THE DEEP ONES: "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell

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THE DEEP ONES: "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell

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2BruceCoulson
Ago 30, 2013, 2:35pm

Been a while since I read the original; good excuse to read it again.

3paradoxosalpha
Ago 30, 2013, 5:02pm

I just picked up The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A from the public library last night for this purpose. (They'll be closed on the holiday weekend.)

4RandyStafford
Editado: Set 2, 2013, 10:50pm

I'll be reading this out of The Future in Question.

5dukedom_enough
Set 3, 2013, 7:37am

And it wasn't the cover story? Who now remembers "Hell Ship" by Arthur J. Burks? :-)

6bertilak
Set 3, 2013, 7:50am

7KentonSem
Editado: Set 3, 2013, 2:36pm

The recent Rocket Ride books paperback edition of Who Goes There? for me. William F. Nolan contributes the intro, along with an unproduced screenplay treatment he did which is pretty awful!

8housefulofpaper
Set 3, 2013, 2:32pm

I'll have to read online - better get started!

9KentonSem
Set 4, 2013, 8:53am

It's always a pleasure to read Who Goes There?. Hard to believe it was written in 1938. It doesn't really get out-of-date, perhaps because the antarctic remains such an inhospitable place for most life forms (not that humans haven't been doing their best to contaminate it).

I must have watched Carpenter's 1982 film more times than any other. I'm struck by how well he actually nailed Campbell's story. Carpenter's ending is waaaay better, though. I also prefer Kurt Russell's MacReady to the "bronze giant" Doc Savage-like description of the character in the original tale.

10paradoxosalpha
Set 4, 2013, 10:15am

"Who Goes There?" is the second novella collected in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A, and since I wasn't familiar with the first one, I read it too: "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson. One thing the two stories had in common was the crucial use of telepathy. In both cases, the sfnal approach seemed to be rather "hard," and mind-to-mind communication was taken to be a parapsychological phenomenon as good as proven, if not yet controlled by 20th-century humans. I've seen this attitude in fiction as late as the 1970s, but after that it seems to evaporate. I don't know if it has to do with increasing skepticism, or whether it becomes obsoleted by the exteriorization of mental phenomena in cyberspace.

> 9
I agree that Campbell's "happy" ending leaves something to be desired. Of course, we're approaching this in the context of weird horror rather than SF adventure.

Highlights included the emphasis on the way characters would look at each other under the conditions of horrified suspicion, and the grudge about the cannibalized privy door.

11KentonSem
Editado: Set 4, 2013, 10:34am

>10 paradoxosalpha:

Experiments with mind-to-mind communication were big in covert military ops all the way up through the cold war, if not later (now what was the name of that George Clooney movie...?), although as I re-read the story this time I did think that 1938 might have been somewhat early for the "telepathy" idea to be used in a non-future-based SF tale. Was Campbell ahead of his time? But then, I haven't read extensively in early 20th century SF pulp fiction.

...it becomes obsoleted by the exteriorization of mental phenomena in cyberspace

I like it!

The reader has to work to keep up with the dialog, which flies along at a really quick, suspenseful pace. I think that Lederer/Hawks/Hecht picked up on this idea for their 1951 screenplay.

12BruceCoulson
Set 4, 2013, 11:06am

The Hawks adaptation has the beautiful interwoven dialogue (not possible in writing, although Campbell certainly implies it) and one of the more memorable scenes in SF movies of the time period; the scientists wandering about randomly on the ice looking for a place to stand and then forming a circle.

Campbell has the scene described as a flashback, which focuses the action at the base. Which is fine, but not as visually interesting.

Campbell was biased towards 'humans as victors' both as a writer and editor. Given his success, perhaps many readers were as well.

13AndreasJ
Set 4, 2013, 11:06am

Hard to believe it was written in 1938. It doesn't really get out-of-date, perhaps because the antarctic remains such an inhospitable place for most life forms (not that humans haven't been doing their best to contaminate it).

