the Little Red Reviewer

The Best of Hal Clement

Posted on: January 14, 2014

Best of Hal ClementThe Best of Hal Clement, edited by Lester Del Rey

published in 1979

where I got it: purchased used











School teacher and rationalist, Hal Clement, most famous for Mission of Gravity, is one of the fathers of hard science fiction.  His works deal in real science, and a theme that kept coming up in this collection is characters who face issues that would realistically come up in SFnal situations, be them dealing with aliens, unexpected gravity, or even mechanical problems.  It was very satisfying for me to read about characters whose first impulse isn’t to shoot first and ask questions later, but to ask question first, to observe, to learn about their surroundings, to make the best possible decisions with the resources at hand. And the alien descriptions are just amazing. How would creatures evolve on different types of planets with different environments and resources? What would they think of humans? Those are the types of questions Clement thought about.


Enjoyable and completely readable, these are recommended to all fans of hard science fiction. These stories may be slower paced, but they’ve got pay-offs that beat many fast paced space opera adventure stories. Lester Del Rey edited and wrote the introduction to The Best of Hal Clement, and convinced the “I’m not a writer, I’m a teacher” Mr. Clement to write the Author’s Afterword.


The collection includes: Impediment (1942), Technical Error (1943), Uncommon Sense (1945), Assumption Unjustified (1946), Answer (1947), Dust Rag(1956), Bulge(1968), Mistaken for Granted (1974), A Question of Guilt (1976), and Stuck with It (1976).

And these were some damn excellent stories, possibly some of the best hard science fiction I’ve read in a long time.  Bulge and A Question of Guilt didn’t do it for me, but they were still very well written. Here are my thoughts on some of my favorites:

Impediment – Aliens have landed in a remote area of North America, hoping to find a particular element with which to recharge their weaponry. But first, they must face the challenge of first contact with human beings. These aliens have no vocal speech, and use a completely different method of communication than we do. At first they are not sure if we are even intelligent. They do make contact with a lone hiker, and are able to communicate with him through writing. Impediment offers some excellent discussion on communication and language. And it was nice to see a First Contact story from the aliens point of view. It’s obvious to the reader what their human friend is doing and saying, but the aliens have no idea.


Uncommon Sense –  Cunningham has been  betrayed by his crew! Once the ship is repaired, they’ll leave him to die on this tiny planetoid.  Watching them from a cave, Cunningham observes the native lifeforms, a scrappy little plant, some crab-like creatures, and huge worm-like creatures that might be a carrion eater or might just eat everything in it’s path. The description of the alien creatures was descriptive and makes the reader feel like they are in that cave with Cunningham.  His optimism is pretty incredible too.  He’s only got so much air in his suit, and he knows if his crew succeeds in repairing the ship, well, that’s that, he’s going to die. But he doesn’t panic at all, he only focuses on solving the problem, of learning as much as he can about these little (and not so little) critters to he can use them to his advantage. What kind of creatures could evolve on this airless rock? And how can he use what few resources are at hand to regain control of his ship?


Assumption Unjustified – My favorite of the collection, and the story that matches the cover art.  Thrykar and his new bride Tes have stopped over on Earth on their way to a vacation. Earth is listed as a refresher station, and due to his advanced age, Thrykar is in need of refreshing.  They set their ship down outside a small town, and Thrykar goes exploring. Their guidebook gives a physical description of Earthlings and some general stats, and states that Earth is at a technology stage of steam power and that the populace is very superstitious.  The guidebook is only a few decades old, how out of date could it possibly be? More important than their painfully out of date information, they need to find some isolated humans for the refreshing procedure.  Thrykar and beings like him use blood injections as longevity treatments, and human blood is will work. They never take too much, and the humans are not harmed by the procedure. In fact, when one young boy hits his head and loses consciousness, Thrykar is beside himself with worry. Written in the mid 1940s, the story feels more nostalgic than dated when we learn that not all the families in the town have telephones. The people living in the town are convinced that vampires are preying on their children, and Thrykar is convinced that the populace of Earth is smart enough to not be superstitious about the bloody bite marks left on the two boys necks and that it’s time for Earth to be invited into the galactic community.   I’m not sure if this story was meant to be humorous, but I found it absolutely hilarious!


Mistaken for Granted – Along with his step-mother Evelyn, teenaged Rick is visiting the Moon for the first time, and he’s very quickly accepted into the group of teenagers in the lunar colony. Having never experience “outside” as dangerous, Rick doesn’t at first understand how dangerous it is outside the dome. His new friends give him a crash course on suit safety, and they discuss the different between his earthly “outdoors” and the deadly lunar “outside”.  Rick is invited to go with the group to their science station that’s a good hike from the dome, and due to a timing mix-up, he thinks he’s running late when he’s really running many hours early.  Thinking he’ll catch up to them in an hour, he puts on a suit and convinces the airlock tech that he’s done this a thousand times, and runs out into the lunar environs. Rick thinks he’s got his bearings, but he gets hopelessly lost. A rescue mission is sent out, and the hardest thing for them to fathom, but the most important thing is “what would an Earth kid do?”.

Stuck with It – What technologies would a water dwelling people come up with? Not fire or smelting, probably no formed metals or fuels that burn. In this story, Cunningham (you know him from  Uncommon Sense) is on an alien planet learning about the salt water dwelling indigenous species, the Rantans. They assume he is just visiting from one of the contents of land dwellers, so at least he doesn’t have to worry about explaining his spaceship. The Rantans use a type of cement they have developed, but it crumbles, leaving their dams and aqueducts damaged, and they have become overdependent on this failing invention. Why do they insist on living in a flooded city? Why don’t they just move back into the ocean and live in their natural habitat?  The Rantans explain that the oceans are unsafe and polluted. But how could that be, since this planet has no industry?  I really liked Clement’s Rantans, they look like giant thick many-footed eels, and they don’t so much swim through the flooded city as they climb through the mats of seaweed.



8 Responses to "The Best of Hal Clement"

An excellent review of some older classics. I was in Hal’s writers group (“Hal’s Pals”) from 1982 until he passed away, (We still meet, in his name, with Tom Easton as leader) and I learned most of my craft from him. His lack of “space villains and shoot-’em-ups” was based on his scientist’s understanding that the universe is out to get you, all the villain a story needs. He was a gentleman, finest kind, and his work reflected his careful, systematic thinking. Thank you for bringing such a fine collection to attention.
Ramona Wheeler


Hi Ramona,

thank YOU for visiting and commenting! That’s for sure, that the harsh environs of the universe is all the villain that’s needed. One wrong step, and you’re dead.

I’ll keep my eye out for your Three Princes. 😀


Here’s a big surprise, I love the novels and stories of Hal Clement. I’m so glad you read this, and reviewed it in detail, hopefully it will tempt a few of your readers to try this fine SF writer. This is the kind of SF I grew up reading, and you’ve made me want to drop everything and reread some Hal Clement. Sublime.


Although their writing is completely different, i had a similar experience with Clement as I did with Cordwainer Smith – after reading one collection I will buy anything with his name on it. 😀 I am still looking for a copy of Mission of Gravity.

indulge! go pick up some Clement!


I have to say, the cover made me laugh.
Clement has been on my TBR for a while, I hope to read some of his stuff this year. It sounds delightful.


How could I not buy a book that had a cover like this? as silly as it looks, that is an exact scene from Assumption Unjustified.


The cover is rather excellent and made me have a little giggle.
Lynn 😀


Pretty much all of the Ballantine “Best of …” series is worth a look, for historical value if nothing else.

For Clement’s Mission of Gravity look here:


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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