Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement
Ballantine Books, 1957
Price I paid: 50¢
Nils Kruger was the Earthman. A castaway with a smashed spaceship on the parched surface of the inhospitable planet Abyorman.
Dar was his non-human castaway companion. But Nils, a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, quickly learned that his intended Man Friday was a superior creature.
They would both die.
Typically, Nils the Human opted to do something about it. Typically, Dar, who knew the day, date, and hour of his death in advance, opted to do nothing.
Which of them was right?
Or, perhaps both of them were!
One day I’m going to start a new blog, a sort of summarization of this blog, that deals mainly with the shady practices of the people who write back cover synopses for science fiction novels. I mean, come on, guys. I know you’ve got a lot to do, and you didn’t have time to actually read the book, but maybe you could have asked somebody who did? Maybe the author? A proofreader?
I go on about this a lot, I know, but only because it really, really bugs me.
See, it’s especially true of this book. Whoever wrote the synopsis made it sound a lot more cheesy and pulpy than it really is. And that’s why I picked this book up, even though I knew that Hal Clement was a fairly respectable author. I think I read a short story or two in some compilations and had no complaints. Still, I figured every author has a couple of bad ones, and this one sounded really bad.
Well, I’m not going to say it was especially good, either. It was pretty mediocre. The worst kind of book: one that didn’t keep me especially interested but at the same time didn’t send me flying into a rage.
Hal Clement was, apart from being a science fiction author, an astronomer. This really showed. This book was hard science fiction, almost as hard as it gets. And it was a book about science, and alien worlds, and neat concepts, and interspecies relations, and all sorts of stuff like that. And all that was really interesting.
What it was not was a book with interesting characters or story.
“What’s the problem with that?” you might ask. If you really know me you might add something to the effect that Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is a book that ranks very highly in my opinion, such that it’s probably in my top ten favorite books, and it’s got absolutely nothing in the way of character development and really not much story at all either. What makes Cycle of Fire so much worse?
Part of it, I’d say, is that Cycle of Fire actually does have more character development and story than Star Maker. The difference is that old Olaf didn’t try to fit his book into the standard narrative and instead led us on a journey of imagination. Hal, I hate to say, stuck us in the mind of a seventeen-year-old pilot cadet named Nils Kruger who, despite all his best intentions, failed to be much of a viewpoint character.
The book kicks off, though, by introducing us to Dar. He’s not human, which is made clear very early. He’s flying an important load of books via glider from one point on this planet to another when he ends up crashing. He manages to rescue his load of books and decides the best thing he can do is set off on foot toward his destination. Some trials and tribulations later, he meets up with Nils.
Nils is a human. He was left on this planet by the crew of his ship because they thought he wandered off and died somewhere. He does not have a “smashed spaceship” but I suppose he is something of a castaway figure. The back of the book makes it seem like it’s going to be a sci-fi retelling of Robinson Crusoe but really it’s not. Nils has already been stranded here for months, just learning what he can and surviving. This leads to some interesting misunderstandings on the part of the human and the alien.
The first half of the book, then, follows Nils and Dar as they learn each others’ ways, customs, and most importantly, languages. They slowly come to understand each other a little bit over the course of the book, which is fine, except I kind of wish we’d managed to skip most of it because let’s be honest, it was pretty boring and we’ve all read at least one book about a human and an alien (or a European and a native somethingorother) having to learn about how to communicate with each other. Science fiction fans, I highly recommend the 1934 short story “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, if you haven’t read it already. It’s essentially a short story-fied version of the first half of this book, only much more entertaining to read.
So the guys walk across a bit of desert and jungle and learn about each other for a while. Eventually they discover a city not entirely unlike an Earth one, only a bit smaller in proportions. The buildings, for instance, are multi-storied, but each story is on the order of five feet tall.
Due to the misunderstandings between our two protagonists, each one of them is at first convinced that the abandoned city belongs to the other’s race. Nils, for instance, is convinced that Dar’s people came from another world in a manner similar to his. Dar is convinced that Nils people are native to this world but haven’t been encountered yet. I rather liked that bit, actually.
This abandoned city turns out not to be completely abandoned, though, and some members of Dar’s species jump out and capture them. Dar is completely flummoxed by this situation, since nothing he’s ever been told would suggest that he has any people out in this area.
Nils and Dar are taken to meet this group’s “Teachers.” Teachers, it seems are eight-foot-tall members of Dar’s species. Dar himself is full grown at something like four feet tall. They are the arbiters of knowledge and wisdom and whatever they say, goes.
At this point in the book I’ve decided that the plot, when it happens, will entail the Teachers being wrong about something and our Earthman will have to show them the error of their ways and everyone can live happily ever after. But I was wrong!
