Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book & Movie Review: Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell

The novella that spawned The Thing,

Who Goes There?

Astounding Science Fiction, 1938, 168 pages

Who Goes There?, the novella that formed the basis of the film The Thing, is the John W. Campbell classic about an antarctic research camp that discovers and thaws the ancient body of a crash-landed alien.

John Campbell's Who Goes There? is of course less famous than the movie based on it, John Carpenter's The Thing.

In fact, there have been three movies based on this novella (see below).

This 1938 Hugo-winner was a relatively hard SF story — the references to biochemistry and atomic power, as well as the physics of the alien ship that first attracts attention with its influence on the magnetic field in the South Pole, seem to conform pretty closely to what science was known at the time. Which makes this a fairly plausible story given that the premise is a shapeshifting alien being thawed after spending 20 million years frozen in Antarctica.

Typical of 30s pulp sci-fi, characterization is sparse. The scientists and research camp staff are not much more than names and roles. This isn't much of a fault in a story where most of the characters are expendable. But Campbell's writing still conveys plenty of description in terse, crisp prose, as well as conveying the horror of what they have found.

"How the hell can these birds tell what they are voting on? They haven't seen those three red eyes and that blue hair like crawling worms. Crawling-damn, it's crawling there in the ice right now!

"Nothing Earth ever spawned had the unutterable sublimation of devastating wrath that thing let loose in its face when it looked around its frozen desolation twenty million years ago. Mad? It was mad clear through-searing, blistering mad!

"Hell, I've had bad dreams ever since I looked at those three red eyes. Nightmares. Dreaming the thing thawed out and came to life-that it wasn't dead, or even wholly unconscious all those twenty million years, but just slowed, waiting...waiting. You'll dream, too, while that damned thing that Earth wouldn't own is dripping, dripping in the Cosmos House tonight.

Obviously, this does not end well. Despite the biologist's confident assurances that the thing couldn't possibly still be alive after being frozen for 20 million years, they are soon playing a game of "Monster, monster, who's the monster?"

This story reminded me quite a bit of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness — not just because of the Antarctic setting, but also the stark terror of ordinary, rational-minded men facing alien, cosmic horror. Campbell's story is more psychological suspense, though, as the survivors eye one another knowing that not everyone is human.

A classic for good reason, and the remote, Antarctic setting has not changed all that much in the decades since, so it hasn't aged too badly. Being a short, fairly straightforward monster story, it's not surprising that Hollywood has revisited it multiple times.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World

This was the first adaptation of Campbell's story. Obviously, being made in the 50s, the filmmakers had neither the technology nor the audience for the gory splatterfests of the later movies, but while it's a decent monster movie for its time, it makes little attempt to be faithful to Campbell's story. They set it in the North Pole instead of the South Pole, make it a military crew (with a female secretary who can scream a lot), and the thing, instead of being a shapechanger, is a lumbering Frankenstein monster.

It's interesting in how it portrays the lone scientist as a fool who wants to preserve the Thing, even at the cost of their own lives, because Knowledge is more important! His willingness to sabotage their survival efforts replaces the paranoia of figuring out who's the monster in the other versions.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)

This is the most famous adaptation. John Carpenter's version was not particularly successful at the box office, but has now become a cult classic, mostly for all the dripping, flesh-shredding gross-outs. While Who Goes There? was not as gory (the deaths are described almost without violence), Carpenter's version is closer to the original story than the 1951 version. Still, it's very much its own creation more than a film version of the novella.

The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)

The latest adaptation is both a prequel and a remake of the 1982 version. If you remember how the John Carpenter movie starts — with the survivors of a Norwegian camp arriving at the American camp — this movie describes everything that happened before that. Despite the clever way in which it fits into the earlier movie, though, it's basically retelling the same story, with an equally gory body count. There is of course the arbitrary addition of a Spunky Lady Scientist playing Ripley, and better special effects 30 years later, but if you've seen John Carpenter's The Thing, you've seen this one and vice versa.

Poll #1992800 Who Goes There?

Have you read Who Goes There?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Which of the movie versions have you seen?

The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Thing (1982)
The Thing (2011)

Verdict: A fine pulp adventure that was made into three decent monster movies. Who Goes There? is a sci-fi classic that added paranoia about alien dopplegangers to the tradition of weird fiction set in the Antarctic. 8/10.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, horror, movies, poll, reviews, science fiction

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