Hal Clement
Iceworld (1953)
Reviewed: 1996-03-14

Sallman Ken is an unsuspecting science teacher when he is approached by the local police department who would like to take him into their service as an undercover narcotics agent. There is a drug out there, extremely dangerous as it is a gas that can be administered without the victim's consent, and instantly addictive on first exposure. The substance comes from off-planet, and there are some vague hints which make the police believe that the drug runners are likely to hire somebody with Ken's background.

Ken accepts, is soon employed by a suspicious outfit, and travels to a far away solar system. There he learns that his company trades with the seemingly primitive natives for a secret produce. His anxiety is quickly dampened, though, when he sees for the first time the planet in question: a bleak, exceedingly cold world, only dimly lit by its weak sun. Ken's new job is to research this hostile world and maybe learn enough about it to reproduce the conditions found there in order to allow the company to grow the produce itself. All too soon, Ken's suspicions about the nature of the operation are confirmed in a particularly unpleasant way.

The exploration of the unknown planet is the major focus of interest in this novel. A world so cold it even causes the very air our scientist breathes to freeze, a realm of strange substances and even stranger life. It is also a lesson on how preconceived ideas can interfere with serious research, how dangerous it is to rely on a frame of experience not applicable in the current context. Readers who didn't skimp on their school science will find Ken's lessons quite funny, as we are often a step ahead of our trusty explorer.

As usual for Clement, most excitement comes from unexpected manifestations of the laws of physics and related sciences. The crime story is mostly a prop to the setting and serves to add some nominal interest for those readers who don't think that the pitfalls of basic thermodynamics can hold up a hard SF novel on their own. Again, as usual, characterization and plot aren't Clement's forte. The novel has aged a bit, more than forty years later some astronomical details are known to be different, and the concept that girls can have brains too, isn't quite as progressive as it must have been back then.

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