Thriller-Fixing Symbiont From One other World: Needle by Hal Clement
In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Hal Clement is one of my favorite science fiction authors, and the first novel I ever read by him was Needle, the story of the Hunter, an alien detective who chases a criminal to the backwards world of Earth. Both of them are symbionts, and the challenge for the detective is to find his adversary, who could be hiding in anyone on the planet; not merely searching for a needle in a haystack, but a needle in billions of haystacks. Its straightforward plot and the fact that the host for the Hunter is the young boy, Robert, made it a perfect starting point for a young reader.
Needle was Clement’s first published novel, serialized in Astounding in May to June 1949 and collected in book form in 1950. Unlike many stories of alien parasites during that era, which played on feelings of paranoia (consider “Who Goes There?” from John Campbell in 1938, The Puppet Masters from Robert A Heinlein in 1951, and The Body Snatchers from Jack Finney in 1954), Needle portrayed the alien as a positive companion for its host, who entered into a relationship of symbiosis. There is an informative entry on this topic from the on-line Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entitled “Parasitism and Symbiosis.”
When I decided to review Needle, I found two copies of the book in my basement. The first was a tattered copy published in 1969 by Lancer Books, a short-lived science fiction imprint best known for reprinting the Conan stories, and for dyeing their page edges with purple ink. The cover was by Kelly Freas, his approach a bit more serious than usual, with the face of a boy in pain surrounded by organic tendrils with multiple eyes peeking from among them. The cover price was seventy-five cents, from the days when inflation was beginning to increase the prices of my beloved science fiction novels and comic books, and I took on a paper route to keep buying them. The second copy was from an Avon printing that I purchased at a convention so I could get it signed. It is autographed as “Hal Clement” (Harry C. Stubbs) on the title page.
I had a very different experience reading the book when I was a teen as compared to reading it now, after more than 50 years. In my youth, I took things at face value, and didn’t consider the possibility that the Hunter might be lying to Robert (who goes by “Bob”) until it was raised in the text. The setting where Bob lives—an industrialized tropical island—was far more interesting to me as an adult than as a youth. The first time through I was more focused in the adventure and the perspective of young Bob, while my older self was fascinated by the Hunter’s viewpoint. During this most recent reading I paid more attention to the style of the prose, which is generally plain and straightforward. The book is written in the third person, with the viewpoint shifting between the symbiote Hunter, Bob, and omniscient narration, sometimes within the space of just a few sentences, which could sometimes be disconcerting.
About the Author
Harry Clement Stubbs (1922-2003), who wrote under the name of Hal Clement, was one of the most accomplished writers of what is now called hard science fiction. I previously looked at Hal Clement’s novel Mission of Gravity here. That review contains biographical information and a description of meeting him at conventions, where I saw him moderate worldbuilding panels, an experience that fans can sadly no longer experience. For another perspective on Hal Clement’s work, you can look here, a link to an excellent recent Tor.com column by James Davis Nicoll that looks at five different Hal Clement novels. Until I was researching this article, I did not realize there was a sequel to Needle, but Clement wrote one entitled Through the Eye of a Needle in 1978. There are a few examples of Hal Clement’s work you can read for free on Project Gutenberg.
Mysteries and Science Fiction
Reading the mystery story Needle again reminded me of the anecdote sometimes bandied about in which Astounding editor John Campbell told Isaac Asimov that mystery stories were incompatible with science fiction. While there were plenty of cops and robbers in science fiction right from the start, they appeared primarily in stories driven by adventure. Mystery stories require a more thoughtful approach. While their success depends on surprising readers at the end, all the elements required to solve the mystery must be present in the story at one point or another, to prevent the readers from feeling cheated by an answer that came straight out of the blue. Science fiction, with its advanced gadgets, time travel, teleportation, telepathy, and other elements, could easily undercut the classic mystery story structure.
But when I started poking around the internet to find the provenance of my tale, I was frustrated by a lack of a definitive accounting until I finally came upon an article in the January 2018 issue of Clarkesworld, “Why Science Fiction Detective Stories Aren’t Impossible” by Mark Cole. It turns out Asimov never admitted exactly who told him that mysteries and science fiction and were incompatible, although he went on to say that the challenge to disprove this theory led to his two robot detective novels The Caves of Steel (which appeared in Galaxy in 1953) and The Naked Sun (which appeared in Astounding in 1956).
It turns out that Campbell had told Clement his thoughts on mysteries and science fiction, a fact confirmed in correspondence between the two. And it was Clement, with Needle in 1949, who first delivered to Campbell a science fiction mystery that proved the famous editor wrong, and was deemed worthy of publication. So, while Asimov is famous for writing some pioneering science fiction mystery stories, in this case, Clement beat him to the punch.
