Needle, and Through The Eye Of A Needle, by Hal Clement – book reviews by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Dear Patch; Here is my review of Needle and Through the Eye of a Needle by Hal Clement that I wrote for Cubist’s Anthro several years ago.  Maybe only one fan in a hundred will take the trouble to track these down, but they’ll probably be glad if they do.  Another way of looking at it is that Dogpatch Press will have the only mention of these proto-furry books before there was a furry fiction genre.

Needle, by Hal Clement.
Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Company, March 1950, hardcover $2.50 (222 pages).

NEEDL1950Hal Clement, whose real name was Harry Clement Stubbs (1922-2003), often told of how he wrote Needle as the result of a dare. John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the most prestigious s-f magazine in the 1940s, was given to making lofty pronouncements that were understood by his writers to be dares to disprove them. On one occasion, Campbell had said that it was impossible to write a genuine science-fictional mystery story. Any such would turn out to be a standard mystery with s-f trappings, such as being set in the future or around a superscientific macguffin; but stripped of those elements, it would turn out to be just a standard mystery. Clement wrote Needle, which Campbell conceded was a genuine mystery that could only exist as also a genuine s-f story. Campbell bought it as a two-part serial for Astounding in its May and June 1949 issues.

Needle begins with two spaceships streaking toward Earth. Their alien occupants are, for the reader’s benefit, referred to as the Hunter and the Quarry. They are a jellylike or amoeboid lifeform, used to living inside a larger lifeform in a symbiotic relationship:

“The Hunter was a metazoon – a many-celled creature, like a bird or man – in spite of his apparent lack of structure. The individual cells of his body, however, were far smaller than those of most earthly creatures, comparing in size with the largest protein molecules. It was possible for him to construct from his tissues a limb, complete with muscles and sensory nerves, the whole structure fine enough to probe through the capillaries of a more orthodox creature without interfering seriously with its blood circulation. He had, therefore, no difficulty in insinuating himself into the shark’s relatively huge body.” (p. 15)

The Hunter’s people live within the bodies of animals called perits in a symbiotic relationship evolved on their world over eons. By themselves they look rather like jellyfish, and the Hunter briefly impersonates one on Earth. The metazoons provide the intelligent direction and the perits provide the physical mobility. When the Hunter’s spaceship, pursuing the Quarry, crashes into the South Pacific Ocean, his perit is killed and he is forced to move into an Earth host body:

“The Hunter’s attitude toward the animal [perit] resembled that of a man toward a favorite dog, though the perit, with its delicate hands which it had learned to use at his direction much as an elephant uses its trunk at the behest of man, was more useful than any dog.” (p. 12)

The Hunter is a policeman of his people, and the Quarry is a fleeing criminal. Since the Hunter’s crash into the South Pacific Ocean completely destroyed his spaceship and killed his perit, he assumes that the same thing happened to the Quarry’s spaceship and perit. Both have to find new bodies for themselves. After some experimentation, the Hunter settles into the body of Bob Kinnaird, a teenager living on an unnamed small Pacific island near Tahiti. The Quarry has presumably also chosen a nearby human host. The island is wholly run by an American company that uses its fast-growing weeds as fodder-plants in large culture tanks to make hydrocarbon fuels. The Hunter has to find and subdue the Quarry before his host can leave the island, and the Quarry can escape into the billions of humans all over Earth.

After several weeks of living within Bob Kinnaird’s body, during which the boy travels to boarding school in Massachusetts, the Hunter contacts him and reveals himself. This is probably Needle’s most memorable scene. Bob is an incredibly friendly host once he finishes freaking out over an intelligent virus or giant amoeba living inside his body, and he agrees to help the Hunter find the Quarry. Clement skillfully returns them to the island without making the transition seem contrived, and the last over-half of Needle consists of the Hunter and Bob investigating around the island like Holmes and Watson.

They are both helped and hindered by their restriction against any test that might be dangerous to the suspect. Do nothing that can harm your host is an absolute law among the Hunter’s people; it is for casually abusing and endangering his hosts that the Quarry has been outlawed. The odds are that the Quarry has been relaxing inside some unknowing host, probably human. They must find him before he moves on.

“‘That is, if he is ashore yet. All right, we’ll devote most of our attention to people. It’s just as well, I guess; we have a needle in a haystack as it is.’ The Hunter was familiar with Bob’s expression from his reading.

‘That describes it well, except that the needle is camouflaged as a wisp of hay,’ was his answering comment.” (p. 57)

“‘Bob, have you thought about how we are going to catch this being? I never answered your question before.’

‘I was wondering, when you didn’t. You people are so queer – to me, that is – that I decided you must be able to smell him out or something. You certainly can’t see him if he’s like you. Do you have some sort of gadget that will find him for you?’

‘Don’t rub it in.’ The Hunter did not explain his phrase. ‘I have no apparatus whatever. This is your planet; how would you go about it?’

Bob pondered for a few moments. ‘If you actually go into a body, I suppose you can tell if there’s another of your people there.’ This was more a statement than a question, but the Hunter made the brief sign which Bob had come to accept as an affirmative. ‘How long would such a search take? Could you get through the skin far enough while I was shaking hands with someone, say?’

