Harry Stubbs aka ‘Hal Clement’ was the Grand Master of alien planet building with such classic creations as Mesklin, Dhrawn and Tenebra. His last creation, prior to his passing in 2003, was Kainui in his novel “Noise”, which I finished reading yesterday. Kainui, as the name implies, was settled by Polynesians and the protagonist is a Moari from Earth who has come to Kainui to study its languages and their evolution on a new planet. Hal Clement books are known for their memorable alien characters, but in “Noise” the planet itself is the alien encountered. Not in a “Solaris” sense of being a unitary alien mind, but because it is so alien an environment, one to which the Polynesian colonists have had to adapt to.
Kainui is the inhabited member of a binary planet, which in turn orbits a pair of M class stars. It masses just 0.44 Earths, but has a radius of 1.15 Earths, thus a surface gravity of just 0.33 gee. The density is just 0.29 of Earth’s because the planet is covered in 2900 kilometres of ocean, which is liquid for much of its depth, but supercritical near the magma of the core. As a result of such intimate contact with the core, the global ocean is in a continual state of violent agitation, a constantly lethal din of underwater shock-waves which can kill any unprotected human much as dynamite in a pond kills fish. Also the atmosphere is filled with electromagnetic noise from endless storms, lightning filling its clouds and waterspouts are a continual hazard. Fortunately the endless spray of ions means no lightning can reach the ground – any charge leaks away too quickly – but above about 100 metres lightning becomes a risk. The atmosphere is bereft of oxygen and there’s no land or native life – how do the colonists survive?
All cities are afloat and dependent on a nanotechnological pseudolife ecosystem for food, oxygen, freshwater and metals – the latter two related by metal ions being accumulated by the removal of salts from the seawater. Vast pseudolife “fish” harvest ions and water deeper down, closer to the core, then rise for solar energy accumulation and tapping of their produce by humans. Due to the lack of long-range communications the planet can only be navigated, not mapped, and so the “fish” float freely, their bounty claimable by any who encounter them. People set out for months, years at a time of sailing the open ocean in search of promising “fish” and profitable trading with other crews and cities, usually in a small crew of adult sailors and young apprentices hoping to earn their adulthood through meritable sailing skills.
All in all Hal Clement has created an alien yet believable world inhabited by ‘alien’ people who are still familiar enough to care about. Kainui, in light of the multitude of Super-Earths and Hot-Neptunes discovered since 2003, is representative of many planets beyond our Solar System – Clement’s tale seems uncannily prescient in that light.