Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

(2011-12-27)

Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell

Republished by Gollancz, December 2011. Originally published 1948 by Don A. Stewart

ISBN: 978-0575091030

256 pages

Review by Mark Yon

John Wood Campbell (1910 – 1971) is best known as the editor of Analog Magazine from 1937 (as Astounding Magazine) until his death, although he was so important at that time that he is often credited as the shaper of the so-called ‘Golden Age of SF’, being the nurturer of Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp and L. Ron Hubbard, as well as many other SF legends. Asimov, admittedly with a degree of bias, called Campbell “the most powerful force in science fiction” at that time, but there’s few today who would doubt his pre-eminence as an editor between the 1940’s and 1970’s.

With such a prominent editing role, it is sometimes forgotten that he was also an author, at least until editing Astounding/Analog curtailed it, mainly under the pseudonym of Don A. Stewart.

With the release of the re-imagined film, The Thing, it is perhaps not a surprise to see Campbell’s novella (though originally published as by Don A. Stewart) on which the film is based resurface, along with six other tales of SF.

First published in Astounding in August 1938 (yes, that long ago!) it is a tale of identity and survival in the Antarctic. Scientists and the military discover the body of an alien stranded there. At first assumed to be dead and buried in the ice for millions of years, the alien revives and, in its place of icy isolation, kills its enemy, taking the form of the dead human. The men on the base must kill it before it escapes to repopulate amongst the urban metropolises of Earth, but first they have to determine which one of them is the alien.

It still has a certain energy, though it is a product of its time. Science versus technology and the ethics of the survival of the fittest are all dealt with here, in lengthy dialogues expounded by what would become an Analog trademark – the knowledgeable and morally correct scientist-hero.

There are lengthy screeds of information-dump to fill in the science details and try to keep the story moving:

““I think you should know the structure of the place. There is a broad plateau, a level sweep that runs more than 150 miles due south from the Secondary station, Van Wall says. He didn’t have time or fuel to fly farther, but it was running smoothly due south then. Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has damned back the ice creeping from the south.

“And four hundred miles due south is the South Polar Plateau. You have asked me at various times why it gets warmer here when the wind rises, and most of you know. As a meteorologist I’d have staked my word that no wind could blow at -70 degrees – that no more than a 5-mile wind could blow at -50 – without causing warming due to friction with ground, snow and ice and the air itself.“

Campbell was only 28 when Who Goes There? was published and it both impresses and reflects this. It is still rather pulpy in style and content, though more thoughtful than the ‘one-bound-and-he-was-free’ style of SF dominant at the time. Characters gasp rather than speak, bound when they could walk, and so on.  

“It was face up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. The broken half of the bronze ice-ax was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood. from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow.

Van Wall, six feet and 200 pounds of ice-nerved pilot, gave a queer, strangled gasp and butted, stumbled his way out to the corridor. Half the company broke for the doors. The others stumbled away from the table.”

And yet, despite all of this, over seventy years on, it is still creepy. It is perhaps no wonder that the story was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written, in 1973.

And, unlike the film versions, all without a female around.

Campbell was a man with a mission at this time, tackling stories with an evangelical zeal to remove the galaxy-destroying super-science tale and replace them with stories that had a more scientific grounding. Much of his work in Astounding/Analog did so, and this is clearly an attempt to write so, even though it involves mind-reading. Whereas Lovecraft wrote such cosmic tales about the unknowable, here Campbell lays on the science, with a trowel.

Despite the purpleness of the prose, what surprises most is that in comparison to many of today’s tales, the stories are surprisingly succinct. When writers were paid per word, it all counted, and this creates a tight, focused account. It is impressively claustrophobic and tense until its final denouement.

Those expecting something like the endings of the older films may be a little surprised, if not disappointed. As you might expect, Campbell signs it all off with a logical, if not clinical, end that has none of the ambiguousness of Hawks’ and Carpenter’s movie versions.

Of the other six stories, they have glimpses of greatness, though nothing like as impressive as Who Goes There? The rest of the stories in this collection further reflect this quest for advancement, knowledge and science, and are dated from 1934 to 1938.

Blindness tells of a scientist’s sacrifice to gain Mankind Atomic power by travelling near to the Sun, only to find that his invention to enable his spaceship to withstand the Sun’s temperatures and radiation leapfrog the need for it. It’s a reasonable character study that celebrates Man’s ability to solve problems through Science and Technology, though more lecturing and less enjoyable than Who Goes There? It is perhaps the weakest tale here.

Frictional Losses is a tale of humans surviving alien invasion, despite enormous losses, following the arrival of a hundred one-thousand-feet-long spaceships of the Granthee. Lots of atom bombs and atomic weapons here reflect the thinking at the time these tales were written: remember, this is before the first bomb was produced.  Although Europe, Australia, China and India all have major losses, it is most odd to read of the tenacity of the ‘peculiar’ Japanese against the alien invaders, with kamikaze style aircraft, written a few years before Pearl Harbour.  Much of the tale though is about what happens after the invasion force is destroyed, admittedly with huge human losses, and the invention of a machine to destroy the impending second invasion force. Lots of stuff here about the importance of Science and how resourceful humans are. Bit more optimistic than some of the tales in this book but still a weak story.

Dead Knowledge is a dark story. Three astronauts explore a deserted world, with objects and bodies left intact and the reasons for their disappearance/death unknown. The story tells us why. Quite atmospheric and grim to start with it all falls apart when ‘intelligent molecules’ are discovered to be the reason.

In a slight change of focus, Elimination, the fifth story, is distinctly Earth based. It tells of the invention of a time-travelling machine kept secret for years and the reasons for doing so, as well of the consequences of a machine that can tell people how long they are going to live. It is a little overwrought, yet the idea of time streams and quantum universes is surprisingly well dealt with for a tale written in the 1930’s.

Of all the other tales here, the sixth tale, Twilight, is almost as famous as Who Goes There? First published in 1934, it’s a tale that starts simply as a hitch-hiker tale but one which unusually involves a visitor from the future who tells the driver of humanity’s future and its decline. It is elegiac in mood and yet full of ‘sensawunda’ science. It also goes without saying that it is also absolutely nothing to do with vampires!

Its sequel, Night, is the last story in the book and follows a similar theme. Campbell tells of a test pilot who is transported to a future where Earth is deserted and Mankind has gone. There’s lots of science-y technology mentioned – torus coils, bismuth wires, dynamotors and the like – whilst the machines continued to run the worlds without humans until they too fell into decline, with even the atoms dead.  The ultimate point is that eventually all things must pass, and Night tells of humanity’s eventual decline, thus showing the relative unimportance of Man in the vast universe.

In summary, though the book is a little uneven and starts with its best tale, as a book that signposts the changes in SF in the 1930’s, as they were from Astounding to Analog, this is a good read.

For those wanting more Campbell, or rather Don A. Stewart, the NESFA Press book, A New Dawn is recommended. It also includes Who Goes There? and the other tales in this book.

Mark Yon, December 2011.

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