While it turns out that the Teachers are kind of dicks, it turns out they can’t do much, so Dar and Nils manage to escape, although leaving behind Dar’s books. Dar is pretty upset about that, but we don’t really find out why yet.
Nils and Dar get spotted by yet another one of Dar’s people, but this one is familiar and flying a glider much like Dar was at the beginning of the book. He goes home, fetches some more gliders, and Dar and Nils are able to fly to Dar’s home safely and quickly.
We find out that Dar’s group also has Teachers, and they’re slightly less dickish than the ones we met earlier. We learn all sorts of stuff.
Dar and Nils go back to fetch the books and find the city empty. They meet one of the Teachers, and while they’re having a conversation with him, some Earth people show up!
It turns out that after Nils’s ship left, they discovered some interesting facts about the Solar System and decided to come back so the astronomers would stop whining. Thinking Nils was dead, they didn’t expect to run across him again, and in fact they’d even named the planet Kruger in his honor. That’s so sweet, naming a planet after someone who has in no way demonstrated that he deserves that kind of thing.
I was hoping that now, maybe, MAYBE, we’d start to see some kind of plot. But no. What we get are a bunch of human scientists talking about the planet and its life forms and the people and the blah blah blah. Honestly, it was kind of interesting even if I don’t want to reiterate a lot of the details. Hal Clement obviously put a lot of real scientific thought into creating this world, and it’s genuinely fascinating, but at the same time, WHY CAN’T SOMETHING HAPPEN.
It’s fine hard science fiction, but not fine fiction of any other sort.
We finally learn the secret of the Cycle of Fire, which is not actually named in the text of the book. I just kind of deduced that this was what the title was referring to. It really wasn’t all that hard.
Anyway, it turns out that there are two sapient races on this planet of Albumin or whatever it was called. Abyorman. You see, every generation the two races swap places or something. I’ll see if I can explain, because I’m sure this was the idea that spawned the whole book, and it’s fairly interesting, so I think it deserves mentioning.
Okay, so Alfranken has two suns and one of them gets really close to the planet every so often on a regular basis, raising the temperature so much that all of the plant and animal life, including Dar’s people, die. That’s what the back of the book was talking about when it mentioned that Dar knows the “date, day, and hour of his death.” Incidentally, wouldn’t the date and the day be the same thing? Who talks like that?
So when everything gets really hot, a bunch of dormant bacteria kick in and melt away all the life that was living during the cool period (Anno Fonzarelli, we call it in science talk). From this goo rises the other life forms, the ones that run around while the climate is scorching hot. Then, when things cool down again, the hot creatures die out and the cool ones come back.
See, all that’s really neat and all, but it took the whole book to learn it and by that point I was pretty tuckered out.
Nils decides that he doesn’t want his little buddy to die and so tries to teach him everything he can in the hopes that he can save his species and maybe one day join mankind in the stars. The whole last quarter of the book features Dar learning all these things that he can. The end of the book, though, has Dar telling his friend that there was no way he could have learned all that stuff (even though the book mentioned several times that he had a perfect memory, there are still limits) but he did come away with one VERY IMPORTANT thing that he will write down so the next generation of his people can find it. That VERY IMPORTANT THING is THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD.
Okay, so, I guess that’s the book. Honestly I didn’t do it justice. It was both fascinating and boring. Clement had some brilliant ideas for an alien world and its constituent species that I really liked learning about, but it was told in such a dry and storyless manner that I just couldn’t pay all that much attention. Inventing an alien world is all well and good, but I want a reason to care about it other than it’s just a good idea.
Ultimately, the book was a success as hard science fiction goes. If you want to read some really neat ideas that are well-grounded in science and scientific conjecture, then read some Hal Clement. Read this book, even. It’s got a whole lot going for it, I swear. But if that doesn’t pull you along and you need some plot or some characters to keep you engaged (like I do), maybe give this one a miss.
5 thoughts on “Cycle of Fire”
Yeah, I find that Clement’s worlds are intriguing but his characterizations are awful… and dialogue is stilted.
Oh gosh I forgot almost entirely about the awful conversations that went on for so very long. People complain about Lord of the Rings being nothing but walking and talking, but this was the platonic ideal of that.
One of the things I love about Stapledon’s two epics is the way they are littered with mini plots that come and go, and whose course is largely inconsequential with reference to the larger picture. A very different mode to the novel which can be both more restricted in scope and more detailed in quotidian minutiae and, of course, the characterisation that seems to be so in demand.
So, this was basically “Enemy Mine” but without any of the conflict or narrative tension that made the movie (or the story it’s adapted from) entertaining?
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I think that’s pretty accurate, yeah!