The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “Who Goes There?”

WHO WROTE IT: John W. Campbell, Jr., writing as Don A. Stuart. Though better remembered as the pioneering editor-in-chief of Astounding Science Fiction (which later became Analog Science Fiction & Fact) who almost single-handedly conducted American science fiction into the Golden Age, Campbell wrote six novels and a number of short stories. He was also a heavy smoker and seldom seen without his characteristic cigarette holder.

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WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A group of scientists at an Antarctic research station discover an alien spacecraft buried in the ice for 20 million years. They attempt to thaw the interior of the vessel with a thermite charge, but wind up destroying it when its magnesium hull catches fire. They do, however, recover the alien pilot, frozen solid. What they don’t know is that this alien being assumes the appearance, memories, and personality of anything it devours, and retains its original mass for duplication. When the scientists return the thing to their research station it thaws out, devouring one of the team. With 90 pounds of excess mass left over, it tries to imitate one of the team’s sled dogs. The team discovers the dog-creature in the act of mutating and kill it. What follows is a grim, sci-fi horror version of a whodunit, as the increasingly paranoid team tries to figure out just who’s human and who’s an imitation before the thing manages to kill them all.

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Or worse, make them shave and cut their hair.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: One of the best things about science fiction is the way it allows writers to explore the limits of the human mind: our consciousness, our psyche, and our emotions. We fancy ourselves the masters of this little blue-and-green planet, and have unshakable faith in ourselves and our ability to triumph over adversity and meet threats courageously. Sci-fi writers love to take these cocky human beings and stick them into humbling, horrifying circumstances, forcing them to confront their own limitations and weakness in mind, spirit, and body. Usually there’s a strong-minded, iron-willed character who can handle it. (In Campbell’s novella, it’s McReady. He kind of reminds me of Robert E. Howard’s Conan: big and bearded with a thunderous laugh, and totally without fear.) And, of course, most of the rest of the principal characters can’t handle the situation, and break down. You see it in every horror and disaster movie, and certain action and thriller films. People are trapped in a stressful situation. Some of them rise to the challenge, while others weep, go crazy, or commit cowardly acts of self-preservation. Who Goes There? answers the question—quite pertinent in 1938, with humanity developing rockets and scientists beginning to wonder about the effects of long-term space travel on the human psyche—of what happens when you take a bunch of stressed-out, cooped-up guys and introduce raw fear and paranoia into the mix.

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Pictured: man’s best friend. Or possibly a murderous shape-shifting alien monster.

The characters in Campbell’s story are already under a ton of stress. They’ve been crammed together in close quarters for months, it’s dark and cold and windy outside, and they’re thousands and thousands of miles from warmth and sunshine and familiar faces. They might as well be on the moon. Then, suddenly, a shape-shifting alien that can perfectly imitate a living organism, even a human being, is introduced into their midst. The men have no way of knowing who’s an imitation and who isn’t, and they need to figure it out quick before they’re all devoured. The strain, anxiety, and sheer paranoia push some of them to the brink of insanity.

I gotta tell ya, I’ve watched dozens of horror movies and read more than a few horror novels, and the most horrific one for me by far is Who Goes There? If I was stuck in an Antarctic research station with a bunch of other guys, any one of whom could be an alien imitation, I think I’d go stark raving mad. And that, right there, is the reason why Campbell’s novella has been called one of the greatest science fiction novellas of all time, and why its plot has been repeated so often in books and movies ever since—the short story “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick and the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to name just two examples. The premise is nearly perfect. Who’s who? Will the heroes figure it out before the aliens complete their sinister plan? How will they pinpoint the identity of the infiltrators in time?

Campbell’s novella keeps you guessing. You flip pages, unable to stand the suspense, willingly inserting and reinserting yourself into the middle of the action. And all the while, you’re contemplating the gut-wrenching biological horror of the thing’s abilities as well as the greater existential horror of being assimilated and replaced by an alien creature that’s a perfect imitation of you.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: I have several subjective reasons for loving this story. First, I love science fiction and horror stories that take place in Antarctica. There’s just something…sinister and mysterious about the place. An entire continent, once humid and tropical and full of life, now frozen solid and buried beneath an ice sheet miles thick. There could be anything under there. Antarctica’s isolation and brutal climate make it a fascinating place, ripe ground for horror stories.

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There’s a mountain there called “Mount Terror.” What more do you need to know?

Second, Who Goes There? is an inventive story. It takes an already tense situation (men living together in close quarters at an Antarctic research base for months at a time) and introduces a fracturing element of paranoia and fear into  it. The story both thrills and fascinates you and makes you wonder how you’d react under such circumstances. Would you be able to keep your head and your courage? Would you go mad, wondering whether you were the last human and everyone around you had become a perfect imitation of themselves? Would you even know when and if you had been transformed?

One of the reasons I’ve always loved this novella is because it’s classic horror. Modern-day cinematic horror is just blood and guts and screaming and photogenic teenagers being mutilated onscreen. But classic horror, late 19th- and early 20th-century horror, the horror of Campbell and Lovecraft and Bierce, is cosmic horror. It’s the horror of not knowing. It’s the horror of feeling small, of feeling powerless, of simply not understanding. It’s the horror of contemplating that there might be forces, powers, beings out there in the universe more powerful than humanity. That our place in the universe might be astoundingly, terrifyingly insignificant. That we might not be all-powerful masters of the universe like we thought…just meat. Quite a few characters in cosmic horror stories go mad from these revelations. You can feel that creeping horror as you read Campbell’s novella, as well as the visceral terror of the men trapped in the research station with an invisible alien monster.

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I Googled “cosmic horror wallpaper” and this is what I found. Eh, whatever.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: If you like science fiction, or horror, or Antarctica, or whodunits, or stories that keep you on the edge of your seat, or you are already a fan of John Carpenter or the movie The Thing, you gotta read this story. Carpenter’s film is grand, but I think the source material is even richer in detail, explaining the capabilities of the thing and the completeness of the dilemma and danger in which the men now find themselves. Yes, the story has some sensationalist elements which seem silly by today’s standards (telepathic aliens). But the novella is still enjoyable despite that.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: The novella was published in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. IIA (Avon Books, 1974). It’s also available as a standalone paperback on Amazon.

WHAT IT INSPIRED: In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Campbell’s novella was the inspiration for John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic horror flick, The Thing.

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While there have been other movie adaptations of Campbell’s story—the forgettable 2011 “prequel” to the Carpenter film, and a strange 1951 adaptation called The Thing from Another World (in which James Arness portrays a walking plant monster), Carpenter’s film is the most memorable and faithful to the source material. It’s an amazing movie, tense and atmospheric, and totally captures the paranoia and visceral terror of Campbell’s novella. I don’t even like horror movies, but I adore this film.

I read an apocryphal story somewhere on the web that said that, at the beginning of winter, just after the last supply ships and planes depart and leave the station crews to settle in for the long, dark winter, the administrators at McMurdo Station screen John Carpenter’s The Thing to the research station staff. Then they all settle in for a long, dark, and slightly paranoid winter…

Author: Andrew T. Post

Andrew T. Post is a science fiction writer, journalist, traveler, thinker, and blogger based in the Central Valley of California.

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