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

(Cover by Chesley Bonestell. Astounding, June 1949.)

Who Goes There?

While not the first author to write what we’d call hard SF, Hal Clement, more than any other, codified this particular mode of writing. Making his debut in 1942 when he was still in his teens, not to mention an undergraduate, Clement helped introduce a degree of science-fictional hardness that previously was rarely seen, and was not considered part of some greater collective effort to put the science in science fiction. It’s about as hard-headed as you can get, and yet there’s also an undeniable joy in Clement’s writing—more specifically how eager he is to build and explore eccentric planets and alien races. He was not the first planet builder, but he was arguably the best of his generation to do this. Mission of Gravity and other stories set in that continuity alone would’ve cemented his legacy, but Clement kept writing reliably (if not prolifically) until his death in 2003.

Needle was Clement’s debut novel; while he had been active in the field for half a dozen years at this point, he would’ve only been about 26 when he wrote it. It was the first in a series of rapid-fire novels for Clement, being followed in only a few years by Iceworld and his most famous work, Mission of Gravity. A criticism (positive or negative) often made about Clement is that he seems far more invested in making rounded characters out of his aliens than his humans, and this certainly remains the case with Needle. Despite involving a teen boy as his partner in crime-solving, the hero and the character most worthy of our empathy is a four-pound blob that can barely get around on his own.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the June 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Did you know that Needle was up for the Retro Hugo for Best Novel of 1950, but was withdrawn on the grounds that it was first published (albeit in abridged form) the previous year? Anyway, your best bet at finding the book version outside of used bookshops is to pick up the omnibus The Essential Hal Clement Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter, which contains Iceworld and Close to Critical.

Enhancing Image

We had spent the back end of Part 1 off the island and on the mainland, where Bob goes to school, but now we’re back home. Bob’s father had apparently called him to return home early; up to this point we had not gotten a single word out of the father, but now he’s gonna be an actual cjharacter alongside Bob’s mother, though let’s not make a mistake here and act like these are complex characters.

If Part 1 showed Clement in his element, the concluding installment forces him to write about the thing he’s the least interested in: other people. Not that Bob was a Shakespearean figure before this, but it’s when we’re introduced to the father and more of Bob’s friends that we realize that the island setting might be even more isolated than previously thought. While the friendship between Bob and the Hunter feels earned enough, this is the only character relationship in the novel to feel even close to organic—not that there’s much in the way of competition. Much of the interest here comes from the Hunter’s paternalistic relationship with his host, the latter being just old enough to understand the mechanics of the situation but still too immature to probably act responsibly on his own. The Hunter’s role as a parental figure has deepened, made more profound by the fact that Bob’s parents are pretty relaxed folks.

This is especially true when it comes to injuries, and doubly so now that Bob is aware that he has an alien that can heal wounds up to a point onboard. Take the following, for example:

The alien, unlike his host, was able to see one good point in connection with the mishap; it might cure the boy of the unfortunate tendency he had been developing, of leaving the care of his body to the Hunter. The latter said nothing of the sort, of course—it might have been taken amiss, as Bob lay awake that night trying to keep as much of himself as possible out of contact with the sheets. He had not been so careless for years, and was inclined to blame it on his coming home at such an odd time. The Hunter did not dispute the matter. He could not have eliminated the pain without the risk of permanent damage to Bob’s sensory nerves, and probably would not have done so anyway.

Truth be told there’s not much more to say here without getting into spoilers, since this is the installment where we finally find out where the hell the fugitive could be hiding. To Clement’s credit he clearly did his homework and he’s putting a great deal of effort into making the mystery challenging from a scientific angle. There’s no easy fix for the Hunter finding the fugitive and even communicating with Bob proves a challenge, although not to put too find a point on it, but the reveal still comes too easily. Again, I wanna be fair here since crossing SF with mystery was all but unheard of at this point in the former’s history and Clement was sailing waters that basically had not been charted. I don’t blame him either for the very matter-of-fact prose style, which is typical of Clement but also goes a long way to give the proceedings a sense of realisim; if it seems too stoic and inelegant that’s still preferrable over being unnecessarily overblown.

There Be Spoilers Here

After trying and failing to find the culprit among Bob’s friends, the Hunter ends up finding the culprit much closer to home—literally. After some rather odd remarks from Bob’s dad, the Hunter deduces correctly that the father, unbeknownst to himself, has become the host for the fugitive. This makes sense considering it would’ve been easiest for the fugitive to enter someone’s body while they’re unconscious, and the chances of getting the father to be fine with being host for a four-pound alien blob would be low. Is it convenient that the person containing the fugitive happens to live under the same roof as Our Heroes™? Absolutely, but there’s a lot of potential for having a parental figure (unknowingly) assist the villain—potential which sadly, though not unexpectedly, Clement fails to exploit.

Needle is a novel that starts off quite interesting and becomes marginally less so by the climax, and there are a few reasons for this. The first is that Astounding, while being the top SF magazine of the day, also had a puritanical streak, with stories being made squeaky clean for publication on the off chance there profanity in the manuscript. While Clement’s novel is deeply concerned with biology, the sexual side of the equation goes unacknowledged, with the result being that any attempt at a Freudian analysis would hit a road block. Because Bob gets to act like a perfectly rational (i.e., too rational) human being and because he and his dad don’t seem to have a strenuous relationship, there’s potential for drama with the latter being host to villain that goes unrealized.

It’s also totally possible that, had even the censors not kept an eye on him, Clement would’ve still gone the totally pragmatic route and put out a novel concerned with the surface mechanics of its scenario but not the very obvious psycho-sexual material at hand. Had this been written by Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard, the basic plot beats remaining the same, we would’ve gotten a radically different novel.

Anyway, Bob and the Hunter naturally find an ingenious solution to getting the fugitive to come out of the father’s body and kill him and all is well at the end, with Bob agreeing to keep Hunter as his symbiote since the latter, by his own admission, can’t leave Earth. Killing the fugitive rather than arresting him sounds a bit cruel, but then arresting is not an option when you’re lightyears from home and thus you can’t bring the criminal to any prison belonging to your race. Something I like about the one scene we get of the fugitive talking is that much is implied in his dialogue with the Hunter but there are gaps in their history that are left deliberately unfilled. We knew already that the fugitive is not to be trusted, but it’s only here that we get it from the horse’s mouth, with the fugitive admitting to having betrayed previous hosts for personal gain.

Clement intelligently hints at a whole alien civilization while only letting us see two of its inhabitants, letting us imagine for ourselves what this society of aliens biologically wholly different from humans (they’re technically viruses, going by the definition Clement gives us) might look like. It’s a shame then that he does not care as much about making the human setting come to life, despite the novelty of a tropical SF story from this era.

A Step Farther Out

I would say I was disappointed, but I did have my expectations in check. I’m tempted to say that the lack of development with the human characters was due to length, but this is par for the course with Clement: his aliens are always more interesting than his humans. Whereas someone like Philip K. Dick would’ve taken this premise in a darker direction, diving more into psychological intrigue, Clement is content to use the reveal simply as a convenient out for Our Hero™, sadly neglecting how thematically ripe the material is. We still get a curious mashup of cold-blooded science fiction and a detective looking for a malevolent blob that doesn’t wanna be found. I haven’t read too many mysteries in my time, but I tend to find the first half—the setup—more gripping than the payoff, which might just be the nature of the genre. Not that the conclusion to a mystery being a letdown is too big a mark against this short novel or any of its ilk; it’s just that the mystery is often so much better than the mystery being solved.

See you next time.


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