‘No. It takes many minutes to enter a body like yours without giving warning. The openings in your skin are large, but my body is much larger. If you let go of the other person’s hand while I was still partly in both bodies, it would be very embarrassing for all concerned. If I left you entirely and worked at night while people were asleep, I suppose I could cover the whole island eventually; but I would be very much restricted in speed, and would be in an extremely awkward position when I found him. I will undoubtedly have to make the final check that way, but I should very much like to be pretty sure of my ground before testing anyone. I still want your ideas.’” (pgs. 77-78)

Needle may be unique in showing an equal social partnership between a human and an intelligent virus/amoeba. The novel was an instant classic, and was one of the first s-f magazine novels reprinted in hardcover form. It was reprinted a half-dozen times in the U.S. alone as a paperback through the 1970s, as Needle or as From Outer Space. (It was common during the first three decades of paperbacks for publishers to give reprints new titles to try to pass them off as new novels.)

Through the Eye of a Needle, by Hal Clement. Map by Bob Porter.
NYC, Ballantine/del Rey Books, June 1978, paperback 0-345-25850-9 $1.75 (x + 197 pages).

THRGHTHFND1978AClement finally wrote Through the Eye of a Needle (cover by H. R. van Dongen) almost thirty years later. The unnamed island is now Ell Island, named for its L-shape, and the small amoeboid Hunter is specified as “four pounds of jelly distributed throughout the man’s [Bob’s] body cavities”. (p. 2) The Hunter, stranded on Earth, has continued to live inside Bob with the latter’s permission. The island is run by Pacific Fuels, Incorporated to manufacture biofuels. “… and the population of the island had been climbing. It had been about one hundred and seventy when the Hunter had first come ashore on Ell nearly eight years before, after his crash in the ocean outside the reef; now, both he and his host knew, it was about fifty greater.” (p. 5) Bob’s parents and the island’s doctor have known about the Hunter since the end of Needle. Bob, now entering his twenties, has just returned because he has graduated from boarding school and college on the mainland. But the real reason is that he is slowly dying – and the Hunter is killing him.

“‘You’re not just tired, are you, Bob? There’s something more serious.’

‘I’m afraid so, Mom,’ was the answer. ‘I don’t know just how serious – it might drag on for a long time, but it wouldn’t be very smart to count on that. This actually started before I was home two years ago. It wasn’t very bad then, and it didn’t seem a good idea to worry either you or Doc Seever with it, but it’s been getting worse ever since, and something really has to be done about it now.’” (p. 17)

To summarize several pages of dialogue, Bob’s body is rejecting the alien symbiont but is not strong enough to resume living without him:

“‘In a way,’ Bob went on, ‘I’m a sort of addict of my symbiont. It’s not just the immunity thing, now. Other parts of my personal chemistry keep going haywire every few months. Sometimes the Hunter can spot the actual cause and do something about it, sometimes he has to use his own abilities in a way not really related to my own body’s handling of the same problem – for example, the way he handles infection by consuming the organisms responsible instead of chemical neutralization.” (pgs. 19-20)

This is also a potential disaster for the Hunter. How will he survive when Bob finally dies? With his ingrained repugnance against harming his hosts, he cannot simply transfer to another body now that he knows that he is ultimately deadly to any Earth lifeform.

The Hunter’s people, an interstellar civilization, are used to encountering new lifeforms and solving any biological incompatibility issues. But the Hunter is a detective, not a medical specialist. Bob and the Hunter decide that their only hope is if others of the Hunter’s people have followed him and are exploring Earth to find him or the Quarry, and to contact them. Complications are that PFI, although a benevolent company, expects Bob to work for it for several years in return for its having put him through college; Bob’s annoying little sister Silly (Daphne) insists on following him everywhere; and that Doc’s teenage daughter Jenny is dropping Mysterious Hints that show she somehow suspects something.

Doc Seever summarizes:

“‘As I see it, you two want to find one or both of those spaceships, or their remains, as a step toward getting in touch with some of the Hunter’s people who may or may not be on Earth, in the hope that they can solve, or get hold of someone else who can solve, Bob’s medical difficulties, assuming they can be solved. Pretty iffy. We are hoping they can be, that they’re actually on Earth, and that finding the ships will help you find the people. I won’t ask pardon for the loose pronouns, you know what I mean.   My job is to keep you functioning, and, if possible, free part of the time – holding the juggler’s plates in the air, as the Hunter so aptly puts it – until all this is accomplished.” (pgs. 32-33)

Where Needle was about the Hunter and Bob alone searching for the Quarry, Through the Eye of a Needle has a small team of Bob and the Hunter, Doc Seever and his daughter Jennny, Bob’s little sister Daphne, and another young islander, Maeta Teroa, looking for the evaluation team from the Hunter’s homeworld that they hope has followed him to Earth. Their search is complicated further when their equipment starts to be sabotaged, and Bob is stabbed. Have they become the target of island juvenile delinquents, some human with an unknown reason to stop the group, or is the Quarry still alive?

Needle and Through the Eye of a Needle can’t really be called Furry, but they feature a strong anthropomorphic very non-human character. The Hunter comes out of Bob much more in the sequel, and is present in the team as four pounds of amorphous greenish jelly.

– Fred Patten