Monday, October 17, 2022

Pulp Science Fiction Library: Who Goes There?

Last week, I wrote about Clark Ashton Smith's "The Devotee of Evil," whose original appearance in the pages of Stirring Science Stories featured an illustration by the incomparable Hannes Bok. Seeing that illustration led me down a rabbit hole of investigation into the life and work of Wayne Woodard, known to history by his artistic pseudonym, Hannes Bok (apparently derived from the name of the composer Johannes Sebastian Bach). Among Bok's most famous pieces is the cover of the 1948 collection of science fiction stories by John W. Campbell, Jr, Who Goes There? (appended to the end of this post).

The collection's title comes from its lead story. Campbell first published it in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, the magazine he edited from 1937 to 1971. He did so under the nom de plume, Don A. Stuart, a pen name he'd used even before he took up editorship of the premier SF pulp of the Golden Age. In its original form, Who Goes There? is a novella consisting of twelve chapters, while the version that appeared a decade later in the collection mentioned above is expanded to fourteen chapters. An even longer version, bearing the title, Frozen Hell, was discovered just a few years ago among Campbell's papers, but it never appeared during his lifetime.

Despite their differences in length, the 1938 and 1948 versions are nearly identical in their essentials. The story concerns a team of thirty-seven men, most of them scientists of one type or another, stationed at an Antarctic research facility who have stumbled upon something strange. In this, the tale bears a superficial similarity to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, which appeared in three successive issues of Astounding a little less than two years prior. The similarity is primarily their shared setting of Antarctica, a continent still largely unknown in the 1930s, the decade that saw several scientific expeditions to it, most notably those of Richard Byrd. As an admirer of Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness is usually in my mind whenever a think of Antarctica and stories set there, particularly those of a science fictional and/or horror variety; Who Goes There? is both.

The novella begins shortly after the Secondary Magnetic Pole team under the leadership of the facility's second-in-command, McReady, returns, bearing an unusual find: the body of what appears extraterrestrial being frozen in a block of ice. The body was found on the South Polar Plateau, where it was "frozen since Antarctica froze twenty million years ago." The team that found it, consisting of McReady, Barclay, Blair, Dr. Copper, Norris, and Van Wall, speculate that 

"It came down from space, driven and lifted by forces men haven't discovered yet, and somehow – perhaps something went wrong then – it tangled with Earth's magnetic field. It came south, out of control probably, circling the magnetic pole. That's a savage country there, but when Antarctica was still freezing it must have been a thousand times more savage. 

They further speculate that one of the ship's passengers – the thing they brought back with them – had managed to get clear of spaceship's wreck and then quickly froze to death in the cold of Antarctica. The team hoped to examine the ship more closely, but their use of decanite and thermite bombs to soften the ice in which it was encased inadvertently set the ship's magnesium metal hull on fire and it, along with whatever secrets it might have held, was lost in a blinding inferno of heat and light.

There is disagreement between Norris, a physicist, and Blair, a biologist, regarding the danger in thawing the thing in the ice, with the former thinking it dangerous and the latter seeing no cause for concern. Norris worries that the thing, even if dead, might be host to microscopic organisms that, when thawed, could unleash a new plague upon the world. Blair, for his part, argues that alien germs would probably be no threat to Earth, since their biologies would probably be incompatible. The debate between the two goes on for some time with neither scientist ceding ground to the other. 

Before the facility's commander, Garry, can make a decision, Blair eagerly gives the men present a look at the thing, hoping that, by doing so, he will win the others over to his point of view. 

The room stiffened abruptly. It was face up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. The broken haft of the bronze ice-ax 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 –

Seeing the alien's appearance has the opposite effect, shifting the men's mood against the possibility of thawing it. Nevertheless, Blair is persistent and Dr. Copper largely agrees with him. He believes that much could be learned about the nature of extra-terrestrial life and that this knowledge was worth the risk. The pair eventually win over Garry by arguing "things don't live after being frozen," especially not "higher animal life." Reluctantly, the commander acquiesces to their wishes and the block of ice is allowed to thaw overnight, under the watchful eye of Connant, the facility's cosmic ray specialist.

During his vigil, Connant falls asleep and, when he awakes, discovers that the presumed alien corpse is gone. 

"Your damned beast got loose. I fell asleep about twenty minutes ago, and when I woke up, the thing was gone. Hey, Doc, the hell you say those things can't come to life. Blair's blasted potential life developed a hell of a lot of potential and walked out on us." 

Copper stared blankly. "It wasn't – Earthly," he sighed suddenly. "I – I guess Earthly laws don't apply."

"Well, it applied for leave of absence and took it. We've got to find it and capture it somehow."