When I encountered this story ('90s), I had no idea who Campbell was, and didn't pay any attention to the publication date*. I'd surely have guessed it to be far more contemporary if anyone'd asked me.

* If it was even given. I don't recall quite how I came across it - likely an anthology from the public or school library. As a general thing, back then I paid very little attention to literary "metadata" - publication dates and formats, author names, even work names. As an adult, I've repeatedly encountered summaries of stories I realize I must have read but would never have recognized from title and author.

14KentonSem
Editado: Set 4, 2013, 2:10pm

I find it interesting that 1982 film version is often described as "Lovecraftian", while Campbell's story generally is not. Closer examination reveals that even though the latter falls pretty solidly into the SF-adventure category of its time, it does contain bare traces of HPL's cosmic horror tropes, such as the assimilation/invasion of earthbound life forms and deep time aspects (the thing waiting beneath the ice). Carpenter surely picked up on those and amplified them in sometimes extreme ways, making it easier for viewers to make a cosmic horror connection.

>12 BruceCoulson:

The overlapping staccato dialog as performed in the 1951 film has become my favorite aspect of it, although the scares remain pretty decent, too.

15BruceCoulson
Set 4, 2013, 1:47pm

I would tend to view the two authors as using similar ideas to a very different purpose.

Lovecraft was building a Mythos with scientific underpinnings (perhaps pseudo-scientific at times). As a response to traditional supernatural horror and evil; more a of Kafka-esque indifferent universe.

Campbell was equally (if not more) scientific, but crafting a single story of suspense and tension. Horrific at times, yes; but the thrust was to write a page-turning thriller. (At which he succeeded quite well.)

Two different moods being evoked, using a central theme of aliens in 'deep time' and hostility to modern lifeforms.

16bertilak
Set 4, 2013, 2:57pm

> 9 Yes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and "The Thing from Another World' are usually paired as being classic 1950s cold-war paranoia films, but that can't be, given the 1938 date. Joshi in Unutterable Horror Volume 2 mentions that WTG was 'purportedly' a response to At the Mountains of Madness but does not identify the purported purporter. He remarks briefly that it is an aesthetic error to think that '... incredible events could be accepted without the proper atmosphere ...'. I think STJ misses the boat here. Granted, WTG is not supernatural: it is all in Campbell's ultra-realistic mode. It starts with stenches: not of the Thing but of the men, dogs, and machinery.

I think that Campbell is doing anti-Lovecraft in one sense. Instead of ectomorphic academics who faint at the sight of misbehaving angles or superfluous tentacles, Campbell gives us 1930s Manly Men who face up to the situation and deal with it. McReady, with his convenient knowledge of meteorology and medicine is a prototype of the Heinlein omnicompetent man (who is inspired by polymathic Odysseus) (as in #12 'humans as victors').

I didn't think of McReady as Doc Savage. I think he was intended to be a Viking, with his size, strength, and golden-red hair. The ethos of a band of men willing to fight to the last man to define their homeland fits with Vikings. The 'happy ending' was just a bit of good luck. Given the Viking motif, and the 1930s motif of Making The Universe Safe for Straight, White Males, I don't think WTG is in the Cthulhu Mythos. It is the Aryan one. (so yes to #15 above).

Yes, Carpenter's ending is better and fits better with the Viking theme.

As for Joshi's statement that 'there aren't many who will think that, on a purely literary scale, Campbell's story is superior to Lovecraft's', I may join the minority. Consider the structural weaknesses that ATMoM has the WTG lacks. First, ATMoM drags on with lots of info dumped about the expedition and geology before the titular mountains. Second, with the Miskatonic survivors exploring the city, it is absurd to see them going for the Guinness record for real-time speed-hermeneutics as they explicate the carvings and deduce the entire history of the race in a few hours. There is a sentence explaining that they did most of the interpretation from sketches after returning back to Miskatonic U, but the impression remains.

