Bionic Jean's Reviews > Who Goes There?

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.
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did not like it
bookshelves: around-the-world-challenge, read-authors-c-d, kindle, ghost-horror-supernatural

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr., is the novella on which "The Thing", the 1982 film directed by John Carpenter, is based. It was first published in the August 1938 edition of the "Astounding Science Fiction" magazine, under the pen name Don A. Stuart.

The story is set in Antarctica, where an isolated group of scientific researchers find the body of an alien creature in the ice. They realise that its spaceship must have crashed there 20 million years before. With misgivings, they proceed to thaw the creature, which then disappears. The premise of the story is a good one, and there are lots of possibilities for tension and paranoia, all of which Campbell tries to create. However it is now sadly dated and feels extremely overwritten. Passages which should be chilling and horrific come across to a modern reader as unbelievable. In its worst excesses it is so over-the-top as to be funny,

"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!"

"The broken haft of the bronze ice-axe was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-spilled blood, from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow -"

"The last I saw the split skull was oozing green goo, like a squashed caterpillar...wandering around with a split skull and brain oozing out...has anybody seen it coming over here?...About four feet tall - three red eyes - brains oozing out?"
(presumably this last was in case anyone had spotted a different scary alien and mistook it for the first one...)

The fact that the story has been filmed several times shows that there is a good basic storyline; material for a horror film. The idea that the alien could mutate or "morph" into any other creature, is fodder for many imitations since. "Each of us with an eye on the other, to make sure he doesn't do something - peculiar." Who is the imposter? Who can you trust? And who is the alien? It fed on the paranoia of the time between the two World Wars. Here is a slightly less "pulpy" quote,

"The cells are made of protoplasm, their character determined by the nucleus. Only in this creature, the cell nuclei can control those cells at will...shape its own cells to imitate them exactly...This is a member of a supremely intelligent race, a race that has learned the deepest secrets of biology, and turned them to its use."

In the end though, this story does not live up to its expectations. Perhaps as modern readers we are now too cynical to enjoy pure pulp. Just over forty years ago, in 1973, it was voted one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written, by the Science Fiction Writers of America. But that time was slightly closer to when it was written than to the present, and the world has seen a lot of changes since.

John W. Campbell Jr., himself was a revered and influential figure in American science fiction. He was the editor of "Astounding Science Fiction" as well as a contributor, from just before this story until his death. He is generally credited with shaping what is called the "Golden Age" of Science Fiction. Isaac Asimov said that Campbell dominated the field completely for the first ten years of his editorship, calling him "the most powerful force in science fiction ever." Perhaps he should be remembered for his editorship, and this story remain firmly in its classic pulp magazine past.
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Reading Progress

July 26, 2013 – Shelved
March 23, 2014 – Started Reading
March 30, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Mar 31, 2014 04:00AM) (new)


Maybe they should have put a notice up: Lost - alien creature, about four feet tall, mobile blue worms on head, three red eyes, green brains oozing out. Answers to 'The Thing'.

Considering how colourful the alien is, it's odd that the story was originally filmed in black and white.

message 2: by Bionic Jean (last edited Mar 31, 2014 05:26AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Bionic Jean Isn't it? :D I wonder if there is a "Golden Turkey" award for fiction.

message 3: by Werner (new)

Werner Jean, I personally enjoyed this story a lot more than you did (though I've never reviewed it as a stand-alone); I consider it a masterpiece of its type. Of course, personal literary taste (or in my case, as most critics would assert, horrifying lack of it!) plays a big part in how a reader will react to this one. Being a fan of both classic pulp and New Pulp, I'm not a bit bothered by its unabashed pulpiness. :-) Intelligent, articulate and cogent review, though, as always!

