Serial Review: Needle by Hal Clement (Part 1/2)

(Cover by Paul Orban. Astounding, May 1949.)

Who Goes There?

There’s been an ongoing debate over the decades as to hard SF’s place in the context of SF literature, and even the basic question of what hard SF is. Now, I’m just a lay reader; I don’t have a degree in the hard sciences. I took a chemistry course in college that I’ve basically forgotten everything about. I do, however, feel confident in giving a succinct and easily understandable definition for hard SF that will hopefully mellow the conversation: hard SF is Hal Clement. Now remembered as a writer (he also did painting on the side), Clement was a trained astronomer and chemist who seemed eager (to the point of obsession) to convey his love for the wonders of the natural world to the rest of us mortals. Most famously with Mission of Gravity but palpable in so much of his work is this sense of a clockmaker or a sculptor who never tires of the delicate mechanics of his craft. Clement was what we might call a planet builder, and he was one of the best.

Clement’s career is also one of the longest of any SF author, although except for a bright period in the ’50s he was never too prolific. He debuted with the short story “Proof” in 1942, written when he was still a teenager, and his final SF work, the novel Noise, was published in 2003—the year of his death. From beginning to end he kept the faith, demonstrating that it was possible to extract artistry from the intricacies of physics and chemistry. More than any other figure (despite some being more popular), Hal Clement is the grand architect of hard SF. Our understanding of hard SF as fiction which puts roughly equal emphasis on both science and fiction goes back to Clement. To crib a line from James Nicholl, in his article on the Ballantine slash Del Rey Best Of series, “Current exoplanet research suggests that we are living in a Hal Clement universe.”

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the May 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. A word of warning: a scanning error on a specific page it’s page 26 renders a handful of words therein illegible, which left me feeling cheated slightly. Apparently this same scan is on Luminist, which means that, as far as I know, there’s no scan of this issue available online that does not have this problem. Anyway, from what I understand the serial version of Needle is arguably novella-length; Clement would expand Needle for book publication, although I can’t imagine he could’ve added that much material. Used paperback editions are not hard to find, although if you want something in print and a little fancy then go with The Essential Hal Clement Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule & Typewriter, which collects Needle along with Iceworld and Close to Critical.

Enhancing Image

We start with a spaceship chase that quickly becomes earthbound. An alien police officer known only as the Hunter is after a fugitive, a member of his own species, when both ships crash land on Earth—and on a rather specific part of Earth, too. The Hunter is a blob-like semi-liquid alien that’s also, technically, a parasite, albeit a symbiotic one; the Hunter survives the crash but his alien host does not. Upon leaving the ship the Hunter finds himself in our ocean, not too far from shore, which is where we get the inspiration for both the cover and the first interior, involving an unlucky hammerhead shark that mistakes the Hunter for food. The Hunter at first tries taking on the shark as a host, finding a) the shark is a predator who is trying (unsuccessfully) to devour him, and b) the shark is of markedly low intelligence (apparently the symbiotes are used to taking sentient beings as hosts), the Hunter thinks it best and only fair game to leave the shark for dead once he’s able to get it to beach itself.

A few things immediately stood out to me. The narrative is third-person and sort of omniscient, but also totally from the Hunter’s perspective. The decision to make the hero of the story both an alien and non-humanoid must’ve also been a rare decision in those days, especially in the pages of Astounding; but don’t worry, there’s still some human chauvinism thrown in once the Hunter acquires his human host—more on that later. Another is the tropical setting. I don’t think we’re ever told specifically where this is set, but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be Hawaii, in the late ’40s when Hawaii was a US territory but not a state yet. This would also be taking place presumably a few years after the end of World War II, although the war never gets brought up directly. Finally, as is often noted when people review this novel, this is, if not the first then one of the first attempts to wed science fiction with a good old-fashioned mystery.

A common criticism (or at least it used to be a criticism) of SF-mystery is that the author can pull anything out of their ass in order for the mystery to be solved conveniently, not to mention that in a futuristic setting there would be a wide arsenal of tools the protagonist can use to solve the mystery. At least with for the latter Needle presents no such issue; while the Hunter is an alien, he has to make due with what was then modern Earth technology and the cooperation of a human who, on top of being a teenager, might not be keen on letting an alien slime ball inhabit his body. The Hunter and the fugitive are also on about the same playing field since they’re both symbiotes who both crashed in the same area, and both ideally want a host of high intelligence and mobility, in which case humans would be the only good option. Of course, finding someone who could be inhabiting any given body would be like finding a needle in a haystack (hence the title, very clever), and even with the small island setting the Hunter has potentially dozens if not hundreds of people who could be hosts for the fugitive.

You may be thinking to yourself: “Wait, an alien policeman goes after another alien that has crash landed in Hawaii, a place conveniently surrounded by water, and the latter alien is able to blend in with the local population?” No, this is not Lilo & Stitch, this is something totally different.

Now, about that human host. The Hunter comes upon a bunch of teen boys hanging out on the beach, and one of them, Robert Kinnaird (Bob for short), is taking a nap while the others are distracted. What happens next is… interesting. The Hunter makes it clear both to us and later to Bob that a symbiote much prefers to take another’s body with the host’s knowledge and consent (there are indeed benefits to having a four-pound blob inside you, as we’ll see), but since the Hunter knows nothing of the local language and has enough common sense to figure that the boy would probably not just let him come inside (there should be a better way to phrase this), he takes the sneaky option. I don’t think Clement intended this, but the body horror potential of this whole ordeal is quite big. Take the following passage, in which the Hunter creeps into Bob’s body unbeknownst to the latter:

The boy was sound asleep, and remained so. The alien organism flowed smoothly along the bones and tendons in his foot and ankle; up within the muscle sheaths of calf and thigh; switched to the outer wall of the femoral artery and the tubelets within the structure of the thigh bones; around points, and along still other blood vessels. It filtered through the peritoneum without causing the least damage; and slowly the whole four pounds of matter accumulated in the abdominal cavity, not only without harming the boy in the least but without even disturbing his slumber. And there, for a few minutes, the Hunter rested.

