Saturday, June 14, 2014

John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?

John W. Campbell’s famous science fiction novella Who Goes There? was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938. The 1951 movie adaptation (as The Thing from Another World) and the 1982 adaptation (as The Thing) are even better known.

Who Goes There? derives much of its power and its terror from its Antarctic setting. A scientific expedition discovers an alien spaceship, buried in the ice, possibly for millions of years. They rather rashly try to thaw the ice around the ship with a thermite bomb, resulting in the ship’s destruction. They manage to retrieve the body of one of the spacecraft’s crew members.

Even in death the alien seems sinister and malevolent. Despite this the scientists do something even more rash than their trick with the thermite bomb. They decide to thaw the alien. Their reasoning is that the body might not survive an attempt to transport it back to the United States so that thawing it now may be the only chance to discover its secrets. And after millions of years in the ice it has to be well and truly dead. There can’t be any real risk. These prove to be famous last words.

The alien is far from dead and it has some very frightening abilities. It can imitate other organisms. Imitate them so well that there is no way of telling the imitation from the original. And, much more worrying, they realise too late that it may already have imitate one or more of the members of the expedition. The enemy may be already among them.

The scientists make frantic attempts to come up with some kind of test that will identify which of them is now an alien. It is possible that not just one but several of them are now aliens. And if they ever manage to get back to civilisation there will be no way to stop the alien from infecting the whole human race. They are faced with a stark reality. Either they find a way to identify and destroy the aliens among them or they must ensure that none of them ever leaves the Antarctic.

It’s a set-up that provides the ultimate in both fear and paranoia and Campbell exploits its potential for terror with consummate skill. No-one can be trusted and no-one can expect any of the others to trust him. In this situation even if you know you’re not an alien you can’t expect anyone else to believe you and if they were foolish enough to do so they would be risking the safety of the entire human species. Paranoia becomes a positive virtue.

This story well and truly deserves its status as a classic of the genre, combining clever ideas, taut story-telling and extreme terror. Highly recommended.

The 1951 movie version has its virtues but fails to capture the essence of the original story. The 1982 version directed by John Carpenter is much more successful.

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