Bionic Jean Thanks Werner! I have picked up on your enthusiasm for pulp along the way, so it is especially gracious of you to say what you have :)

Given that the average Goodreads star rating is a fraction short of 4*, I'm definitely in the minority with this one! Like you though, I will "like" a review, if I think the points are well made, whether I agree with the reviewer's opinion or not :)

message 5: by Werner (new)

Werner You're welcome, Jean! Yes, a lot of the fun of Goodreads is comparing our opinions with other peoples;' if everybody's tastes and opinions were the same, the site would lose a great deal of its appeal. :-)

message 6: by Tristram (new)

Tristram Shandy Hi Jean,
I really enjoyed Carpenter's film, which - even today - remains impressive given that he did not use computerized effects, but from what you wrote about the story I guess I'll give it a wide berth.

Your comment on how not to mix up bloodthirsty aliens roaming the Antarctic ice desert made my otherwise sort of bleakish day ;-)

message 7: by Bionic Jean (last edited Apr 07, 2014 09:45AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Bionic Jean LOL Tristram, thanks!

I must admit to having a soft spot for old SF films - some even dating back to the 1950's. Perhaps I am, unfairly, tougher on the literature of the time :)

message 8: by Tristram (new)

Tristram Shandy So you'd also know the first film adaptation, "The Thing from Another World" produced by Howard Hawks? Or cinematic jewels like "This Island Earth" or, one of my personal favourites, "Forbidden Planet"? ;-)

message 9: by Bionic Jean (last edited Apr 07, 2014 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Bionic Jean YES!! The latter based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest

My absolute favourite is "The Day the Earth Stood Still". Wonderful :)

message 10: by Michael (last edited Nov 29, 2015 03:14AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Michael I love "Who goes there" because few other stories show us how much paranoia and fear of communism there was when Campbell wrote this. You didn't trust your friends and co-workers because you couldn't know who they really were. Maybe your best friend was an alien?
But I am probably biased because "The Thing from another World" from 1951 was one of my favorite films when I was a kid - and I love it still today :)

message 11: by Bionic Jean (last edited Nov 29, 2015 03:03AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Bionic Jean Hi Michael. Thanks for commenting - and being so nice about it! I admit mine is a personal view.

You're quite right about the paranoia aspect; I did pick that up, and perhaps was overly harsh in my criticism. After all, with classics we automatically take on board the context in which they were written. At this time, as you rightly point out, the American panic and fear of Communism was a strong force and motivation.

It's odd too that I thoroughly enjoy watching the film you mention - I have the DVD - and that's why I read this book in the first place! I have a soft spot for SF films from the 1950's, and give them a lot of rope. Similarly SF films and TV series from the 1960's such as "The Invaders" - again about the paranoia of not knowing who you could trust among your friends and acquaintances. (Laughably, all the aliens had a crooked little left finger, but this seemed to add to the tension ...)

Double standards perhaps. I expect the writing from that era to be better. But then I freely admit I prefer classic SF to pulp. Horses for courses, perhaps :)

message 12: by Alejandro (new)

Alejandro Sorry that the book didn't work out for you. I plan to read it in the near future.

Bionic Jean I'll be interested to read what you think Alejandro :)

Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin I'm gonna msg to have to read it too. I'm sorry it was as a dud for you Jean!

Bionic Jean Well at least it didn't take long LOL! You'll whizz through it Mel :)

message 16: by Karen (new)

Karen I am sorry this one was a disappointment. I still think your review was stellar, as aiways:)

message 17: by Bionic Jean (last edited Nov 21, 2016 10:50AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Bionic Jean Aw thanks Karen - it wasn't my sort of thing at all! I like my chillers understated ;)

message 18: by Karen (new)

Karen Hi again Jean
I love a good chiller, only if it is not sadistic or gratuitously violent. I am finally done with all of my net galley. It will be fun to be able to choose what I want. I am seriously thinking about reading Charles Dickens based on all of your superb reviews.
Love and hugs to you

Bionic Jean Oh well done Karen - I really hope you enjoy your reading a bit better now as you say you have a free choice :)

I have just this minute finished one Dickens novel, and am looking forward to a read of one of his Christmas books - and thank you again!

message 20: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov A strong review, Jean. It may inspire me to read Campbell's effort and see whether it has anything to offer the 21st century.

Bionic Jean Thanks H - I'll be interested to see what you think. I gather from these comments that this work is still enjoyed by pulp aficionados.

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