Needle by Hal ClementNovember 18, 2010
The Book: Needle by Hal Clement. Originally published in 1949 for Astounding Science Fiction then as a novel in 1950, the edition read was published by Avon in 1967.
The Setting: Earth, a secluded tropical island.
The Story: An alien, gelatinous detective pursues an alien, gelatinous criminal. They both crash land on Earth. The detective takes up residence inside (yes, inside) of Bob, a teenager on a tropical island. Bob heads back to prep school in New England the next day, making it hard for the detective to chase his quarry. The story follows Bob and the detective as they get to know each other and work together to solve the mystery! Which sounds totally lame when I write it like that, but there’s a lot of danger and boat repair, too.
The Science: This book is jam packed with interesting scientific ideas. My favorite is the one which makes up the backdrop for most of the action. Making oil using bacteria/microbes/germs/something tiny like that.
Clement sets the book on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. The island is populated because it is used for (presumably experimental) oil production. Enormous vats are built to house some sort of ‘bug’ or germ which eats, apparently, anything and excretes petroleum. The vats are so effective that they produce enough for the 600-odd people on the island, as well as for a tanker to come by on a weekly basis. I mean, that’s a pretty awesome idea for 1949.
It was in 1949 when M. King Hubbert published an article which suggested the world would, someday run out of oil. But it was well before the modern era of energy crises. For Clement to make a leap from that (presuming he read the article) to some kind of bio-diesel production is really fantastic. What’s more, the method he imagined is, more or less, coming to pass. A search for “bacteria producing oil” turns up lots of research and news articles from the past five years. I guess the future is here.
The Reaction: I am impressed as hell. Clement was a scientist, and being up on his contemporary literature clearly informed his work. The story is good – there are some things I’d like to know more about, but the basic detective structure of the second half of the book? Very nice. I was definitely trying to solve the mystery as I was reading and I missed it, even though the clues are right there in the story. I heartily recommend this book.
The Cover: Cover art by Hector Garrido. Oh man, the cover. I kind of hate it, but my husband kind of loves it. It’s a weird angle of some kid with a wan looking flying spaghetti monster hovering around his head. Which, on a story level, works. But on an awesome retro cover level, fails miserably. It’s definitely in the vibe of mid-1960s horror/suspense idea, but sadly lacking in ray guns.
Next Up: The Big Eye by Max Ehrlich.