Book Review: Costigan’s Needle, Jerry Sohl (1953)
March 10, 2013 § 18 Comments
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1954 edition)
In countless Star Trek episodes a shattered piece of technology is miraculously resurrected (or a non-related piece of technology is transformed into an inter-dimensional portal) rescuing stranded one-time antagonists who learn, through their shared struggles, to finally get along. Jerry Sohl’s Costigan’s Needle (1953) takes this classic scenario to an even more preposterous level.
As a kid I adored Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874), disliked Robinson Crusoe (1719), and despised Perseverance Island; or, The Robinson Crusoe of the nineteenth century (1885). My criteria was simple — believable invention from very little. In Robinson Crusoe, the eponymous main character, finds all the necessities of life a few feet offshore in his wrecked vessel. I wanted an actual struggle to find food, not a crack shot toting a hunting rifle with barrels of dry powder….
In Mysterious Island the balloon-borne castaways invent everything they can from scratch — in a generally believable manner — when the plot can no longer be facilitated, Captain Nemo deposits some goodies on the island for them to find (à la Lost). But the novel wasn’t without its flaws, a miraculous corn seed in a pocket yields bread in a few years….
In Perseverance Island, the main character is stranded with almost nothing yet by the end of the novel has a goat-powered submarine (!) and a steam-powered steel yacht because he’s a real American hero in a land where all the possible ores are near the surface, the island a veritable Eden waiting to be conquered, a land bearing the fruit of a thousand continents waiting to be plucked….
Costigan’s Needle is the Perseverance Island of 1950s science fiction – preposterous, unbelievable, and painfully naive.
Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)
Dr. Costigan, an independent scientist, has invented a needle-shaped device with unusual properties. If you insert your hand into the “eye,” it vanishes. When you retract your hand it feels moist or dry. Costigan employs the aid of Inland Electronics, who manufacture electronic components for weapons etc, to put up the funds to build a larger version and stage more elaborate tests to figure out what is on the other side. Devan Taylor, the main character, is on the executive committee of Inland Electronics. Initially he’s incredibly suspicious of the needle. However, after a demonstation of its unusual properties he endorses the grant.
They discover that only living materials can pass through the needle. Dead materials, hair or fingernails, can pass through as well because they are connected to living material. Other dead materials such as metal, cloth, etc, cannot pass through the eye.
Inland Electronics attempts to keep public knowledge of the larger version of the needle under wraps. However, after a volunteer disappears into the eye, leaving his metal fillings behind, the police start an investigation. Eventually word gets out that a “portal to another world” has been discovered. Some religious fanatics, with the most shambolic reasoning possible, decide that the portal is an abomination and sabotage the invention. The act of sabotage destroys the needle and sucks close to four hundred people from the surrounding area into it — all their clothes, fillings, and personal items are kept on the other side. They emerge naked into a new world.
On the other side the survivors discover that they are still in the area of Chicago. However, it is not in the past and not in the future. Rather, an untrammeled parallel world…. They decide to create a new needle to get them back to Chicago. However, a bunch of the same religious fanatics are sucked in as well and they resist all attempts to invent new technology and even clothe themselves — i.e. “if God wanted us to have clothes then we would have had clothes when we emerged in this new world.”
From absolutely nothing the enterprising Americans develop steel, a paper mill, generators, and high-tech electronics…. And tabacco is nearby and grapes for wine, and no one gets seriously ill and everyone’s cavities are easily repaired… An appendix is removed without incident… Let that sink in….
The following quote illustrates the inanity of such infalible humans, such heroic gods who discover everything three feet from their camp… They set out to look for iron: “In the end the men found the soft, red ore where they least expected to find it: within a mile of the camp near the surface of the earth” (111). The lesson I learned: One doesn’t need to struggle to survive in the wilderness.
Also, a good dose of 1950s stereotypical women, “Devan was amused to find how basic women considered cosmetics, which he thought would be one of the last things they would worry about in the wilderness. But rouge and lipstick were important. The women had found certain red-powder deposits just beneath the surface of the ground. It made good rouge [...] Cornmeal, chalk, flour, though nothing like the face powder women had been used to, doubled for it. Some of the darker ore, mixed with animal fats, served as a reddish-brown lipstick, though some women objected to the taste. Still, the recollection of what real lipstick looked like fading into dim memory, it looked good. It was good enough for many a maiden to snare a man with” (114).
Jerry Sohl should have named his novel While the Men Smoked Tabacco and Conjured Technology from Nothing, The Women Went on A Great Lipstick Hunt and Snared Some Men While They Were At It (1953).
(Robert Shore’s cover for the 1953 edition)
(Don Crowley’s cover for the 1968 edition)
For more book reviews consult the INDEX