David's Reviews > Who Goes There?

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.
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really liked it
bookshelves: audiobook, science-fiction, horror, antarctica, monsters, modern-classic, novella
Recommended for: Antarctic researchers, shapeshifting aliens pretending to be Goodreads reviewers

One of the things that surprised me about this 1938 Hugo-winner was its conformity to modern science. I am not enough of a historian to always remember at what point people knew what facts, so I was a little surprised at the references to atomic power, and fairly advanced discussions of biochemistry. Physicists or biologists would probably find some fault with the technical details in this novella, but it reads as quite a plausible, relatively "hard" SF story given that the premise is a shapeshifting alien being thawed after spending 20 million years frozen in Antarctica.

This novella is better known, of course, by the movie based on it, John Carpenter's The Thing, which was a remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World.

The Thing

Characterization is sparse, as is typical of 1930s sci-fi. The team of scientists and research camp staff are not much more than names and roles — which isn't much of a fault in a story where most of the characters are expendable. What's notable is how much Campbell does convey in his sparse descriptions.


Vance Norris moved angrily. He was comparatively short in this gathering of big men, some five feet eight, and his stocky, powerful build tended to make him seem shorter. His black hair was crisp and hard, like short, steel wires, and his eyes were the gray of fractured steel. If McReady was a man of bronze, Norris was all steel. His movements, his thoughts, his whole bearing had the quick, hard impulse of a steel spring. His nerves were steel—hard, quick acting—swift corroding.


After finding an alien spaceship that was generating a magnetic field strong enough to distort their compasses from miles away, they bring back a frozen thing in a block of ice. Obviously, such a remarkable scientific discovery cannot just be left alone - they make plans to bring it back to New York. Which means thawing it out.


"How the hell can these birds tell what they are voting on? They haven't seen those three red eyes and that blue hair like crawling worms. Crawling—damn, it's crawling there in the ice right now!

"Nothing Earth ever spawned had the unutterable sublimation of devastating wrath that thing let loose in its face when it looked around its frozen desolation twenty million years ago. Mad? It was mad clear through—searing, blistering mad!

"Hell, I've had bad dreams ever since I looked at those three red eyes. Nightmares. Dreaming the thing thawed out and came to life—that it wasn't dead, or even wholly unconscious all those twenty million years, but just slowed, waiting—waiting. You'll dream, too, while that damned thing that Earth wouldn't own is dripping, dripping in the Cosmos House tonight.


Obviously, this is not going to end well. Despite the biologist's confident assurances that the thing couldn't possibly still be alive after being frozen for 20 million years, they are soon playing a game of "Monster, monster, who's the monster?"

This story reminded me quite a bit of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness — not just because of the Antarctic setting, but also the stark terror of ordinary, rationalist-minded men facing alien, cosmic horror. Campbell did a lot more with psychological suspense, though, as the survivors eye one another knowing that one or more of them is actually an alien.

A classic for good reason, and the remote, Antarctic setting, not changed all that much in the decades since, means it hasn't aged too badly.
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Reading Progress

December 4, 2014 – Started Reading
December 4, 2014 – Shelved
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: audiobook
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: science-fiction
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: horror
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: antarctica
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: monsters
December 4, 2014 – Shelved as: modern-classic
December 5, 2014 – Finished Reading
December 6, 2014 – Shelved as: novella

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