Goodbye Stranger

Cycle of Fire — Hal Clement

Cycle Of Fire

1957’s Cycle of Fire is a young-adult novel by Hal Clement.

Marooned in a vast lava field by a glider crash, Dar Lang Ahn undertakes to march out on foot. It’s only after he has set out that he realizes that the march will be much harder than he expected. He and his precious cargo of books might be lost forever.

An unexpected encounter saves Dar’s life and his books. Immediate consequences: benign. Long-term consequences: wrenching transformation for Dar’s people, the natives of the world Abyormen.


Because Nils Kruger seemed so familiar with conditions on the lava field, Dar assumed the human must be from a previously uncontacted society native to the region. Because Dar was so unfamiliar with local conditions, Nils jumps to the conclusion the Abyormenite must be from some other world. In fact, Dar is from Abyormen, while Nils is a human marooned by a mishap that left his crewmates thinking him dead.

Nils accompanies Dar on his trek back to his people. Along the way, they encounter groups of hostile Abyormenites. Dar’s people are merely one of many groups on the odd little world; their habit of flying over regions of no obvious utility means that much of their world is poorly documented.

The human resigns himself to living out his life with Dar’s people. He doesn’t expect any human rescue; no other humans know he is alive. However, his life may be short. There are many factions on Abyormen and one of those factions has good reason to want Nils dead. Furthermore, Abyormen has an eccentric orbit around the red dwarf star Theer, which in turn has an eccentric orbit around the bright star humans call Alcyone. As a result, Abyormen’s climate and ecology suffer periodic catastrophic changes. Dar will certainly die, as he has known he will his entire life. As for Nils: he might find shelter or he might not.

But … but … the peculiar stellar system is unusual enough that humans, curious as cats, return to Abyormen before Nils is killed or boiled like a lobster. Niles is rescued. The question then becomes: how did this astronomical puzzle happen? How is it that life on Abyormen has survived repeated catastrophe?

Turns out that life can be very adaptable … which makes Abyormenite life a potential threat to every other race in the galaxy.

 ~oOo~

It’s clear that author Clement is more interested in the puzzle that is Abyormen than he is in the human characters and their society. The Earth is barely sketched. It has starships and apparently no longer engages in internecine warfare, but beyond that we know little about it.

Clement’s aliens tended to have unfamiliar shapes but very familiar thought processes. Dar and his people are perhaps the most striking exception. Nils is convinced his friend’s fatalism is an error that Nils can correct, given a sufficiently convincing argument. In fact, Dar’s worldview is driven by biological realities; for him, human optimism is not a reasonable response.

As previously observed on my LiveJournal, there are an astounding number of parallels between Cycle of Fire and Niven and Pournelle’s Mote in God’s Eye. Which can be balanced against the ways that these two books are not at all like each other.

Both books feature a first contact situation, although in CoF, the humans have previously encountered other intelligent beings.

Both feature junior officers marooned on an alien planet and thought to be dead by their superior officers.

Both involve a main-sequence star in association with a non-main sequence star: in CoF’s case, it’s one of the Pleiades and in MIGE it’s a fictional red giant. In both cases this means that the long-term habitability of the Earth-like world is dubious (although as far as I recall, the eventual supernova didn’t cook Mote Prime in the sequel).

Both CoF and MIGE have aliens who are subject to civilizational cycles. Both sets of aliens have taken steps to mitigate this. In both cases the cycles are caused by factors the aliens (rightly) believe to be outside their control.

Both settings feature a multi-species civilization, with one species enjoying a position of authority over the rest. The various species are interdependent. The aliens in charge are not sympathetic characters; the lower-status aliens are.

In both books, the aliens who are first encountered are seen as potential friends. Later on, something is discovered about them that makes the aliens appear to be a significant threat. As a result, someone proposes a blockade to contain the aliens for the good of humanity.

Clement and Niven/Pournelle approach these situations from fundamentally different viewpoints. The resulting novels are correspondingly different.

Niven and Pournelle’s Empire is one that sees outsiders as inherently threatening. It is a polity that does not hesitate to incinerate enemy worlds. Much of the tension in the narrative comes from the fact that however likeable individual Moties might be, as a whole they are dangerous. The protagonists would prefer not to exterminate their new pals, but they are the sort of folks for whom genocide is an acceptable tool.

In contrast, Clement’s characters are reasonable people (even if they start with different assumptions). If a sensible solution is possible, they will arrive at it without too much shouting. Once they understand what they are dealing with, the humans consider blockading Abyormen. Genocide isn’t their immediate go-to option. Indeed, once they realize that the orbital dynamics of the system mean that Abyormen is ultimately doomed (although not any time soon), the response is

It’s our business to get these races off the planet or at least help them get themselves off; otherwise we’re guilty of criminal negligence.”

Proof that a different set of axioms can generate an entirely different mathematical system or SF novel.

Cycle of Fire is available (as part of an omnibus) here (Amazon). It does not appear to be available from Chapters-Indigo.


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