REVIEW: Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The members of an Antarctic expedition encounter a shape-shifting creature from another world.
PROS: Excellent psychological science fiction thriller.
CONS: Occasionally awkward prose; largely interchangeable characters.
BOTTOM LINE: This is the definitive publication of Campbell’s classic sf story.
Most people know Don A. Stuart’s novella “Who Goes There” through John Carpenter’s 1982 adaptation titled The Thing (not to mention the 1951 adaptation Thing From Another World), but it’s usually sf fans who know that Stuart was the pen name of one of sf’s most influential editors, John W. Campbell. Who Goes There?, the recent reprint of this famous story by Rocket Ride books, not only includes Campbell’s classic story, but also throws in some nice extras as well: an introduction by William F. Nolan and Nolan’s 1978 screen treatment of Campbell’s story.
The story concerns an Antarctic expedition undertaken by 37 men who now reside in a camp that affords little privacy. It opens with the men of the team gathered to discuss an unusual find: a 3-eyed alien creature encased in a block of ice that was retrieved nearby where a space ship was also discovered beneath the ice. Despite some initial misgivings, the camp’s doctor, Blair, proceeds to thaw out the creature so that he may examine it. But the creature is not dead; members of the camp begin having dreams initiated by the creature. Through these dreams, they learn that the creature, with sinister survival instincts, has the ability to imitate any living being. Recognizing the threat to humanity, they set out to destroy it, but not before transformations have already begun.
Thus the stage is set for Campbell’s psychological sf thriller. The appeal of its presentation is that the alien presence is diabolically covert. It hides amongst the members of the camp, thus making the characters (and the reader) wonder who has been turned. There were some more visceral, eye-popping scenes of transformation at times, to be sure — and this is something that the Carpenter film is remembered for – but paranoia is what drives the written story. It successfully relays the closed-in feeling of the Antarctic camp, the dwindling hope as the situation progresses from unknown to hopeless, and the futility of trying to escape. It’s only slightly marred by occasional awkward prose from Campbell, who also has a distractingly tendency to use the word “bronze”, especially when describing second-in-command McReady. The characters also feel flat and thus interchangeable — except maybe Blair who begins to lose his paranoid marbles.
A welcome addition to the Rocket Ride reprint is William F. Nolan’s 1978 screen treatment of the John W. Campbell story. Nolan had some visibility in Hollywood after the success of Logan’s Run, which was adapted from his novel. Nolan’s screen treatment diverges somewhat from Campbell’s original tale. For example, Nolan trades in the 37 men of the original story for 8 men and 3 women. Also, gone is the claustrophobic paranoia…replaced by a trio of aliens bent on hopping from host to host, leaving behind hollowed-out human skin shells (an obvious tip-off to the characters) in order to accomplish their secret mission. While Nolan’s adaptation story is well-conceived and better than much of the normal stuff seen coming out of Hollywood at the time, it bears only passing resemblance to Campbell’s original. But even so, its inclusion is quite welcome and helps makes Who Goes There? the definitive publication of Campbell’s classic story.
Filed under: Book Review
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