I spotted this one whilst leafing through a hefty volume entitled The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels and I instantly wanted to read it. Why? Because this is the novel on which John Carpenter’s excellent 1980s movie The Thing is based. And that’s not the first movie to be spawned from this novel. Back in the fifties, there was the B-movie The Thing from Another World. Both of these films are quite different from each other, and I was curious to see which of them stuck closer to the original story. The answer is Carpenter. Whilst the 1950s version uses some kind of “unkillable vegetable man” (which I always thought was a bit daft), the 1980s version uses a monster that can imitate any creature it samples (including humans). The original novel has all the weird blood, guts and writhing tentacles intact.
The story revolves around an isolated Antarctic research team finding a spacecraft that has been frozen in the ice for millions of years. They locate the occupant, a bizarre-looking being with tentacles for hair, three red eyes and a very pissed-off expression. Presumably dead, they take the alien back to camp to thaw him for scientific examination. But of course, he’s not dead. You anticipated that much, right? And that’s when all hell breaks loose. This is a creature that can disguise itself as a human being and is able to multiply. So, you’re stuck in the Antarctic, the radio’s broken, no help is coming, and you don’t know which of your buddies is still human and which is alien.
This is an enjoyable tale of paranoia that has inspired many imitators. As well as the two mentioned above, I would dare to say that the movie Horror Express owes a debt of gratitude to John W. Campbell, Jr. (this movie absolutely terrified me when I was about seven). The setting is an express train racing through the snow-covered Siberian wilderness, but the theme of “who do you trust” is essentially the same. I also recall two X-Files episodes with the same theme, one of them on the Antarctic (how original, yawn), the other on an isolated oil-rig.
The novel is littered with scientic dialogue that gives the zany theme a slight edge of believability. However, I found this aspect a bit overpowering at times. Often, the characters made deductions about the alien that seemed a bit too smart, based on the evidence at hand. They just seemed to accept their predicament without question, whereas I was expecting more of a reaction like: “Hang on, you’re telling me one of us in an alien? Get real!” Another thing that bugged me was that a lot of the action took place off-stage, with characters coming back into the room to report to the rest of the crew what happened, instead of putting the reader in the thick of the action.
If you’re a fan of the John Carpenter movie, I encourage you to look this novel up. This is one of those rare occasions when a movie based on a book surpasses the book (at least in my opinion). However, the original is enjoyable. Carpenter expands very nicely on the novel, but I should tell you, the endings are not the same.