Campbell avoids these problems by limiting the knowledge of the Secondary Magnetic Expedition to things actually revealed in the story. His characters, limited as they are to attributes needed for the plot, are still more complete persons than HPL's characters. Where Campbell is not Lovecraftian is in making the alien 'submarine without a conning tower' a one-off, instead of giving them a long history as owners of Earth. One other problem: the guess that the ship crashed because it became entangled with Earth's magnetic field is pretty lame. Earth's magnetic field is way weaker than its gravitational field (ever seen pieces of iron being pulled to the poles?) and, anyway, aliens would know that some planets have magnetic fields.

17KentonSem
Editado: Set 4, 2013, 4:10pm

>16 bertilak:

Ah, but bronzed giant Doc Savage is "the Heinlein omnicompetent man" taken to the extreme, plus Lester Dent was well into writing the DS adventures at the same time that WGT was published. I still like to think that Campbell was taking a swipe at Doc in his description of MacReady, but I do like your Viking theory also!

Earth's magnetic field is way weaker than its gravitational field (ever seen pieces of iron being pulled to the poles?) and, anyway, aliens would know that some planets have magnetic fields.

I agree. When I read that, I put it down to a 1938 sci/tech gap.

ETA

I was only musing about the Doc Savage / MacReady connection, but the "Doc Savage Chronology" on the Official Philip Jose Farmer Web Page has already been there/done that (see 1925):

http://pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Savage.htm

18lammassu
Set 4, 2013, 4:25pm

>16 bertilak:
"I think that Campbell is doing anti-Lovecraft in one sense. Instead of ectomorphic academics who faint at the sight of misbehaving angles or superfluous tentacles, Campbell gives us 1930s Manly Men who face up to the situation and deal with it. "

Yeah, I noticed that too. McReady thinks militarily in confronting the situation while, say, Danforth approaches things with a more scholarly mentality and so while one gets angry and reacts accordingly, the others mind snaps not being able to cope with all he went through. I think it's an intriguing comparison in regards to the psychological reaction to a visual shock that challenges the character's grip on reality. It's kind of like Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone being, conceptually, opposite to Howard's Conan in regards to magic.

Misbehaving angles scare the crap out of me.

19housefulofpaper
Set 4, 2013, 6:19pm

I'd never read "Who Goes There?" before and although I was aware of them from innumerable mentions in books and magazines, I'd never actually seen "The Thing from Another World" all the way through until very recently, and I still haven't seen Carpenter's "The Thing".

Actually, this is the first Campbell story I've read, although again I've been aware of him for a long time, first from his appearances in the autobiographical sections of Isaac Asimov's later short story collections (where he appears as an admired mentor) to less favourable views (mainly, I think, from more left-wing British writers and critics in the 70s and 80s, looking back on his legacy).

I've also read Darrell Schweitzer's article in Weird Fiction Review No. 3, in which he makes the case for Campbell's having read ATMOM and wanting to go one better.

So, that's what was in my mind, conscious and unconscious, when I approached the story. It's a very taut thriller rather than a horror story. i don't think it's just the happy ending (and what a happy ending! What a bonanza! - nuclear power and anti-gravity for America in 1938!) that stops it being a horror story, it's also the tough-guy stoicism of the main characters (although if you take that line of reasoning too far, then Dracula isn't a horror story).

Being suitably primed by Schweitzer's article, I did see the resemblances to ATMOM. I also wondered if the telepathic alien "sleeping" in its ice block was in any way based in Cthulhu. Also, whether the discussion of the dangers or not of alien pathogens early on was a swipe at H. G. Wells and The War of the Worlds?

I was struck by the fact that the alien is called "The Thing" and also, or very nearly, "The Thing From Another World" in the story. a minor point, I know.

This story actually seems to encapsulate a lot about Campbell that I had picked up from various sources over the years: the emphasis on realism and problem solving that Asimov said he tried to drill into, or get out of, his writers (when he edited Astounding/Analog). The can-do tough-guy persona that those leftie* critics were quick to take pot shots at (I suppose Campbell's short hair - a buzz-cut, is it? - was a riper target from the standpoint of 70s Britain than any time before or since). Also the ready acceptance of telepathy and the relative ease by which the alien could construct his alien tech., hints at the later Campbell's interest in/ falling for (take your pick) such pseudo-sciences as Dianetics and perpetual motion machines.

