Who Goes There?
Chad Oliver was one of many authors who came about just in time for the bubbling of the SFF magazine market in the first half of the ’50s; he debuted in 1950, and more than half his short fiction was published by 1960. Despite being a mainstay of the ’50s, there were certain oddities about Oliver’s background and character that separated him from his fellows, namely that he was an academic—more specifically he was an anthropologist, first as a student and later as a staff member at the University of Texas. His 1952 thesis “They Builded a Tower” had to be one of the first academic papers about “modern” SF, and his preoccupation with wedding academia with SF in the ’50s coincided with the likes of Jack Williamson and others bringing the genre to the world of higher education. He was also, a little unusually (and admirably) for the time, vocal about his sympathies for indigenous peoples, with his westerns and some of his SF apparently depicting Native Americans as flesh-and-blood people.
Before Ursula K. Le Guin became SF’s leading anthropologist (among other things), there was Chad Oliver. Given his background, it should be less surprising that Oliver’s fiction is less concerned with individuals and more so with cultures. In the case of his SF we’re talking alien cultures, and with today’s story, “Let Me Live in a House,” we’re given quite the taste of what Oliver’s game is. What a great title, by the way. It’s vaguely ominous, is open to several meanings, and while the alternate title “A Friend to Man” is perfectly fine (the irony is what sells it), this is much better.
First published in the March 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. It’s one of those stories that showed up more than once in the magazines; its first British publication was in the June 1956 issue of Authentic Science Fiction, which you can find here. For old-timey book appearances we have the Groff Conklin anthology Science Fiction Terror Tales and the Oliver collection The Edge of Forever: Classic Anthropological Science Fiction. If you want in-print options then you do have a couple, and one of them is huge—quite literally. First we have the hardcover Oliver collection from NESFA Press, Far from This Earth and Other Stories. Then we have what drew my attention to this story in the first place, The Big Book of Science Fiction (at over 1,100 two-columned pages it lives up to its title), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I can see why the VancerMeers, as champions of weird fiction, picked this one out…
We start with what seems like suburbia, only it’s smaller and more isolated than the norm. We have two cottages next to each other, each adequately but quaintly fitted. Framed in one of these cottages is part of a poem; Oliver doesn’t cite it, but it’s “The House by the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss, and we only get one line from it: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” On its face it’s meant to be optimistic, but the events that follow will put a much darker spin on it.
The two cottages are enclosed in a dome, or as it’s called a bubble. We’re not on Earth, but on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Two couples live here: Gordon and his wife Helen, and their neighbors Barton and Mary. Gordon is our protagonist, and for some reason he’s the only one of the four who doesn’t act like everything is normal; in a way his lack of contentment with his environment makes him look normal, and the others strange. Unfortunately for Gordon, who already is not that happy a camper, he and the others live on the side of Ganymede that overlaps with the Twilight Zone. No, but in all seriousness I’m surprised this wasn’t adapted for a Twilight Zone episode, or The Outer Limits. Life under the dome starts out uncanny and things only get worse from there. The grass and foliage are artificial. The “weather” is programmed. There are no animals.
If the outsider is uncanny then life inside one of these cottages is little better. There’s no communication with the outside world (well, with Earth), there’s no way to leave the dome, and for entertainment your options are limited and quickly exhausted. There’s a TV—a “tri-di,” which I take to be a 3D set (because 3D was also a fad in the ’50s, history repeating itself)—but it’s all pre-programmed and much like with an iPod Touch circa 2012 you run out of variety quickly. Oh, and there’s board games. Cool.
Even the act of talking becomes minotonous.
They exchanged such small talk as there was. Since they had all been doing precisely the same things for seven months, there wasn’t much in the way of startling information to be passed back and forth. The bulk of the conversation was taken up with Mary’s opinion of the latest tri-di shows, and it developed that she liked them all.
The sheer monotomy of living under a small dome for months seems close to breaking Gordon already when something unforeseen happens. One “night” the four hear a sound—a whistling noise over their heads—that they know for a fact can’t be coming from inside the dome. Hell, it can’t be coming from outside the dome either; that’s not how sound in space works. Gordon and Barton enter a hidden equipment room and check what has to be the ’50s equivalent of convenience store CCTV footage. An arc of light, perhaps a meteor, passed over the dome at “night”—or, perhaps, it could be something else. Gordon tells himself it has to be a meteor, but even at this early point he’s not doing a great job at convincing himself. I’m amazed Gordon made it this far, considering he seems on the verge of cracking at any moment. Then again, his relatively loose grip on reality will prove something of an asset.
I know I’m bringing up the time period in which this story was written a lot, but you have to keep in mind that “Let Me Live in a House” could not have been written any later than 1963 (when John F. Kennedy caught a bullet with his brain), and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Oliver’s decision to model life under the dome after a rather stripped-down parody of middle-class suburbia was very much deliverate. There’s a whole subgenre of ’50s SF stories that take pot shots at the growing middle-class suburban population and this is one of them. This story could not have been written twenty years before or after; in 1934 people were fighting just to get jobs, and in 1974 there was the oil crisis. There’s this satire of complacency as the result of economic prosperity; not to say it’s a comedy, because it really isn’t, but satire can be serious, in its message if not on its face.
