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Hal Clement, 81, craftsman of sci fi novels

Hal Clement, whose meticulously crafted tales of alien visitors, life-saving mathematical equations, and man-made "pseudolife" earned him the title Dean of Boston Science Fiction Writers, died Wednesday in Milton Hospital. He was 81.

"Science fiction opens the door to the imagination," Mr. Clement often said.

"The main difference between science fiction and the rest of literature is science fiction's higher standards of realism," he said in an interview for an article published in the Globe last October.

Mr. Clement taught for 38 years at Milton Academy under his real name, Harry C. Stubbs.

He was the author of more than a dozen novels, including a classic of the genre, "Mission of Gravity." The story of a football-shaped planet with varying degrees of gravity populated by sentient caterpillars was first published in 1954 and is still in print.

"Mission of Gravity" was described as "the best account of alien life on another planet that I've ever read," by Thomas M. Disch in his book, "The Dreams our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World."

"All his aliens were people you would like to have supper with," said Anthony Lewis of Natick, a technical writer who also writes science fiction.

Mr. Clement was sometimes called the grandfather of hard science fiction, a subgenre that incorporates and tries to extend current scientific principles and knowledge.

"He had an ability to use real science to create incredible planets, worlds, and landscapes that could legitimately exist in our universe under our physical laws," said Michael A. Burstein, a science fiction writer who teaches science at the Rashi School in Newton.

Mr. Clement said that what he tried to do was write science-based mysteries.

"My notion of a story is a set of problems," he said in the Globe interview earlier this year. "Plot and problem are synonymous. . . . It's understood that the readers will have enough clues early in the story to find out whodunit."

In his book "The Nitrogen Fix" (1980), set in AD 4000, the polar ice caps have melted and water covers the Boston skyline. Great Blue Hill is an island.

As with other novels, Mr. Clement wrote the first draft by compiling scenes on 3-by-5 index cards, then organizing them along a plot line. He studied an 8-foot-square contour map of Greater Boston to determine what the area's topography would be after the water level rose 30 or 40 meters.

Every year, Mr. Clement, who also painted astronomical and science fiction art under the name George Richard, attended dozens of science fiction conventions with names like Armadillocon, Albocon, and Con*Cept.

In 1998, he was named Grand Master at the Nebula Awards ceremony at the convention of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Harry Clement Stubbs was born in Somerville. His interest in science and science fiction was kindled at age 8 by a Buck Rogers comic strip about a space ship en route to Mars. His father, an accountant, was unable to answer his scientific questions, so he took his son to the Arlington Public Library, which the boy left with an astronomy book under one arm and Jules Verne's story of a voyage, "From the Earth to the Moon," under the other.

Mr. Clement said his writing was a natural extension of his storytelling around campfires as a Boy Scout.

His first story, "Proof," appeared in print in the June 1942 issue of Astounding Stories Magazine, when he was a sophomore at Harvard. He was paid $65.

"Tuition at that time was $400," Mr. Clement said in an interview for an article published in The Patriot Ledger in 1971. "That story meant a lot to me."

After earning a degree in astronomy at Harvard in 1943, he served in the US Army Air Corps as a pilot and copilot of B-24 bombers during World War II. He wrote short stories between combat missions.

After the war, studying on the GI Bill, he earned a master's degree in education at Boston University. He earned a master's degree in chemistry at Simmons College in 1963.

Mr. Clement wrote in a converted garage at the rear of his Milton home; his walls were decorated with otherworldly creatures from his stories.

"Other writers would read him and say, `My God, how did he do this?' " Burstein said. "He was a writer's writer; writers read him to become better."

He leaves his wife Mary E. (Myers); two sons, George Clement Stubbs of Melrose and Richard Myers Stubbs of Virginia; a daughter, Christine Hensel of Ohio; and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held tomorrow at 10 a.m. in St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Milton. Burial is private.

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