Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (1938)
It’s likely that the consumer of pop culture has more familiarity with the tropes, ideas, and cinematic adaptations emanating from this novella than they do of the original source material. It’s understandable as though this is one of most original pieces of science fiction from the Golden Era, there are some characteristics that could likely disinterest potential readers.
In 1938, John W. Campbell wrote and published Who Goes There? in Astounding Science Fiction, a pulp magazine for which Campbell had recently taken over editorial duties. Though he spent years before and after 1938 writing both short and longer fiction works, his stature in the science fiction field rests largely on his editorship of more adept writers and the legacy of Who Goes There?
The premise of the novella revolves around the discovery of an alien life form by Antarctic researchers and these men’s struggle against its intent. However, the novelty of the alien is that it’s a shapeshifter. It accomplishes this by absorbing other life-forms and not only imitating the physicality, but the personality, mannerisms, and thoughts of the absorbed also. Though it’s frightening in its original found form of slimy blue body, red tri-eyes, and worm-like hair, the real terror begins when the researchers realize that it’s now likely that not all are who he truly says he is. Thus, the defining question for the isolated men as paranoia takes hold is “who goes there?”
What I’m describing makes it seem like a thrilling story. And it is—but with some caveats. As mentioned before, this is a story of the thirties. The thirties published a number of great craftsmen of literature. One doesn’t have to name the still-studied modernist greats. John W. Campbell isn’t one of the greats. In fact, the pulp style, emblematic of much of the genre writing of the period, leads to some of the criticism of the work.
There’s awesome imagery of the action and vivid description of the experiments devised to find out the imitations. However, the description of the men is somewhat surface-level. The men are either rational or excitable; either courageous or timid. It’s not surprising that we don’t learn much about the men as it is mentioned that there’s thirty-seven living on the base, though only sixteen are named. It’s understandable that there wouldn’t be in-depth backgrounds of the characters, and it’s definitely not needed due to the brevity of the story. But does the reader need to know repeatedly that McReady, the principal hero, is “a man of bronze?” I know that it was characteristic term of the times to describe him as a man of action. It now just seems to puff up the character before the reader actually sees that McReady is capable and tough.
Returning back to the detailed descriptions of test creations to find out who is human, I find it to be both a positive and a negative. Campbell know the scientific method, and he takes time to show it in the researchers’ struggles to devise an accurate test of rooting out the imitations. However, this middle section of the novella I find to be the slowest. It’s necessary to show that the men are competent scientists, but one wonders whether if some of it could’ve been cut in order for us to get a better grasp on the characters. The most thrilling section is near the end, which combines the discovery of a successful test with the action of combating the discovered “things.” Fans of the 1982 adaptation, John Carpenter’s The Thing, will definitely perk up once as they read this section.
One of the principal complaints of people who don’t like science fiction is that often characterization is sacrificed for extrapolation of ideas, especially concerning technology and the bizarre. As much as I view Who Goes There? as a thrilling read in places and one of the influential texts in modern science fiction, I couldn’t fully disagree if they pointed that critique at this story. It’s probably not coincidental that there are few readers of his other fiction and his reputation rests on his cultivation of writers who not only thought deeply on the what-if in their stories, but managed also to flesh them out with characters that resonate beyond the page. Does this mean that a reader seeking to expand his or her science fiction knowledge should neglect this work? No, but that individual should realize that he or she is not coming to a story that has the vitality of a top Philip K. Dick or Robert A. Heinlein story. There was period between the height of H.G. Wells and the post-World War II period, where science fiction largely struggled to find its footing as literature; Who Goes There? exists in that period. Still, it should be recognized as a foundational work from which speculative fiction trying to move beyond simple pulp space opera sprang. Furthermore, it also led to the more remembered cinematic classics, The Thing From Another World and the more faithful adaptation, John Carpenter’s The Thing.