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Stunning; A well-crafted novella that stands the test of time.
on 5 December 2011
John W. Campbell's novella "Who Goes There?" is a science fiction tour-de-force; a collection of 7 short stories which were primarily featured during the American magazine Astounding Science Fiction during the late 1930's. The legendary Isaac Asimov was quoted as saying that Campbell was "the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely" and I would have to second this sentiment. For any young pre-published novelist wishing to delve into this complicated and sometimes overly used genre, I would heartily recommend that they pick up this novella as, personally, it is a pure and utterly brilliant lesson in science fiction.
Who Goes There
The first of the seven short stories and, what I consider the lengthiest, is a claustrophobic horror set amidst the barren, icy wasteland of Antarctica. A team of researchers discover a crashed alien ship and, with that, an alien which had been frozen for, seemingly, billions of years. As a decision is made to thaw the creature out for study, it becomes apparent that The Thing is not dead. Thawing revives the alien, a being which can assume the shape, memories, and personality of any living thing it devours, while maintaining its original body mass for further reproduction leading to the team questioning who is human and who isn't.
Perhaps the shortest of those included in this novella, Blindness charts the life of a scientist, a dreamer, of a journeyman wanting to succeed in finding an infinite source of power whilst, simultaneously, discover the mysteries behind atomic power. In order to achieve his dream, he concludes that the Sun must hold the greater powers of all and, together with his ever-trusting assistant; he sets about designing a spaceship which would be able to approach the sun and collect the data they need. His work eventually leads him on his ultimate space flight and, at a sacrifice, finds what he is looking for.
Following an alien invasion across the entirety of the world, the survivors look to rebuild, to start again and look to move forward amongst their diminished numbers. Unfortunately, whilst the alien invasion was repelled, human losses were great and worry sets amongst the survivors that a second invasion is very likely. Old Hugh Thompson spends his days scavenging the ruins of the larger cities, attempting to research and build parts for restoring an alien weapon; however, he stumbles across something completely different which ultimately saves the last of human kind.
An expedition to a neighboring solar system, finds a research team on a seemingly abandoned planet much similar to our own; with vast cities of towers, automobiles, streets, pavements, parks and tropical, heated climates. Immediately on setting down do our intrepid travellers come across the realisation that the city is not inhabited but what could have caused the population to have fled? There are no signs of war, threat or terror, nor are there any signs of wildlife; there are no birds or insects to be found. On further exploration, only do we begin to find out the chilling event that befell a great and once powerful race.
John Grantland, an American patent-lawyer, is approached by an arrogant young inventor who claims to have discovered how to revolutionize energy and how to apply this. In his dissuasion, Grantland tells the tale of a couple of inventors he came across many years back who developed a television set that was able to see the entire history of time from its explosive beginning to the many thousands of possible futures.
Jim Bendell, travelling late one night, stops to pick up a hitch hiker - one with an especially curious tale; he is a time traveller from a distant future where man has made an efficient and endlessly powerful machine that takes care of their every need. The hitch hiker goes on to explain of how he has seen the Twilight of humankind's civilization, on the verge of extinction in a world where they lack curiosity, vigor and the ability to reproduce. Ultimately quite a simple tale, this, however, is well-written and beautiful.
Night is a sequel to Twilight and follows the exploits of a traveller who has returned to Earth in early 20th century, recounting his time at Night of humankind's civilization upon which he finds the sun and the earth, frozen and dying. Again, similar to Twilight, this is simple tale constructed in an expert fashion.
Each and every one of Campbell's short stories are well crafted, succinct and an absolute delight to read and, given the years in which he wrote them - some 80 years ago now, they still stand the test of time and seem as fresh now as when they were first published. The stories themselves have also clearly inspired science fiction throughout its history and it is only unfortunately that Campbell didn't decide to turn any one of his ideas into a fully fleshed out novel given their originality and potential depth in character and story.
Whether you are a fan of the genre or not, I highly recommend purchase of this 244 paged paperback novella to anyone with a love for well-written books.