Book Review: Costigan’s Needle, Jerry Sohl (1953)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1954 edition)

2/5 (Bad)

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.

Related Tangent

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.”

Final Thoughts

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 the 1950s stereotypical woman, “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

45 thoughts on “Book Review: Costigan’s Needle, Jerry Sohl (1953)

  1. The basic plot sounds kind of interesting—though a bit similar to the Riverworld novels from the whole “people showing up on a random uninhabited planet who have every need provided for them within walking distance” thing.

    Your alternate title has successful convinced me against reading it, though that first cover is pretty awesome… I’d still buy that book on the cheap.

    • Costigan’s Needle would make a great movie .. if they stuck to the premise of the book. The technology described by Sohl is not inherently easily dated. Further, with CGI techniques, it might well be a winner. I corresponded with Jerry Sohl before he died, and he did have hopes that the script would be filmed.

      • Is it your favorite of Sohl’s work? I’ve heard much better things about his 70s short fiction at least. As you can probably tell from the review, I was seriously unimpressed with this novel.

  2. This is an excellent review, albeit of a so-so book. I certainly won’t bother with this. I like this kind of story, though. It just bothers me that the writer makes everything so easy. Why not build a better plot and allow lipstick to get through the eye in the first place? I loved Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. It’s not science fiction, but it explores what might happen if all the people were suddenly gone. How long would the power remain on, how long would gasoline last? How long would toilets flush? And it’s written extremely well.

      • Earth Abides plays in the 1950s. A disease wipes out most of humanity. Only a few people are left. I would call is speculative historic fiction. Nothing science about it, but in a way it’s a “generation ship” story. I predict you’ll love it. My review here:

        • I disagree, it’s a work of social science fiction — even if science is not the core of the story it’s still sci-fi…. A predicted future…. Just as A Canticle for Leibotwitz is science fiction or any nuclear apocalypse type scenario.

          But yeah, I’ve only heard good things about it…

      • Norbert, I like PKD’s definition…. A new world is generated in Earth Abides — hence, science fiction. Obviously, all definitions are rather indefinite.

        “I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as ‘a story set in the future,’ [nor does it require] untra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society… that comes out of our world, the one we know:
        This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society…
        There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation…so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.

        [In] good science fiction, the conceptual dislocation—the new idea, in other words—must be truly new and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader…[so] it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create…. The very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create—and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness.”

    • Earth Abides is one of my all-time favorite novels. And The Mysterious Island was a favorite as a kid. I love stories about survivors. Other good ones are Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein and the 1970s TV series from England, The Survivors.

  3. I have never seen this extensive of a definition, slightly off from one I would have constructed. But I must admit, I have never tried to do that. Given this definition, The Fermata, by Nicholas Baker, would also be science fiction. Hmm.

    • Definitions are virtually useless — but, I think he has a point science fiction creating a distinctly different new world (it also allows PKD’s alt. history novel, Man in a High Castle, to be counted as sci-fi) — it allows near future science fiction to be science fiction…. There are thousands of similar what if scenarios for the near future like Earth Abides….

  4. I`ve read so much scathing criticism of eeeevil America in 47 years I give myself a pass onany book with more of the same–I get it, every single thing done by orr in the name of America/Americans sucks to SOMEONE, can I be excused to read something besides ax-grinding now? =) Wikipedia has a good selection of `Definitions of SF`. I am glad they included my favorite, Ted Sturgeon`s.

  5. Oh, EARTH ABIDES fits each definition I know of SF, but if someone doesn`t think it`s sf that`s cool, of course, for them. But if speculation of the near/immediate future doesn`t count once the time period extrapolated from has passed, I guess HG Welles, Mary Shelly, Jules Verne and any sf taking place before 2013 isn`t sf.

  6. Thank you! 40 years ago I found a copy of this book left in a rental cabin. It rained our whole vacation and I was happy to have this book to read. Loved it as a kid. An interesting thought exercise on how you could rebuild civilization from scratch.

    I’ve been trying to find the author of this book for ages. The copy I had was titled “Through the Eye of the Needle,” so searching for that brought up the Hal Clement book (which led me to “Mission of Gravity,” which is great hard scifi). Now that I know the real title and author, I’ll be searching out a copy.

    • You’re welcome! As a kid I would have loved the story. Now, I thought it was complete crud. I did not care for Mission of Gravity either (there’s a review on my site).

      I’m always worried about reading what was important to me as a child. I’m afraid I will be disappointed. Are you going to reread Costigan’s Needle? The entire rebuilding civilization has to be one of the more preposterous elements of the novel — unfortunately.

  7. I read Costigan’s Needle in 1954-55. I was in 6th grade, and we were introduced to the Scholastic Books through the school. It was the first SF novel that I ever read and was the beginning of a love for SF/Fantasy that continues to this day. Yes, some of them don’t make sense, others reflect the sexist, racist views of the times, but they offered an escape from the sometimes boring and dreary times that ordinary people found themselves trapped in. To imagine that you were one of the Lensmen of Doc Smith’s novels or a part of Asimov’s Robot Worlds and Foundation Series,or Farmer’s World of Tiers has always been part of my life since my first exposure to the genre in 6th grade. I don’t analyze how preposterous some of the early SF was, but enjoy how it made me feel at the time. I just finished a novel by S.K. Dunstall titled Linesman. I really enjoyed it, and read it nonstop. I’m starting the sequel, Alliance, and look forward to the same feeling of excitement and wonder that I felt with my first reading of Costigan’s Needle.

