Retro-Hugo 1939, Best Novella

“Who Goes There?”

Don A. Stuart [John W. Campbell]

Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1938

Fellow nominees:

  • “The Time Trap” by Henry Kuttner
  • “Sleepers of Mars” by John Beynon [John Wyndham]
  • “A Matter of Form” by H. L. Gold
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand

This week we enter the paranoia-filled world of Don A. Stuart’s novella, “Who Goes There?” A tale in which we have to wonder if our closest confidants are friend or foe. We have to question what makes us human, and does that make us superior? Stuart’s novella, or for those paying attention, John W. Campbell’s novella is the classic tale of alien visitation gone astray and man’s response to that threat.

Image by Eduardo Ruiz from Pixabay

We open in the frigid landscapes of Antarctica, where an exhibition of scientific researchers uncovers a frozen spacecraft trapped beneath the ice. Despite damaging the craft during an attempt to free the vessel, the team safely recover its alien pilot. Elation quickly gives way to fear after the specimen revives and slips away into the camp unnoticed. With the abilities of replication and shapeshifting the creature, or “the Thing,” soon begins stalking the team. Members go insane vowing to rid the encampment of the imposters. While others begin to doubt their teammates as paranoia soon plagues the group.

You are displaying that childish human weakness of hating the different. On its own world it would probably class you as a fish-belly, white monstrosity with an insufficient number of eyes and a fungoid body pale and bloated with gas.

– Blair, “Who Goes There?”

Therein lies the beauty of “Who Goes There?” Whereas other alien invasion stories might feature blatant violence, this novella takes a subtle approach. Within the narrative, we never see the alien openly attack the group (though, it is implied that it kills the members off-page). Instead, most of the violence comes from humans. Blair, the biologist, adamant that the creature needs thawed, becomes wracked with guilt and needs physical restraints to keep him from attacking the team. In the course of a week, the team learns that “the Thing” replaced half of their numbers. Tensions heighten as those who believe themselves humans fight for the survival of humankind.

Or are they? One aspect I enjoyed is that we never learn the Thing’s intentions. Yes, the team, in the end, makes discoveries about its actions and declare it’s malevolent, but the reader is left to either accept that ruling or not. I won’t say that the creature intended any harm. To me, I see a lonely creature imprisoned for millions of years. Finally thawed, it came face to face with a world unfamiliar to it and decided to run. It’s a cornered animal trying to do what it must to survive.

The idea of the creature imitating one of us is fascinating, but unreal, because it is too completely unhuman to deceive us. It doesn’t have a human mind.

McReady, “Who Goes There?”

The idea on the part of the researchers of it being inhuman therefore must be destroyed, seems hasty and illogical. They believe since they are human that they are better and anything less needs destroying. It’s an unfortunate superiority complex prevalent in today’s society. I left the novella wondering what possibly brought “the Thing” to Earth? It’s possible it only came to learn. Who’s to say what it could have taught us?

Today, we are most familiar with the tale presented in “Who Goes There?” because of the 1982 classic sci-fi horror film, The Thing, directed by John Carpenter. This film represents the second in three attempts at film adaptations of Campbell’s novella. The first released in 1951 titled The Thing from Another World and directed by Christian Nyby. The third debuted recently in 2011, also titled The Thing, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and acts as a prequel to Carpenter’s adaptation. The 1982 film, upon home video release, garnered a cult following and has since been deemed one of the best sci-fi horror films ever made. In addition to film adaptations, fans of the story can find comic, boardgame, and radio drama interpretations of this classic tale. Most recently, it was discovered that Campbell intended “Who Goes There?” to be part of a much longer novel, titled Frozen Hell. In late 2018, a successful Kickstarter campaign launched to fund the publication of this expanded novel. As of today, you can still purchase an eBook of this title from various online retailers. Included in the eBook is a preview of contemporary science fiction writer John Gregory Betancourt’s intended sequel to Campbell’s classic story.

As usual, I’d like to hear what you think. Was “the Thing” trying to take over humanity? Would you be able to tell your friend apart from an alien? Or, which film adaptation best captures Campbell’s vision? Whatever you want to share, leave your comments below.

Until next time!

The version of “Who Goes There?” I read came from Who Goes There? (ISBN: 0-575-09103-7), purchased from Half Price Books online. Published by Gollancz in 2011 to correspond with the release of The Thing (2011), this title collects seven of John W. Campbell’s short fiction together.

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