The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Set in the Blue Hill area near Hal Clement’s home, this novel recounts the effects of catastrophic changes in the environment after two thousand years of scientific tinkering with genetic engineering in order to increase the number and quality of nitrogen compounds. The result is a major energy crisis. By the time of the novel, the process has produced large concentrations of nitric acid in the ocean and numerous new compounds that behave unpredictably and explosively. The only native life species that has survived on Earth is a remnant of nomadic humans who must wear breathing apparatus because only traces of oxygen remain in the atmosphere. These small human bands distrust science for obvious reasons, and all of society has reverted to a sort of Huck Finn adolescence. The most interesting member of the nomadic family whom Clement follows in the story is an eager boy named Fyn.

Alien on their own planet and in their worn-out society, the protagonist family begins to communicate and make friends with the strange, nitrogen-life aliens that appear on Earth. Unlike the fierce and angry humans, the Observers, as they are called, are a hive species with no need of or possibility for self-reliance. Each unit of the Observer species can share communication and memory with all other units following tactile contact. They have no language and no gender, and because their skeletons are very soft, the humans give the name Bones to the unit that becomes their large,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)