Before The Thing: Viruses, Sled Dogs, Seabirds, and Science Fiction

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter discusses the famous 1938 horrific science fiction story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. To the extent that critics have paid attention to “Who Goes There?,” they generally have filtered their comments through the lens of one or more of the three science fiction/horror films based on Campbell’s story: Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951); John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982); and The Thing (2011), imagined as a prequel to the 1982 film. These films, in turn, have been read contextually in terms of the 1950s and 1980s fears: communist infiltration, invasion, UFOs, and the fear of nuclear holocaust. But the explicit horror in “Who Goes There” is the fear of cross-species infection from a preserved animal body, a material remainder from a different time or place that has been trapped in the polar ice. In contrast to earlier approaches, then, in this chapter I consider Campbell’s alien body within the broad context of disease ecology, beginning with early twentieth-century debates about bacteria, viruses, and their modes of transmission. To take seriously the specificity of Campbell’s historical moment is, I argue, to stumble into the agency of remains, where remains are figured variously as thawing bodies, living odours, nutritional corpses, viral residues, charred bodies, and strangely animated blood cells. In different ways, these remains take on a determinative role equal to and sometimes even more powerful than the heroic men or perhaps even the Thing itself. In its fictional rendering of an increasingly diseased expedition party, “Who Goes There?” draws on polar expedition narratives and popular science to make explicit the drama of contemporary virology, along with anxiety about the multispecies interdependencies on which both humans and “the human” rely. By reading Campbell’s story alongside journalistic accounts of, for example, parrot fever, rabies, hoof and mouth, and other diseases mentioned in the text, we can begin to see how, in the arctic world of “Who Goes There?” the most important things for human survival may be the entities left behind.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAnimal Remains
EditorsSarah Bezan, Robert McKay
ISBN (Electronic)9781003129806
ISBN (Print)9780367655129, 9781032158464
StatePublished - 2022

Publication series

NamePerspectives on the Non-Human in Literature and Culture


  • animal studies
  • ecological
  • medical humanities


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