Here they were, he thought—four human beings on a moon as big as a planet, three hundred and ninety million miles from the Earth that had sent them there. Four human beings, encased in two little white cottages under an air bubble on the rock and ice that was Ganymede. Here they were—waiting.
Waiting for the ship from home that was not due for five months. Waiting all alone in an abandoned solar system, with only sound effects and visual gimmicks for company. Waiting in an empty universe, sustained by a faith in something that had almost been lost.
Hey, remember this bit? “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…” I’m not sure where this originated. It was used in the Fredric Brown short story “Knock” (which I haven’t read yet), but I don’t think that’s where it comes from. Regardless it’s a great little two-sentence horror yarn. Well, anyway, the only four people on Ganymede are hanging out in a cottage, when there’s a knock on the door…
Someone’s knocking on the door, and right after an unscheduled storm in a dome on Ganymede. Not long after what looked like a meteor passed this-a-way. Hmmm. After much hesitation Gordon lets the stranger in, and—he’s just an old guy, although miraculously he looks just like a portrait hanging in the cottage, of some guy named Grandfather Walters. (I don’t know if he’s related to anyone.) Somehow he got in here. Is he an alien? That’s the first and most likely answer. But if so, what kind of alien? Is he benevolent? How come he looks perfectly human? A lot of aliens in SF (especially TV) look humanoid or just straight-up like people because of either budget constraints or because the writers weren’t being very creative. We do, however, get a pretty good reason for why the alien, who calls himself “John,” looks like a normal person, but I won’t say what it is for now.
See, all this is rather stagey. We have one location, a grand total of five characters (not even supporting characters, this is all we get), and it’s pretty chatty. There’s very little action, and that’s for later. John doesn’t come in looking to subdue the men with giant tentacles and capture the women for his own perverted ends, but rather comes here to talk; he’s a guest at the cottage and he’s staying for the night whether the other people like it or not. In a way he’s more threatening than the average alien because we honestly don’t know what his deal is, and yet his appearance is hard to explain regardless of the rationale. There’s the burning question of how the hell he got into the dome, and maybe just as importantly, where the hell he came from. It’s implied, of course, that he came by via the meteor, but that doesn’t explain much. Again, how did he get inside the dome?
He’s not here to conquer Earth, and he’s not here to cause too much trouble. He’s also upfront about not being human; the appearance is merely a stand-in for—something else. By all rights and indications he’s an alien, which is a problem for Gordon, because if John is an alien, then…
Another thing about John you may notice is that he speaks English perfectly fine. He also, oddly and humorously (in that satirical way, like I said), has a tendency to spew of-the-time jargon and slogans like a computer trying to imitate human speech. Like I said about aliens appearing humanoid, aliens understanding English like it’s a first language is often the result of writers not being very creative, but again (again, again…), there’s a reason why John is able to do this—although the explanation Oliver gives us would not be deemed so plausible nowadays. You see, there used to be a huge thing about ESP back in ’40s and ’50s SF, not least because of John W. Campbell’s obsession with ESP (many casualties because of authors shoehorning in ESP to appeal to Campbell), but also because it just seemed like a popular topic for writers. So John apparently (we’re “told” through a demonstration, in which Gordon suffers a bad trip) has psi powers.
Hey, remember “Who Goes There?,” the novella that inspired The Thing? (Speaking of Campbell.) Do you remember, in the original story, how the alien copied its victims and was even able to mimic their personalities? You probably forgot because the scene where we get that explanation is one where nothing exciting happens. Anyway, the alien is a telepath and it able to look into people’s minds—more specifically it was able to delve into their dreams. Very odd explanation, very on-brand for a Campbell explanation, and Oliver also makes John an alien that can read people’s minds. He’s able to copy people’s behavior and persumably was able to mimic the look of Grandfather Walters because he’s a telepath. Among other things. How much he’s capable of is never fully revealed.
Helen and their neighbors, who reacted like everything was normal when John came along, are sort of overwhelmed by the alien’s presence and the abnormality of the situation makes them catatonic; their conditioning, which evidently worked more on them than on Gordon, works too well. Gordon, being the only abnormal one of the bunch, is not driven over the edge by the rush of visions John gives him, but now he’s left as the only person who can talk with the alien. The second half of the story is largely concerned with the dialogue these two have, and it would all read as too stagey and chatty if not for Oliver’s way of writing conservation. That and, through mostly just dialogue, he’s able to turn the screw, as the saying goes, with a mounting sense of dread that reaches Lovecraftian levels.
