Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Who Goes There?

Came across a copy of the novella by John W Campbell Who Goes There in a charity store and got quite excited and picked it up. It is a story I had always meant to read having first seen The Thing From Another World one night as a child.(  the film, not a literal visitor from another planet.) The very famous and much regarded movie by Howard Hawks that probably features quite high up on the lists of favorite films among many science fiction and fantasy fans. Actually I would guess it has a broader appeal than that by virtue of just being a great story. One of the great "base under siege" stories. A group of isolated human beings being threatened by an utterly hostile life-form they can barely understand which will not compromise, which will settle for nothing less than their extinction. The chap I bought it off seemed almost as glad to see it as I was. "I did not see that", he said regretfully."I always wanted to read that." he went on. "I'll let you know if its any good" I waved happily backing away with my book. One can never be too careful. Some collectors will go to the most extreme lengths to complete collections. Who goes there? Me goes there..
              I could barely believe it was written in 1938. It felt to me as though it could have been written yesterday. It felt so fresh and strong. The imaginative leaps the scientists are forced to make in their confrontation with this being from somewhere else felt thoroughly modern. Finished it in no time off course it is only a brief nightmare novella but it is a beautifully composed one. Full of authentic descriptions of life at the most extreme and imagined threats by persons or things unknown. I listened to a wonderful production of it on Youtube. A radio play version that works very well. It is so self contained with a ship in a bottle feel to it. Even though that ship feels like The Flying Dutchman. Seek it out as well as a fantastic reading of it with music on the same Youtube channel. With the John Carpenter sound track. Oh it is moody...
Apart from many Doctor who stories which carry this theme The Howard Hawks movie The Thing From Another World could well be the well spring which spawned my fondness for base under siege stories. A group of smart people, not necessarily your typical action heroes, find themselves isolated and having to use all their smarts to stay alive. In this case to preserve their species from an alien attacker so unlike anything they have ever experienced it verges on nightmare-like. There is a scene where the crew of the station find themselves in a bunk room awaiting an attack from the hostile alien entity. The tension builds as it draws closer and closer, Suddenly it is framed in a doorway. a terrifying and unknown quantity  that threatens to destroy them and their civilization. The soldiers defending the base throw buckets of gasoline over the creature and set it on fire. It howls and thrashes about. The heroine protected from the flailing creature and the arcs of flame it throws off only by a thin mattress she uses as a shield. I doubt very much if you would be able to film this scene in quite the same way today. It is all happening right there in front of you. You see the "stuntman" in alien costume being doused in gasoline and then set alight. Whompt!Right up he goes. With arcs of flame 
scouting about the cabin as the creature writhes. There is a very real element of risk that communicates itself to the viewer. I remember being dazzled by this scene as a boy. I was right there in Antarctica with those brave scientists and soldiers. total suspension of reality. Although in my version I always shoot myself before the alien can get to me and root in me before fruiting in an explosion of gore.Great Stuff!
John Carpenters version of this story is great for a whole different set of reasons though.