The men of the facility fan out, looking for the thing, assuming that it couldn't have got very far in the confined spaces of the buildings in which they dwell, They likewise assume that the extreme cold of the outdoors – the tale takes place toward the end of the Antarctic winter – would freeze it again and so it would avoid leaving the facility. 

Soon, Connant believes he has located the alien. It's made its way to Dogtown, the building where one of the men, Clark, houses the huskies used to pull their sleds. The dogs are howling, yelping, and snarling at one of their own, a dog named Charnauk. Charnauk reveals himself to – somehow – be the alien, its three red eyes giving it away. A combination of bullets, ax blows, and finally 220 Volts of electricity seemingly kills the thing, whose corpse Blair wants to examine more closely. In doing so, he concludes that the alien had somehow turned itself into Charnauk.

"Turned?" snapped Garry. "How?"

"Every living thing is made up of jelly – protoplasm and submicroscopic things called nuclei, which control the bulk, the protoplasm. This thing was just a modification of that worldwide plan of Nature; cells made up of protoplasm, controlled by infinitely tinier nuclei. You physicists might compare it – an individual cell of any living thing – with an atom; the bulk of the atom, the space-filling part, is made up of the electron orbits, but the character of the thing is determined by the atomic nucleus."

"This isn't wildly beyond what we already know. It's just a modification we haven't seen before. It's as natural, as logical, as any other modification of life. It obeys exactly the same laws. The cells are made of protoplasm, their character determined by the nucleus."

"Only in this creature, cell-nuclei can control those cells at will. It digested Charnauk, and as it digested, studied every cell of his tissue, and shaped its own cells to imitate them exactly. Parts of it – parts that had time to finish changing – are dog-cells. But they don't have dog-nuclei."  Blair lifted a fraction of the tarpaulin. A torn dog's leg, with stiff gray fur protruded. "That, for instance, isn't dog at all; it's imitation. Some parts I'm uncertain about; the nucleus was hiding itself, covering up with dog-cell imitation nucleus. In time, not even a microscope would have shown the difference."

"Suppose," asked Norris bitterly, "it had had lots of time?"

It's then that the men first begin to realize that the alien thing possesses the ability to assimilate any living thing. Worse still, there was a good chance that the thing was still at large and that one or more of the men had already been copied by it ...

Who Goes There? is a remarkable classic of science fiction, all the more remarkable because it was written in 1938. Campbell's writing is spare and dialog-heavy and his cast of characters, most of whom don't even have names, are often difficult to tell apart from one another. Nevertheless, the central idea of the story and the scientific basis for it remains compelling even today. It's no wonder that it inspired multiple films, the most faithful of which is John Carpenter's The Thing, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary earlier this year. If you've never read the original story, I highly recommend it.

Bok's cover illustration from the 1948 collection containing the story


  1. I loved the short story. The nineteen fifties movie is only an adaptation in the broadest sense. "Crashed spaceship found in cold place, frozen survivor thaws and is malevolent" is the end of the similarity. The Carpenter version is much closer, but the thing's power was so uprated that it removed some of the tension.

  2. "Every living thing is made up of jelly – protoplasm and submicroscopic things called nuclei, which control the bulk, the protoplasm."

    That particular line always reminds me of a bit character in one episode of the old drew Carey Show. She adamantly maintained that lions had no internal organs, instead being composed entirely of undifferentiated mucus. Weirdly, I'd re-read Who Goes There a couple of days before the episode first aired, which just made it feel more connected to me.

    Also, submicroscopic does not mean what the character seems t think it means. The proper definition is "too small to be seen with an ordinary light microscope" and nuclei definitely do not fit that, as anyone who passed high school biology ought to know. You can see plenty of much smaller cell structures with a decent scope, right down to the lysosomes and mitochondria.

  3. I never realized that the character names from Carpenter's The Thing all came from this story! (Norris, MacReady, Doc Copper, Garry, Clark, Blair, et. al)

    Will have to check it out. Thanks!

  4. Peter Watts wrote a "lovely" story telling the events of Carpenter's film from the perspective of the alien. You can read it here.

    1. The story From the Thing's point of view is Post-modern moral relativism drival.

    2. I respectfully disagree.

      (Spoilers ahead...)

      The monster's morality isn't defended. In fact, seeing its twisted malevolent perspective made it even more sinister than in the film. That last sentence especially. Also, Child's final lines.

      I also appreciated the author's theories on how and when each camp member was infected, and the infection process itself. Not that I agreed with every instance. But it was interesting to see. Made we want to watch The Thing again.

      I felt it was a little long, and the word "communion" overused, but these are minor complaints. I really enjoyed reading it. I loved the trippy, multiple POV lines of a shared sentience like, "Being Childs, I could only stand and watch. Being Copper, I could only make it worse..."

      Thanks again for the heads up, thekelvingreen!

  5. I remember reading this story in a Scholastic anthology back in the 1970s. What a read.