> 16

Is the reason for the crash that lame? It is possible to overlook the obvious. I recall reading an article about global warming and how long it took the scientific community to realise that the uptake of carbon dioxide would lead the acidification of the oceans, despite the actual science being GCSE-level (which is taken at age 16).

* I'm not putting forward a political view of my own here, so much as acknowledging my crude caricature of the 70s.

20dukedom_enough
Set 5, 2013, 7:13am

Since we're talking also about the Carpenter movie: does everyone know about "The Things" by Peter Watts? He recounts the movie's version of the story from the Thing's point of view. Both a fine horror story and a hard SF story, with a radical reimagining of the alien's biology. He may depart from Carpenter's story in a few places, not sure.

21paradoxosalpha
Editado: Set 5, 2013, 10:26am

While our previous story ("The Night Ocean") had gender valence so obvious that it didn't even need to be remarked, I wonder whether there's something interesting here as well, albeit more subtle.

The all-male station crew (accurate enough at the time, I'm sure) are confronted with an Other that wants to consume their substance and use it to propagate itself. They are terrified about the loss of their individual identities, and their loss of confidence in the fidelity of other men. What enables them to identify, control, and even exploit the Thing at the end is its own desire for survival.

22bertilak
Set 5, 2013, 1:25pm

> 21

OK, you answered my question. 'terrified about the loss of their individual identities, and their loss of confidence in the fidelity of other men' is the content of the story that can be simplified to "Commie subversion", which is why the 1950s film is taken as about the Cold War.

23RandyStafford
Set 5, 2013, 1:41pm

>20 dukedom_enough:, 21 Watts' story (which might be a future Deep Ones discussion candidate) is very much about the idea that Campbell's story and Carpenter's take on it are a sort of rape plot.

I really don't have more to add to what others have noted. Doc Savage and Carpenter's movie distracted me from enjoying this one as much as I expected (though I had read it before). And, yes, this is another version of Campbell's aliens being overcome by some aspect of human identity -- but what? Our innate aggressiveness? Even if the monster is defeated and man will move out into the stars, it's not all together a reassuring ending.

It really did make me appreciate the excellent job Lancaster's script did in extracting the essence of the story for Carpenter's movie --and, I think, largely improving on it.

24artturnerjr
Jun 2, 2014, 7:21pm

Finally got to this one last week, out of The Antarktos Cycle. I think I enjoyed reading this discussion more than I enjoyed reading the story (and I enjoyed the story a great deal)!

I love Carpenter's film version of this, which I think is one of the finest and most genuinely scary horror films I have ever seen. Like Kenton in #9, I prefer Carpenter's ending to Campbell's - it's bleaker, more Lovecraftian, and more realistic - reminds me of Frank Darabont's ending for The Mist (vs. Stephen King's).

I haven't seen Howard Hawks's version of this (for shame!), but I can totally see how this story would have appealed to him. In Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, the entry on Hawks reads, in part:

His best films celebrate "the group": professionals bound together by camaraderie and their work, to whom the ultimate compliment is "you're good."

That's Who Goes There? to a tee.

>16 bertilak:

Given the Viking motif, and the 1930s motif of Making The Universe Safe for Straight, White Males, I don't think WTG is in the Cthulhu Mythos. It is the Aryan one.

Nice one. 8)

25KentonSem
Out 18, 2018, 11:40am

This announcement might be of some interest:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/wildsidepress/frozen-hell-the-book-that-ins...

I know that there are often sound editorial decisions behind such "abridgments" as "Who Goes There?", but this is The Thing! I'm really curious.

26elenchus
Out 18, 2018, 1:04pm

And did Carpenter have access to it (or hear about it) when developing the film, I wonder.

27elenchus
Out 19, 2018, 2:44pm

New this month, book on Campbell as editor but no insight into whether Frozen Hell discussed at all.

28elenchus
Out 25, 2018, 3:05pm

Wilford Brimley remains vigilant.