Wednesday, 18 January 2012

‘Who Goes There?’ – John W. Campbell (Gollancz)

Was I the only person who was excited about the recent prequel to ‘The Thing’? Judging by certain sounds arising from the internet (and the distinct lack of other sounds) it looks like I was. As it turns out, I never got round to seeing it at the cinema (insert regular ‘baby excuse’ here, I miss going to the pictures...) but I’ll definitely be watching it somewhere down the line. All this excitement is down to the fact that I love the John Carpenter version of ‘The Thing’, can’t get enough of it in fact, and will quite happily watch it over and over again with little or no excuse needed.

This post was originally going to be about the 1951 film ‘The Thing From Another World’ but I never got round to sitting down and watching it. Going through the ‘Boston Legal’ box set takes precedence over everything else right now! No worries though... The ‘Thing’ prequel has prompted Gollancz to release the original novella, along with several of John W. Campbell’s short stories, and so this post was reborn. We’re headed back to 1938 and a novella that has inspired three direct retellings of the original story along with many other films that have also been influenced.

An Antarctic expedition has discovered something amazing under the ice, a spaceship that crash landed on Earth many thousands of years ago. Even better than that; an alien corpse has been perfectly preserved under the ice, ready for examination by the expedition’s scientists. What these scientists could never have realised though is that they’re not dealing with a corpse at all... The team is about to discover the true meaning of paranoia and will also find that they are the only thing standing in the path of an alien invasion unlike any other...

This is going to be a shorter review than most, purely because ‘Who Goes There?’ weighs in at an incredibly slight and slender seventy five pages long. No wonder Gollancz had to include several of Campbell’s other stories, this is a book that needs some serious bulking up. More on those stories another time.

With only a little space to work in (apparently the novella was published in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ so maybe there was a space issue that had to be worked around) Campbell does well to convey his message of paranoia and mistrust along with several ‘alien encounters’ and a sobering revelation right at the very end. That is quite a lot to pack into a small space and certain elements of the plot inevitably suffer for it. You don’t get much of a sense of what the alien looks like, for example, along Campbell leaves you in no doubt as to what it can do. This is done both through its own actions and through the theorizing of the scientists. The theorizing did drag on a little bit for my liking though (the concept is very well thought out and presented though) especially when the gradual growth of paranoia, on the base, was being dealt with so well.

Reading ‘Who Goes There?’ you soon realise that the alien could be any member of the team and Campbell keeps you in the dark just as much as he does the surviving members of the team. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the base also plays well into this growing sense of urgency and fear. There’s something out there and you’ve got very little room to manoeuvre when it comes for you.This approach makes for some very tense moments with revelations that are suitably explosive. I was on edge just as much as the main characters were. The only thing that detracted from this very impressive effect was Campbell’s occasionally ‘matter of fact’ prose, telling it like it was when a little more embellishment could have made the novella all the more engaging.

‘Who Goes There?’ was nothing short of a gripping read though, one that I had to finish even though I’d already seen the film (well, one of them). If there was a little more meat on its bones I could see this novella sitting quite comfortably in the ‘SF Masterworks’ range; that shouldn’t detract from what it does though. Another masterful work and I’ll be reading the other stories very soon if the quality here is anything to go by.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

1 comment:

Jay said...

For a reverse take on this story, I recommend reading the short story The Things by Peter Watts. It's available online at Clarkesworld and probably other places.