Thursday, February 11, 2016
Good Reads :: Knock! Knock! Finding All Kinds of Things about the Origin and Influence of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?"
John W. Campbell’s seminal science fiction novella, "Who Goes There?", first saw the ink of print in the August, 1938, issue of Astounding Science-Fiction magazine under the veil of Don A. Stuart, one of his many pseudonyms, and a favorite when writing something this morbid and gruesome. And over the multiple decades since publication this tale of an Antarctic expedition uncovering a deadly shape-shifting alien in the glacial ice, which thaws and starts assimilating its way to world conquest has been adapted to the big and small screens on numerous occasions both officially and unofficially.
From Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951) to John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), and from Doctor Who ("Seeds of Doom") to The X-Files ("Ice"), and from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) to The Stepford Wives (1975), all owe a debt to Campbell’s masterpiece of mounting paranoia and nebulous, nigh-undetectable monster.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the story yet, you can rectify that here, and then you’ll really get a true sense of what I’m talking about. But its influence goes well beyond the moving pictures. I dug out this fabulous, though extremely truncated, British radio adaption put on by the BBC in 2002 while trying to extricate myself from one of them there YouTube holes.
Further digging found a four-color adaptation published in 1976 in the debut issue Starstream, by Arnold Drake with art by Jack Abel. And you can check that out here.
Turns out Campbell’s alien, referred to from the very beginning as The Thing, is also featured in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.
And in 2010, author Peter Watts published an interesting twist on this macabre sci-fi tale, spinning it around and telling the story from the alien’s point of view in "The Things", though to be fair, it is told more from Carpenter’s film version point of view instead of Campbell's novella. You can read Watt's version here, or there’s an audio version of it here.
But the most interesting nugget I found on this latest cannonball into The Thing gene pool, is how it influenced another author, whose work would prove just as, if not more, influential than Campbell’s novella. Apparently, A.E. van Vogt had given up on science fiction and was making his living writing sudsy “true confession” melodramas when he passed a newsstand and, by chance, started thumbing through a certain copy of Astounding Science-Fiction. "I read half of it standing there at the news-stand before I bought the issue and finished it,” said van Vogt. “That brought me back into the fold with a vengeance. I still regard 'Who Goes There?' as the best story Campbell ever wrote, and the best horror tale in science fiction."
After this chance encounter, van Vogt wrote his own story about a shape-shifting alien and submitted it to Campbell, who was also serving as senior editor at Astounding Science Fiction at the time, but he rejected “Vault of the Beast”. However, he did see enough there that he encouraged the author to take another run at it, which netted us all "The Black Destroyer", and whose success spawned "Discord in Scarlet" and several other salty sci-fi tales, later collected under one banner as The Voyage of the Space Beagle (also as Mission: Interplanetary), whose influence, Nexialism, monsters, and cosmic whiz-bangery, can be seen in the DNA of everything from Star Trek to Alien. So, in a sense, two of the greatest sci-fi monsters, The Thing and the Xenomorph (which is directly inspired by both vanVogt’s Coeurl and the Ixtl) and two of the scariest horror films ever made, The Thing (1982) and Alien (1979) can be traced directly to one story. Because this...
Definitely equals this in my book:
Sadly, "Who Goes There?" would essentially be the last thing Campbell would write, focusing instead on his editorial duties and screening potential authors, giving the green-light not only to van Vogt, but to the likes of Lester del Rey, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon to name but a few. And even though he was no longer writing, his influence was far from over. "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man", said Campbell as he started his sci-fi revolution. As to what that revolution consisted of, I think fellow author and friend Isaac Asimov summed up Campbell's impact best:
"By his own example and by his instruction and by his undeviating and persisting insistence, he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold," said Asimov. "He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny-dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies."
Even as his influence dwindled in the 1960s with the coming of the New Wave, Campbell continued to work as an editor until his death in 1971. And even though he made his Golden Age of Science Fiction more about the science than the fiction (-- a stickling for detail that got him into trouble with the FBI when the editor commissioned one of his authors to write about the construction of an atomic bomb in 1944), Campbell wasn't above asking for a story that would match a cover painting he'd already bought. A bona fide genius to some, an irascible right-wing contrarian to others, and a complete cuckoo-bird to the rest, the answer is John W. Campbell was all of the above and I contend that no one did more for the legitimization of the genre than he and him.