RogerBW's Blog

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell 27 October 2021

1938 science fiction novella. A group of Antarctic researchers finds a spaceship in the ice, wrecked millions of years ago. But something of its crew/cargo seems still to be alive, and able to take over humans…

One knows this better from the influence the later films had on pop culture, but it's interesting to go back to the original… which is of course mostly procedural. There's not much characterisation: everyone is a rugged manly man (women aren't even mentioned) and that's pretty much all you need to know about them. The prose is, well.

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.

(At least a blowtorch is a more plausible thing than a flamethrower to have lying around at an Antarctic base.)

And it's very very talky between brief bits of action (presumably to distinguish itself from bad SF crash-bang-zap).

But this is the sort of stuff one had to put up with in 1930s SF to get at the interesting ideas. All right, Campbell's own Brain Stealers of Mars (1936) also had telepathic shapeshifting aliens – did I mention they're also telepathic? Something wisely dropped in the film adaptations – but that story has a rather lighter tone. Here we get something like an existential threat to Earth's biosphere, and people taking it seriously. This is one of the very first base under siege, victims killed off one at a time, SF stories (though of course the old scary house story had been doing it first). And the idea of split-off bits of the creature being unable to act like mere drops of blood when threatened with destruction is a solid and powerful one.

(But even here we get the idea that the heat from a thermite charge, about 2500°C, will be too much for a hull that's already survived atmospheric entry…)

This is apparently cut down from a short novel, unpublished at the time and rediscovered in 2018; it's now out as Frozen Hell. I may well read it for completism, but there's very little here that's compelling to someone who's read later, better SF which has ideas and people and pacing.

(Freely available at some random site that's still mirroring the Baen "free for everyone forever" CDs that stopped being free as soon as Jim Baen died.)

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