Who Goes There? (1938) and related work:
Who Goes There? (1938)
John W. Campbell (writer).
Read in 2019.
In a world where failed sceptic Joseph Banks Rhine’s parapsychological research results are correct and actually do prove that psychic powers exist, 37 men in Antarctica investigate a magnetic anomaly, find an extraterrestrial ship and accidentally destroy it by igniting its magnesium hull with thermite. There is one survivor.
Campbell, the legendary editor working here under a pseudonym, was a credulous man and not a good writer. He uses hideous sentences like “Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily.” The exposition is heavy and spasmodic and the characters are pretty weak, but the plot is cohesive, except that there seems to be no reason for igniting the 25-pound thermite charge. When it comes time to argue philosophy, Blair accuses the rest of the party of “displaying the childish human weakness of hating the different”, yet this weakness is virtually the entire foundation of and reason for writing the story.
The creature as imagined by the scientists is indeed different: Bidirectionally telepathic; immortal; physically powerful and agile; more tolerant of both heat and cold than we are; capable of reproducing by assimilation of any life in perhaps an hour as if by microbial parasitic infection but without signs of illness; a perfect mimic down to the slightest mannerism, memory and reflective reasoning skill; able to change shape (e.g. grow claws almost instantly), play dead convincingly and operate in a distributed capacity, and smart enough to build a goddamn miniature nuclear reactor and anti-gravity rig from scratch. Its only weakness is arbitrary and contradictory to its psychic nature.
I don’t mind the alien having the upper hand, but this is inelegant, and the humans still win the day. I prefer the shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness (1936), but I appreciate Campbell’s characters’ readiness to accept the evidence in front of their eyes, design a test and then seek to verify their methodology, as scientists would. The scene is also very good: Isolation with 1930s technology in an extreme environment.
References here: The Puppet Masters (1951).
Seen in 2016.
It’s paced like a screwball comedy, we see too much of the too-anthropomorphic alien, and the Nobel laureate ultimately acts so irrationally that science is being disparaged, but the script is still surprisingly competent for the era.