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REVIEW: Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

REVIEW SUMMARY: Campbell’s original story holds up amazingly well.


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.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

7 Comments on REVIEW: Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

  1. “Who Goes There?” was broadly inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, though aside from the polar setting and the discovery of frozen aliens, the stories differ considerably in tone and execution. Nonetheless, the similarities are pretty obvious, most notable the appearance of the thing found in the ice, which is quite Lovecraftian in appearance.

    I’m so ridiculously stoked for this release. I’ve been wanting a definitive edition of “Who Goes There?” for years now….

  2. KC /Space 93 // September 17, 2009 at 4:53 pm //

    After recently looking at my John Carpenter movie, I am also “stoked” at obtaining and reading the original story.  1938.  Wow.  Imagine that…

  3. Dr. Phibes // April 19, 2010 at 5:01 pm //

    Thanks for this review. It’s nice when stories that are important to their genres receive the right treatment. This publisher has also produced the first AUDIO edition of the story!!!

  4. Most people seem to know this original novella from the Howard Hawks retelling, and a more intelligent retelling at that, while the John Carpenter version had clever technical shock sequences it didn’t capture the point of the story as the Howard Hawks version is known to have done so elegantly and eloquently.

    • You said that the Carpenter version “didn’t capture the point of the story.”

      I must respectfully disagree. The Hawks version — though it is a well-made film — omitted the basic premise: that the creature could imitate human beings.

    • Howard Hawk’s retelling is far from being more intelligent.
      Most people understand that Carpenters version is a much more brilliant version, A quick check of how many articles are still written about it and even more to the point the almost two hundred Thousand ratings on The Internet Movie Data Base should be a huge indicator.

      Carpenters Version is So much closer to the original story minus the cheap reactions and stupid science that makes that otherwise Great(Old) story really dated today. And that Is what the Hawks and Campbell version really have in common.

      The stupid Tied hands scene is nothing compared to the guard who is guarding the thing because they do not want anything to happen where it may thaw out And this Biggest Dumbass since the Slap stick era of the Three Stooges decides to cover it up with a heating blanket because he doesn’t want to look at it(which he wasn’t anyway as he was sitting facing opposite) Do I need to say that the damn heating blanket was on… I should as it’s possibly the dumbest thing done in movie history.
      Which goes against your More Intelligent Bull.

      Yeah he couldn’t hear water dripping from a 10 ft block of ice 4 feet behind him either.

      That epitomizes 50’s Sci Fi movies and most Science Fiction books pre 60’s era, which were made for kids and have insulted the intelligence of most people once they became more mature.

      Hopefully you are old enough where you grew up with it and your resentment of Carpenters widely acknowledged superior film is solely due to bias nostalgia and not as you mention, Intelligence.

  5. Santu Paul // June 14, 2012 at 3:52 am //

    Its hard to believe that this book was written in 1938. The science is solid and the ‘alien blood detection’ test mentioned in the book were really fun to read. John W. Campbell was a genius of his time.

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