Home > Recommendations > “Uncommon Sense”, by Hal Clement

“Uncommon Sense”, by Hal Clement

“Uncommon Sense” is a 1945 science fiction short story by Hal Clement.  It won the Retro Hugo for Best Short Story of 1946.

Non-Spoiler Summary

“Uncommon Sense” is the story of an amateur exobiologist whose ship is taken from him by his two assistants upon landing on a planet circling Deneb, a very bright star.  He uses his wits and his knowledge of exobiology to recapture his ship from the mutineers.

Why should you read it?

Now, see, this is the stuff.  The writing, by today’s standards, is absolutely terrible.  For example, there’s a moment when an omniscient narrator jumps into the middle of the story and tells you how stupid the main character is for not seeing the revelation sooner.

The core idea, oh, my god, it’s jaw-dropping still, over sixty years later.  While outside his captured ship, he encounters native life, all of whom have very strange eyes.  But Deneb is so bright that the differential between “daylight” and “shadow” is so great that he can’t figure out how these eyes can work.  And as he waits in his space suit for the mutineers to make a mistake and take his ship back, he realizes… they’re not eyes.  In microgravity and no atmosphere, a particle that is excited off the surface of an object travels in a straight line.  So the sensory organs?  They’re not eyes.  They’re noses, set up like pinhole cameras.  These creates “see” by smelling the things that are in front of them, and can make an image of what’s in front of them this way.

That’s all well and good. . . but how is he going to use these amazing facts to get his ship back?

Where to find “Uncommon Sense”

This story was re-published in 2000 in The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 2: Music of Many Spheres, which is currently available from the King County Library System.  

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