There Be Spoilers Here
John comes from a race of aliens that mimics others, and fittingly does not have a home planet; just as fittingly, considering Oliver’s profession, they mimic other people’s cultures. You have an alien which is telepathic and which can absorb the language and even the lingo of other species, and can even take on their appearance. Unlike Campbell’s alien however, which has the straightforward mission of getting the hell off Earth (in Campbell’s story it builds an anti-gravity pack, in The Thing it’s building a spaceship), John’s goal is harder to discern. To Gordon it doesn’t matter too much, though, since if John is an alien (and he is), then, according to Gordon, man’s goal of colonizing the solar system has come to an abrupt end. For Gordon, and apparently for his superiors, the one thing worse than man being alone in the universe is man not being alone in the universe.
Because if mankind is not the only spacefaring race in the universe, then mankind is not at the top of the food chain. Worse yet, mankind is a minor race that, so far, has not been able to transfer any of its native cultures abroad. The dome on Ganymede is an experiment destined to fail because it’s a prototype for a colony that does not meet the minimum requirements for a culture to thrive. Oliver supposes that mankind, if it is to live in space, must either carry on a previous culture (difficult) or form a new culture practically from whole cloth (at least as difficult). The lack of a culture will (so he implies) drive men insane. The TV, the board games, the neighborly small talk the people in the dome engage with are cultural artifacts, but they’re not enough. The dome has more than one person in it, but it’s little more than a hint at a society. This is not enough.
In John’s words:
“In the long run, you see,” John continued, “it is the totality of little things that goes to make up a culture. A man such as yourself does not simply sit in a room; he sits in a room of a familiar type, with pictures on the walls and dust in the corners and lamps on the tables. A man does not just eat; he eats special kinds of food that he has been conditioned to want, served as he has been trained to want them to be served, in containers he is accustomed to, in a social setting that he is familiar with, that he fits into, that he belongs in. All intelligent life is like that, you see.”
Meanwhile John comes from a race whose special quality is the ability to assimilate other people’s cultures; fittingly they also don’t have a home planet of their own, but are perpetually spacefaring. They seem to go after any intelligent race they can find and take on their appearance and culture, for their own selfish ends. No doubt if ants were as intelligent as humans then members of John’s race would take on the likeness of ants. John is a bad actor, but his maliciousness comes down to the fact that he sees these people as little more than game—like hunting a not very impressive buck. Regardless, someone will probably be dead by the end of the night. The only hope Gordon has of retaining his dream of space travel for mankind is to get rid of John, and make sure nobody on Earth founds out. Yet how did David feel when he took on Goliath? How can Gordon deal with this thing he doesn’t (and can’t) entirely understand?
Thus Gordon is confronted with a member of a race that sees mankind as barely sentient—hardly worth thinking about. Mankind is to John’s race what pigs are to men. “Does the hungry man worry about whether or not pigs have dreams?” Yet there must be a way to defeat him, and indeed there is. While John is able to take on the likeness of a given thing, the likeness is merely a mirage; he looks like a man but he does not feel like one. Gordon gets an idea, and a very simple one at that: fight through John’s psi fuckery and touch him. Whatever it may be past that likeness. And much to Oliver’s credit he refrains from going into what John actually looks like. Whereas Lovecraft describes his horror in exhaustive detail, in an effort to give the reader some impression of the unnamable horror of the week, Oliver goes for a lack of detail. Gordon manages to grab hold of John, and well… the results aren’t pretty. For John, but also for Gordon.
The experience is incredibly traumatizing.
Gordon defeats the alien, but at the cost of his sanity. The experiment is a failure. Mankind’s future of colonizing the planets has died, or at the very least has been postponed. The others are given therapy while Gordon is put in what might be a mental hospital. The cruel irony is that when the Earth ship comes to pick them up months later they do not believe the story with the alien at all; they mistake Gordon’s fears for being spooked by the “meteor” passing over the dome. The log in the equipment room gives far from the full picture. “Odd that a meteor could unnerve a man so!” So the ending is mostly a downer, but then again, much better this than a disingenuous happy ending that doesn’t fit the story’s themes. I guarantee you Oliver would not have been able to stick with this ending had he submitted it to Campbell’s Astounding.
A Step Farther Out
This reminds me of another SF story that’s deeply ambivalent about space travel, and it’s one of the all-time greats at that: Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” Oliver’s story is about one step below Hamilton’s, which means it’s damn good instead of a masterpiece, but it’s an eerie and multifaceted tale that works remarkably well as both science fiction and Lovecraftian horror. While he would’ve only been about 25 when he wrote it, Oliver demonstrates a keen sense of cultural shifts, cultural priorities, and mankind’s relationship with a universe which is, in fact, much bigger than himself, never mind that he understands Lovecraftian horror more than most. Given our current values with regards to what constitutes “good” and “important” science fiction, it’s hard to understand why Oliver continues to be an obscure figure. Certainly his best work has aged better than that of certain SF authors from the period who are now more famous.
I’m thinking about the one scholarly article I could find on Oliver, and I don’t think I can link it since you have to log into JSTOR (don’t worry, it’s free) to read it, but you’ll find it right away if you Google Chad Oliver, and you’ll see this title, which justifiably praises Oliver from the outset: “Scientifically Valid and Artistically True.”
See you next time.