Ironically, it was Campbell’s house style for Astounding that helped undermine his own theory. The rigor Campbell expected from his authors, with science being consistent and plausible, made application of the standard mystery structure possible, avoiding surprises that would undermine the endings. And before long, more and more authors were writing mysteries in science fiction settings. In 1952, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man was serialized in Galaxy, and presented a murder mystery set in a world where telepathic powers were common. Randall Garrett, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, introduced readers to the alternate world of his Lord D’Arcy detective series, where magic was treated as a science, showing that even fantastic settings can exhibit enough rigor to make mystery stories satisfying. And over the years, mystery stories have continued to carve out space in the science fiction and fantasy genres, to the point where no one even gives them a second thought. If you are interested in reading more on the topic, there is an excellent article in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entitled Crime and Punishment.
The alien detective, known as the Hunter, is in hot pursuit of a fugitive referred to as the Criminal (their species does not use names as ours does), following him into the shadow of the Earth so closely that by the time he realizes his opponent’s craft is on a crash course with the planet, it is too late to avoid crashing himself. The Hunter finds himself in a wrecked and sinking craft with his host creature dead, and escapes into the water. (Clement refers to the symbionts as “he” even though their reproduction does not appear to involve different sexes.) His body, four pounds of a jelly-like mass, is at risk without a host, so he enters the first likely candidate, a shark. During his attempts to merge with the shark, it is caught up in the surf and washes ashore, and begins to die. Soon some bipeds appear, and after playing around on the beach, lie down to take a nap. The Hunter flows through the soil and into the body of one of them, a young boy named Robert Kinaird.
Constrained by the instinct of his people never to harm their host, he insinuates himself into the boy’s organs, tapping them for oxygen and nourishment, and also for sensory information. But before he can adapt to his new situation, Bob is loaded onto an airplane to be flown to boarding school, half a world away from where the fugitive Criminal is hiding.
The Hunter’s next objective is to establish communication with his host and enlist him in his efforts. The school proves to be a useful setting for learning Bob’s language and gaining knowledge about the world the Hunter is stranded in. The first attempt to establish communication is disastrous, and results in Bob panicking and injuring himself—an injury that would have been far worse had the Hunter not intervened to staunch the bleeding. Then the Hunter leaves Bob’s body one night, and writes a note with a pencil lead, showing how powerless he is outside his host. Bob quickly adapts to his visitor, and soon realizes that having a symbiont has its advantages. To communicate, the Hunter projects images onto Bob’s retinas, while Bob learns to subvocalize to communicate privately with the Hunter. Once Bob learns of the Hunter’s mission, he plots with him to feign illness so they can return home to the coral island near Tahiti where Bob’s family lives. It is fortunate that is an isolated island, as otherwise, the Criminal could easily disappear into humanity’s billions. As it turns out, no feigning of illness is necessary—Bob has been disinterested in class, withdrawn from his friends, and is constantly muttering to himself, without realizing the oddness of his recent behavior. The school administration, suspecting some sort of psychological distress, decides to send him home.
Upon their return, Clement spends a good amount of time describing the industry supported by the island. In keeping with 20th century concerns that oil reserves were running out, he describes the lagoon of the coral atoll being filled with giant concrete tanks where engineered vegetation from the island is fed into germ cultures, producing a full range of petroleum products. Clement shows his enthusiasm as a chemistry teacher in these sections. While I glossed over them as a youngster, I found them quite interesting as an adult, even though it now appears that moving beyond petroleum is far more desirable than finding ways to increase our supplies (especially when it involves industrializing tropical islands).
And here the mystery story really kicks in, as Bob’s friends, who often sleep on the beach, are the most obvious hosts for the Criminal. Bob wisely decides to reveal his situation to the island’s doctor, who adapts to the idea of an alien symbiote almost as quickly as Bob did, especially when he sees how the Hunter helps Bob heal a serious wound. We get an interesting glimpse of life on a small island, although the characters are fairly generic and sometimes difficult to tell apart. But there are plenty of boyhood adventures to experience, and the story holds our interest as Bob, the Hunter, and the doctor work through the possible hosts, leading to an eventual discovery and a risky effort to separate host and symbiote. It all comes to a satisfying conclusion, although I will leave the details by the wayside, as I don’t want to spoil the ending. I definitely recommend this story to others, as it is still worth reading even after all these years.
Needle was one of my favorite books as a boy, and it held up well during re-reading. Like many books of its time, it is overwhelmingly filled with male characters, and I’m not sure turning tropical islands into petrochemical facilities is a positive alternative to drilling for oil, but there is not much about the story that has been overtaken and made obsolete by history during the seventy years since it was written, which is a rare achievement.
And now I turn the floor over to you: If you’ve read Needle, or the other works by Hal Clement, what are your thoughts on his writing? And what other mystery stories in a science fiction or fantasy setting have you enjoyed?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.