Wednesday, 18 January 2012
‘Who Goes There?’ – John W. Campbell (Gollancz)
An Antarctic expedition has discovered something amazing under the ice, a spaceship that crash landed on Earth many thousands of years ago. Even better than that; an alien corpse has been perfectly preserved under the ice, ready for examination by the expedition’s scientists. What these scientists could never have realised though is that they’re not dealing with a corpse at all... The team is about to discover the true meaning of paranoia and will also find that they are the only thing standing in the path of an alien invasion unlike any other...
This is going to be a shorter review than most, purely because ‘Who Goes There?’ weighs in at an incredibly slight and slender seventy five pages long. No wonder Gollancz had to include several of Campbell’s other stories, this is a book that needs some serious bulking up. More on those stories another time.
With only a little space to work in (apparently the novella was published in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ so maybe there was a space issue that had to be worked around) Campbell does well to convey his message of paranoia and mistrust along with several ‘alien encounters’ and a sobering revelation right at the very end. That is quite a lot to pack into a small space and certain elements of the plot inevitably suffer for it. You don’t get much of a sense of what the alien looks like, for example, along Campbell leaves you in no doubt as to what it can do. This is done both through its own actions and through the theorizing of the scientists. The theorizing did drag on a little bit for my liking though (the concept is very well thought out and presented though) especially when the gradual growth of paranoia, on the base, was being dealt with so well.
Reading ‘Who Goes There?’ you soon realise that the alien could be any member of the team and Campbell keeps you in the dark just as much as he does the surviving members of the team. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the base also plays well into this growing sense of urgency and fear. There’s something out there and you’ve got very little room to manoeuvre when it comes for you.This approach makes for some very tense moments with revelations that are suitably explosive. I was on edge just as much as the main characters were. The only thing that detracted from this very impressive effect was Campbell’s occasionally ‘matter of fact’ prose, telling it like it was when a little more embellishment could have made the novella all the more engaging.
‘Who Goes There?’ was nothing short of a gripping read though, one that I had to finish even though I’d already seen the film (well, one of them). If there was a little more meat on its bones I could see this novella sitting quite comfortably in the ‘SF Masterworks’ range; that shouldn’t detract from what it does though. Another masterful work and I’ll be reading the other stories very soon if the quality here is anything to go by.
Nine and a Half out of Ten