Saturday, February 9, 2008

Hal Clement's "Needle" aka "From Outer Space" (novel, science fiction): Life on an idyll corral island in tropical Pacific

Quote from the novel titled Needle by Hal ClementThis book marks a departure from all Clement stories I've read:

  1. It's likely to be accessible to a broad range of readers - not just those with science background in school. Caveat: I have science background, & may not be the best person to judge this accessibility!
  2. It's not set on an exotic world. Much of the story is set on an island in the Pacific - somewhere not far from Tahiti.
Ostensibly, it's a detective story - a criminal on the run is to be nabbed by a cop. But that part of the plot is rather lame. It's better looked at as a general interest story about life on a tropical island.

I suppose you could call this story a juvenile, since much of the plot involves activities of a teenager.

I found the middle third rather slow moving. Not boring while I was reading, but I had to make an effort to pick up the book. After that the story picked up.

Certainly not the best of Clement, but not bad either.

The island.

I don't recall if the name of the island is mentioned.

Author doesn't say it, but it sounded like the island is under US administrative jurisdiction. Very low population - less than 150 families. Main occupation - bio-fuel making; they grow the shrubs, & extract oil from them.

It's a very small island. Dimensions only a few miles along any direction.

The cop & the fugitive.

Now this part is colorful, but it only complicated the story for me.

Cop is called "Hunter"; fugitive is unnamed. Both are parasitic shape-shifting aliens.

They are from an unnamed world where they have been living in symbiotic relationship with another race of intelligent beings. A host lets them live inside his body; in return, they protect the host from harmful microbes, sometimes from accidents, & they also serve as kind of first aid kit for the host in case of physical injury.

Over the course of evolution, they've grown an instinct that is almost sacred scripture - "Do nothing that can harm your host!" Criminal on the run apparently did this; that is why Hunter is chasing him.

They crash on earth - in shallow waters near this island, & in the vicinity of each other. Their ships are damaged beyond repair, but both of them escaped unharmed. At least Hunter was traveling inside its not-normal host - a kind of dog creature of his world called "perit". This host will die on crash. We don't know anything about the traveling host of fugitive.

They figure earth is a lot like their home; they can even eat local food & infect local animals with themselves. Hunter will invade a shark to reach shore & end up killing the shark. Its preferred host is an intelligent creature - since that offers the best chance of survival. After some drama, it will infest 14 year old Robert Kinnaird when he is sleeping on the beach.

Robert/Hunter duo are effectively the heroes of the story.

By themselves, each of these aliens look like a blob of jelly slightly bigger than the size of an average adult human's brain. Yet each is at least as intellectually competent as a human. And their tissue is multi-purpose; e.g., they can create a tentacle & construct an eye at the other end of it at will!

We are given a lot of details about them. The important thing is - they can enter a human through normal pores in our skin, distribute themselves throughout the body in the form of thin tentacles, take whatever food or oxygen they need from host, modify human sensory organs or tap them - so they can sense the world, etc. And, of course, they can communicate with host via normal senses as well as by signaling via specific muscles.

Story summary.

After infecting Robert with himself, Hunter is lying dormant for a while - just studying the insides of the host. Unfortunately for Hunter, Robert studies in a boarding school in far off Massachusetts, & will actually leave the island the next day. Hunter will discover this during the long flight.

During the half term in school, Hunter will quietly learn all it can about human body chemistry, English language, & about our world. Then it will slowly reveal itself to host - initially making the boy panic; they will slowly become friendly. They will conspire to get Robert sent home immediately rather than waiting for remaining half term to end; & will succeed in an unexpected way. That's may be first quarter or a third of the story.

They go back to island. About half year has lapsed since landing, & fugitive could have been anywhere on earth, inside any animal. This hunt is the lame part - they will not only find the fugitive on the island & kill it, they'll find it in a rather obvious host for this kind of story!

Title of the story comes from this hunt - even identifying the animal that is host to fugitive is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The interesting parts of narrative are where Robert with his many friends go through their daily boyish routines - we are shown the island, places around it, boat repair, boating around the island, ...


  1. All stories by Hal Clement.

Fact sheet.

"Needle", novel, review
Alternative title: "From Outer Space"
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, May/June 1949.
Rating: B