Ech. This was meant for teenagers? Right, Needle is technically a juvenile, although as is often the case with juvenile SF from this period (see also Robert Heinlein’s juveniles) I struggle to believe it was aimed at such a young readership. Not that the prose is hard to get through. Clement’s style is… well, it’s not poetic; actually it’s the opposite of poetic. When people say they have a hard time getting into hard SF, especially the classics, because of the inelegance of the prose, they’re thinking of some variation on what Clement was doing, and to be fair he can be occasionally clunky, but I think far more often it works. The mix of the third-person narration and the Hunter’s running inner monologue reads almost like a script for a nature documentary, albeit one that David Attenborough would be pleased to narrate. Clement writes about the Hunter as if intelligent symbiotes from another planet were as real as hippos and alligators, something that always draws me to his writing even though the human characters, by comparison, feel like little more than abstractions.

Also unusually for a mystery, the Hunter does not immediately take advantage of Bob in order to find his adversary; actually he spends several months simply trying to understand human culture as filtered through Bob’s day-to-day life, along with making sure the boy doesn’t hurt himself too bad. A symbiote can, to some extent, heal the host’s body, but the importan thing for the Hunter is to make sure Bob stays mobile, so that when they finally do reach an understanding they’ll be able to venture out and see what they can do about the fugitive, who no doubt has similar plans. The curious result of the Hunter looking after Bob is that the former almost serves as a parental figure (mind you that we don’t even hear about Bob’s father until towards the end of Part 1), although it’d be more accurate to say he becomes Bob’s guardian angel. If Bob gets a bad cut then the Hunter can speed up the healing process, or at least quarantine the injury. But of course eventually Our Hero™ will have to make himself known to his human partner more directly, which concerns the back end of Part 1.

There Be Spoilers Here

The Hunter can do some things that would give Bob the impression of something being off about himself; he could make Bob trip balls mess with Bob’s vision and make it seem like he’s hallucinating, forming letters in the air in front of him. He could do things with Bob’s body that would certainly be unusual, unless there was a far-out explanation, like say, someone not strictly human being in contact with him. But the Hunter is, ultimately, little more than a lump of jelly who can’t even pick up a pencil without the host’s imput. He at least has used his time in Bob’s body to understand enough English (he becomes oddly fluent in it in five months, but that’s still more plausible than Frankenstein’s monster becoming a Shakespearean actor after eavesdropping on some random people), but not enough to understand the limits of the human physique. There’s only so much he can do.

One night the Hunter sneaks out of Bob (I don’t know if Clement understood the implications of what he was writing) and manages to write a note for him when he wakes up. Up to this point Bob was vaguely aware that something odd has been going on with him, and it’s not puberty—no matter how tempting it is to try to make that connection. While the revelation of Bob being in contact (and rather intimate roommates) with a symbiote can feel abrupt, at least by modern standards (no doubt Needle would be at least 300 pages long if written today), it’s not sudden. We have in fact, for most of Part 1, been building up to this moment—the moment when Our Alien Hero™ and his human partner make contact.

Bob wakes up to find this at his desk:

“Bob,” the note began—the Hunter did not yet fully realize that certain occasions call for more formal means of address—“these words apologize for the disturbance I caused you last night. I must speak to you; the twitching of muscles and catching of your voice were my attempts. I have not space here to tell who and where I am; but I can always hear you speak. If you are willing for me to try again, just say so. I will use the method you request; I can, if you relax, work your muscles as I did last night, or if you will look steadily at some fairly evenly illuminated object I can make shadow pictures in your own eyes. I will do anything else within my power to prove my words to you; but you must make the suggestions for such proofs. This is terribly important to both of us. Please let me try again.”

Bob, despite being a teenager, adjusts quickly enough to the fact that he can communicate with an alien that also happens to be living inside him. A little implausible? Maybe. Clement seems to go out of his way to prevent any chance of getting an allegorical or Freudian reading from the text, although some things seep through despite his best efforts. Bob is a good American high schooler who plays football in the fall while keeping an eye on his grades, and in typical Clement fashion as far as his human characters go Bob is perhaps too rational. No matter. Most of Part 1, and by extension about half the damn novel in its serial form, has been preoccupied with the Hunter getting his bearings straight rather than going after the fugitive, but now that the Hunter and his human have “found” each other, the game is now truly afoot. Still, how will they even hope to find that other symbiote, who after all can be hiding damn near anywhere? Stay tuned…

A Step Farther Out

This is… oddly cozy? There’s a mystery, sure, and a criminal to be captured, but the majority of Part 1 is just the Hunter trying to make sense of his surroundings and adjust accordingly’ in the process we find out a good deal about the biology of these blob-like aliens, and while we don’t find out much about their culture we do get to know how the Hunter and others like him interact (at least ideally) with their hosts. I’m of course thinking of Dax from Deep Space 9, who is also a symbiote, although the Hunter presumably can’t pass along memories between hosts. Bob is not exactly a unique character, being a pretty average teenage boy, but it’s how the Hunter tries to communicate with him (or even make himself known in the first place) that generates interest. I won’t be surprised if Clement ends up taking the easy way out with regards to how the hell the Hunter will be able to find the fugitive, but I’m willing to forgive that if he keeps up this level of intrigue and pseudo-documentary atmosphere. Despite taking place on Earth and evidently being aimed at a younger readership, I’m pretty stoked about this mixture of mystery and hard SF.

See you next time.


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