    • Thank you for the comment. I am glad the work was a formative one.

      That said, there is no reason we cannot go back and examine/write about the works of the past. Even if that means critiquing them (in a way, it helps us to understand the mentalities of the day, the historical context in which they were written).

      I tend not read the formative works from my youth as I don’t want to debunk the sheer joy I felt! (I am a child of the late 80s and didn’t read SF until the last decade and a half. I grew up on fantasy such as Redwall)

  8. My comment wasn’t a critique of your review, in fact, I agree with it. My comments refer to the period in which it was written, and to the difference it made to me. At 11 years old, the only thing that mattered to me was that I’d never read anything like it. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to review the book. I’ll continue to read your reviews and post comments, not criticisims. One of my favorite books is The Breaking of Northwall. I’d be interested in reading your review of the Pelbar series. Thanks for your interest in the SF genre

    • No worries! Sometimes I feel bad when I receive a comment explaining how much a reader loved a book as a kid if I disliked a book (hence my explanation)…. As, well, I’m an adult looking back and it’s difficult to gauge the sheer formative power books have for different people.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Costigans Needle is one of my most prized possessions. I’ve read it more than once, my son read it and loved it. The concept of sucking a whole Chicago neighborhood into another dimension and have them emerge under water was absolutely brilliant. Sure it strained plausibility, but what you seem to have overlooked is, it’s FICTION. When did you stop being a kid? You have to keep in mind this was written in 1953 pre Sputnik, pre cell phones, pre internet and computers. America had just endured a world war and the Chevy Corvette hit the street for the first time with a 6 cylinder engine. I feel sorry for anybody who decides to not read this book based on your review, they will be missing a great experience.

        • I’m glad it was an influential book for you. I found it hack work…. That said, I can understand how a very young me might have enjoyed it.

          And, I am a historian by profession — so I am obviously aware of the basic historical context of the day……….

          Thanks again for your comment.

          P.S. And Tom, reflect a moment on the tone of your comment. It is condescending and ridiculous. I am aware it is fiction.

  9. My appologies for my tone. I was born and raised on the streets of NYC and sometimes I lose the grip on my New York attitude.

    • I guess my issue is this — you are reacting as if I am attacking you with my review. I am not. That is not how book reviews work. I am not critiquing fans of the work or people who might have thought it influential in their youth.

  10. Sorry, Joachim, but I found your review extremely opinionated, and rather unkind to Jerry Sohl. I have LOVED “Costigan’s Needle” for more than forty years (I own three copies of it!), and I would love to see it made into a film (I agree that with today’s CGI it would be easier). It’s actually possible to give a book a bad review without tearing it to shreds : (

  11. I remember reading Costigan’s Needle during the summer of 1957 when I “discovered” science fiction and read my way through my local branch library’s SciFi shelf – about a dozen books. At the age of 13 I found it very interesting.

    The following fall I needed a quick and dirty book report for freshman English and submitted one on Costigan’s Needle. It was then that I learned that my teacher did not share my enthusiasm for the genre. While he did give me a decent grade, he also wrote “No more reports on science fiction books, please!” across the top of my paper.

  12. I read COSTIGAN’S NEEDLE many years ago and something about it stuck with me. This past year I snagged a copy off of eBay and re-read it. Rather to my surprise, I still enjoyed it. You’re right in your criticisms of it, of course, but the idea of being “cast away” into an unknown world and struggling to survive therein has long fascinated readers. Look at the popularity of “Lost,” for example. (A show I never watched.) As a writer myself, I think that reading stuff like the Sohl book can be worthwhile, because it impels a guy like me to say, “Hell, I can do better than that!” Maybe that’s why I’ve read so many crummy novels in my time. 🙂

  13. I was in my early 20s, back in the early 1960s. COSTIGAN’S NEEDLE was the first SF novel I ever read. I was impressed with it, but I was new to SF. I had a decent paying job that only required me to “work” a few hours a day. So, I started reading to pass the time. I got hooked on SF because of Costigan’s Needle. At the time, I though the book was very good. In the last 55 years, I’ve read a lot of SF and seen a lot of SF movies. By today’s standards, it’s not that great, but it did introduce me to a very important genre of literature. I would like to see it made into a movie. I just may find a copy and re-read it.

  14. Wow! I was looking through your index for your review of Piper at the Gates of Dawn to compare it to Road to Corlay, (I never found it) when I saw Costigan’s Needle. I thought, “I’ll glance at this one, but I’m sure no one made a comment.”
    39? 40, counting this one? Unbelievable.
    When I was growing up in the early sixties, there were a lot of mediocre SF novels in the local library, mostly by Doubleday as I recall, and two or three of them were by Jerry Sohl. Even then, I decided that they were only published because they were not thoughtful SF, and could be put out in hard back for libraries, where the librarians would never read them. Still, I read them all, and usually enjoyed them.
    Did you know that Jerry Sohl wrote The Corbomite Maneuver on the original Star Trek. (As a writer, I always look for who wrote everything I encounter.) I thought it was relatively clever and pleasant, for Star Trek.

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