Tuesday, May 6, 2008

John W Campbell, Jr's "Who Goes There?" (science fiction thriller, novella): When the curious opened the bottle, & let the jinn out!

Quote from short story titled Who Goes There by John W Campbell, Jr, writing as Don A StuartGreat fast-paced thriller, even if many of its themes are no longer new. Not always reasonable, but it held my interest all through.

Conceptually, the story is closest to Hal Clement's "Needle" - among the stories I've read. Campbell's version much faster paced. Clement's is more rigorous where behavior of alien is described.

Full text of this story is available for download. But I've not read this online version.

Story summary.

A research expedition is camping in Antarctica - where all action in the story takes place. 37 men, with Commander Garry as leader.

A team investigating magnetic south pole discovers a second minor magnetic pole nearby! Hitherto unknown, & not explained by anything known. Further investigations reveal a buried ancient spaceship of alien origins - "a thing like a submarine without a conning tower or directive vanes, 280 feet long and 45 feet in diameter at its thickest". It's buried "within one hundred feet of the glacier surface"; we will later learn it has been buried for at least 20 million years! Note there was also a magnetic anomaly on moon that led to discovery of ancient sentinel in Arthur Clarke's "2001 A Space Odyssey".

After digging, they find the ship's airlock ajar, but jammed - there is snow inside too. To melt this snow, they throw a supposedly harmless "25-pound thermite bomb", an "ice-softener", in the airlock. Result is: the whole ship is blown to bits, with nothing recoverable!!

Bit more investigation reveals a frozen specimen nearby. An authentic alien, probably intelligent, probably part of the crew, probably tried to take a look at the place after crash & was frozen "within ten feet of the ship". We will later learn - through arguments I don't recall - that the alien ship came from stars; it's not of any world within Sol.

Anyway, the story is about this frozen alien specimen. Some argument after taking it back to camp ("Big Magnet" - that's camp's name), & a decision is made to thaw it - slowly.

There are some arguments presented here that always sound egotistic to me (but I'm not a biologist, & cannot now locate relevant quotes): distinction between "lower" & "higher" lifeforms where it concerns basic life processes. We are told certain fish survive such freezing & thawing, but no higher life forms do. Since a starfaring alien is obviously at least our peer, he is "higher" life form - hence is certainly dead! Objective of thawing is to look at equivalent of alien bacteria - these low life forms are said to survive 20 million years of freezing. They are not considered a health hazard, because alien biochemistry will be so different from earthly one.

Anyway, the group goes to sleep. One guy is working in a room, & that is where the frozen alien is left thawing. By the time the guy notices, alien is not in the room anymore! Alarm is raised, there is commotion among dogs maintained by group, a deadly chase is given, & eventually the alien is electrocuted & is declared dead.

That is when the world begins to fall apart. Arguments are a bit hand-wavy, but they prepare the way for real thriller. We are told the alien biochemistry is such that its cells simply take over any others it comes in contact with. It's a sort of shape shifter - it eats a bit of a dog, & it becomes a dog indistinguishable from other dogs but that dog in not really an earthly dog - it's this alien, & as smart! They found this because the thing they finally killed was partly dog, partly alien; it had not had time to completely adopt new shape.

And it can multiply fast because each of its cells is a complete individual - & as smart. Threaten a drop of its blood, & that drop will defend itself! This threatened blood drops will play a role in the story later.

OK - so here is the threat. Any animal it comes in touch with is absorbed - birds, fish, humans, ... Very soon, all earth life will be alien!

And our friends discover that some of them have been taken over! How to detect friend from foe? That's what the story is about - everyone is a suspect, many tests that each fail because alien has been thinking ahead, infected individuals don't know they are infected, ... Eventually, the running-blood test described earlier will be used to catch & kill the infected crew. 14 crew members will be thus killed!

But that is not all; one individual is still left. He had raised so much ruckus during earlier days that he had been isolated with food. And he kept making annoying noises all though about the week of drama. That's when someone thinks of giving him the running-blood test too - but too late! There will be some fight; eventually they will kill this host of alien too. And some remnant of alien is seen running out to Antarctic wilderness - hopefully to find other victims later!!

Going through the isolation chamber, they figure the alien has been making gadgets to effect escape (by looting the camp's "apparatus caches") - among them a tiny atomic power plant that consumes any material as fuel, & an anti-gravity device he planned to use to fly away! You see, all vehicles of camp, including aircraft, were destroyed beyond any hope of fixing when the menace was discovered - to contain its spread through earth.

We will also learn that the alien wasn't completely frozen; only his metabolism was slowed down. He could still think, & he in fact telepathically put the idea of his thawing in the heads of the crew!


  1. "micro-life might retain the power of living. Such unorganized things as individual cells can retain life for unknown periods, when solidly frozen... Organized, highly developed life-forms can't stand that treatment."
  2. "individual cells might show the characteristics they had in life, if it is properly thawed. A man's muscle cells live many hours after he has died. Just because they live, and a few things like hair and fingernail cells still live, you wouldn't accuse a corpse of being a Zombie".
  3. "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."
  4. "Nothing would kill it. It has no natural enemies, because it becomes whatever it wants to. If a killer whale attacked it, it would become a killer whale. If it was an albatross, and an eagle attacked it, it would become an eagle. Lord, it might become a female eagle. Go back—build a nest and lay eggs!"
  5. "Man studied birds for centuries, trying to learn how to make a machine to fly like them. He never did do the trick; his final success came when he broke away entirely and tried new methods."
  6. "It doesn't fight. I don't think it ever fights. It must be a peaceable thing, in its own—inimitable—way. It never had to, because it always gained its end—otherwise."
  7. "the blood will not obey. It's a new individual, with all the desire to protect its own life that the original—the main mass from which it was split—has. The blood will live—and try to crawl away from a hot needle".

Movie adaptations.

  1. Christian Nyby's "The Thing from Another World" (1951).
  2. John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982).
I haven't seen either of the movies.

Collected in.

  1. Ben Bova (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A".
  2. David Drake, Jim Baen, & Eric Flint (Ed)'s "The World Turned Upside Down".
  3. Raymond J Healy & J Francis McComas (Eds)' "Adventures in Time and Space".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1938 (as by Don A Stuart).
Rating: A


Walt said...

A terrific story and probably Campbell's best. I know it hit me hard back in high school, when I took this stuff seriously.