she did seem a bit Mary Sue at times. Some of the minor villains also seemed unrealistically bad. These problems probably wouldn’t have been that big a deal, but I also really didn’t like the end. Or rather, I didn’t like where the story ended.

During Frost’s journey, she crosses the Good John Lord, a tyrant who requires something from her and her father. The plot to defeat this villain and save the city got really interesting and exciting. It also came to a satisfactory conclusion an hour before the book finished. Everything that happened after that seemed long, drawn out, and rather pointless. Which is a shame, because this book has a good twist that was very well built up, but the reveal happens for no reason and doesn’t pay off. There were two other moments in the last hour of the book that were supposed to be really dramatic and touching, but they just felt pointless and contrived.

There is a sequel in the works for this book, and again, I’m not too sure I want to continue the series. I am really interested in some of the unanswered questions at the end of Frost, but I feel really let down by the ending.

Both of these books I found entertaining, but I didn’t love them. Both were good, enjoyable books, and I’m glad I listened to them.

 

~ Lauren