Noise by Hal Clement

A beautiful cover, isn't it? Gives you a sense of adventure, and a sense of the world it depicts, all at once.

Noise is the first Hal Clement novel I’ve read. (I would like to read Mission of Gravity, but the library where I work only has it in Korean!) It’s an odd choice to read, for my first Clement novel — it was his last published work, apparently, as he passed away a month after it was first published in 2003.

I can certainly see why he was a “Grand Master of SF” (as it says under his name on the cover of the paperback I read): Noise takes place in an interesting ocean world with a harsh-as-hell environment (and effectively no native ecology), populated by Polynesians who fled Earth long ago and who use pseudolife technologies to grow things like ships and other technical devices from seeds. The point of view character is Mike Hoani, a linguist/historian who is on the world — Kauinui — to study the way in which the (mostly-Polynesian) languages there have changed since human settlement.

For me, though, the novel ended up being somewhat unsatisfying. This is because it ended up being less of a story and more a series of scientific/technical puzzles that the characters and Mike work out, often in ways that didn’t humanize them particularly well. The process of hypothesizing — working through the mystery of how this or that unknown object or phenomenon works — makes up the majority of the character interaction. When that isn’t the focus, then the source of mysteries is rooted in interactions between different groups on Kainui — the group that Mike has been sailing with, and the group whom they encounter late in the novel.

Perhaps life on such a planet would be so harsh, so difficult that characters would be constantly mind-busy just making sure they know and understand their environment, making sure they know enough to stay alive, but even so the characters felt somewhat hollow to me. While I enjoyed the idea of a young person “earning” adulthood by a constant series of points, accumulated or docked on the basis of practical application of learning, the points being awarded or deducted by an experienced mentor, the little girl in the book — ‘Ao — never acts much like a child, and neither do most of the other characters in the novel act like people. Interpersonal conflict is constantly held back, in favor of intellectual discussion of (and puzzling through) problems. There is, near the end of the last chapter, some struggle in the heart of Mike, who is possessed by an intense interest in a particular group’s sociotechnical history, but when he decides against pursuing the lead, he thinks — for what feels like the first time — very fondly of his family, left back home, to whom he feels obligated to return. Even then, a moment when Mike could feel something, it is duty that is foremost in his mind.

There are stakes to these problems, often very high stakes for the characters, but for me, after a while, the stakes began to matter less and less, and I began to care less and less, because the pattern — present an enigma; have characters puzzle through it; have characters solve it but withhold the answer, so the protagonist can keep puzzling through (or have the protagonist solve it but withhold it so other characters and puzzle through); and then  present the scientific explanation of the enigma — got to be just a bit too repetitive and a bit too transparent, and because the characters didn’t end up mattering much to me on an emotional level. (And I have to say, maybe it’s just me: this is exactly the kind of novel I can see being serialized in Analog, and praised highly in those pages. But for me, it was just missing something important.)

I wouldn’t call Noise a bad book, but it frustrated me a little, and took me forever to read — short sittings, each time, but over a year’s time. (And knowing that, you can take some of my observations with a grain of salt.) I just feel a bit let down because I feel like if Clement had spent more time humanizing the characters, I could easily have fallen in love with the world, with their adventure through it, and the book would have been amazing. As it is, I can’t help but wistfully feel like it represents a lost opportunity. Still, I’m curious to read more of Clement, and see whether

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