Needle by Hal Clement
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The concepts covered in this classic piece of hard science fiction are certainly worth thinking about, and the depiction of an alternate 1949 Earth where oil is grown rather than drilled for is compelling. But the real star of this story is the alien: Hunter is a unique character in science fiction. As a detective, he has a very specific skillset -- but as a castaway, he has almost no capability to use any of it, save for his thought processes. The resolution of this story is beautifully put together. This is a detective novel of the best sort: one where the reader can play along and figure out the mystery on their own if they're skilled enough, but it's by no means easy to do so. Very few mystery novels share this trait, especially when it comes to science fiction. Usually, in a scifi mystery, some fact is brought forth by the intervention of a technology the characters are aware of but the reader could not possibly have known in advance -- a prime example of deus ex machina if ever I saw it. But Hal Clement is fair with his reader, and the only background information you might require outside of what he gives you in the text is a cursory knowledge of science and humanity that any schoolchild should be able to claim.
This is well worth the read, even if Clement's writing style does make the characters seem a bit flat. The strength of the story is not in the relationships (at which Clement only gets a passing grade), but in the mystery, the setting, and the unique alien biology. This should definitely be on your to-read list if you have any interest in science and scifi mysteries.
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