Short Story Club: “The Things”

Here we go, then. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, the story is here. We start with Rich Horton’s summary in the January Locus:

… Peter Watts offers “The Things”, an immediately significant title, opening with a significant list of characters: Blair, Copper, Childs. The narrator is “being” each of these. It is, in fact, a “Thing”, as in the movie, or, more importantly, John W. Campbell’s classic novella “Who Goes There?” Watts’s story is honest and thought-provoking and chilling in presenting a version of this familiar story from the alien POV.

And Gardner Dozois, in the March issue:

The Janaury 010 Clarkesworld has a strong story by Peter Watts, “The Things”, which retells the story of John W. Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” — twice filmed as The Thing from Another World and The Thing — from the perspective of the alien “monster” against whom the humans are struggling for survival in an isolated winter encampment in Antarctica. Watts does an excellent job of showing a totally alien way of looking at life, turning our understanding of the alien’s motivations for doing what he does on its head. The only potential weak spot is that the story seems to be tied specifically to John Carpenter’s 1982 film version; those who have instead seen Christian Nyby’s 1951 version — which scared the piss out of me as a little kid — may be confused.

Some supplementary links may be in order here: the text of “Who Goes There?” is available online (see also Wikipedia page, and a queer reading of the text by Wendy Pearson). Those in the US can use Hulu to watch The Thing; and Matt Cheney recently linked to an essay by John Lingan about the two films.

Online reactions to the story have mostly been positive. Chad Orzel is not so keen:

My immediate reaction is, basically, “This is the kind of gimmicky crap that annoys me when Neil Gaiman does it, and Watts is no Neil Gaiman.” After a bit more thought, it’s not as bad as that, but it’s far from impressive.

There are two main weaknesses forced on the story by the basic concept. First, I doubt it would make any sense at all to someone who hadn’t seen the movie. [...] The second is that the concept requires Watts to basically retcon the goofy biology of the movie alien, which was based on the goofy biology of a John Campbell short story from the pulp magazine era. [...]

The other problem is, well, Peter Watts. His stories have a tendency to fail for me because he’s trying way too hard to make clear that this is Serious Literature by piling on unpleasant elements, and banging away on the notion that humans are completely overmatched by the larger universe. Which gets to be a bit much.
This story is better than some of his other stuff (“The Island” from this year’s Hugo ballot (readable on Watts’s site, for the moment at least) is a prime example, though). Which, ironically, is probably a direct result of the constraints that cause the other problems– he’s stuck working with the movie plot, which holds him back a little. He attempts to make up for it in the last paragraph or so, though.

In among the many fannish reactions on the story, several commenters say that it worked for them without having seen the film; Amanda, for example:

Amazing piece. Really stunning. I’ve never seen the movie, and I don’t need to have for this to be a truly spectacular read.

Actually, not having seen the movie makes this possibly an even better work than it would be otherwise. It reads as though you have an incredible depth of insight into your characters and world and don’t need excessive explanation on them because you know the storyline will be consistent and hold together at the end. Normal stories need to overexplain because the writer is explaining it to himself as he goes along – here you write as though it’s a real world, real situation, and you’re transcribing it without having to apologize for any of it with excessive explanations.

David Hebblethwaite knew the reference, but hasn’t seen the film:

I don’t suppose it’s necessary to know about The Thing to understand ‘The Things’, but it did deepen my appreciation of the story.

So: a research station in Antarctica has been attacked by a creature able to take on the forms of its victims; only two survivors remain at the end of the movie, Childs and MacReady. Watts posits that ‘Childs’ is actually the creature in disguise, and tells his tale from its point of view – and what a beautifully unsettling depiction of a non-human intelligence this is. The creature in ‘The Things’ is no mindless monster, but a highly intelligent being whose awareness is suffused throughout its being, which is what allows it to assimilate others. There’s a certain grandeur, even a kind of nobility, about the way this being presents itself
the creature becomes a monster to the human characters, because its motivations are as unfathomable to them as theirs are to it.

Ditto Matt Hilliard:

It’s very well-written, but in the end it amounts to an exercise in “from the point of view of a creepy alien, humans are the creepy aliens!” This is a pretty well-trodden path in science fiction. Watts gets points for not taking the easy way out and humanizing his alien narrator. He builds a fairly convincing set of genuinely alien values for the narrator to pursue.

Typically for a short story, though, some intriguing questions are raised but are then abandoned. In what ways are humans similar to cancer? If one grants that a hive mind is desirable, what are the ethics of assimilation? Most people instinctively reject the premises of these, so it would be interesting to see them examined more closely by someone as clever as Watts, but that’s not in the cards here. The narrator mentions these things but spends most of its time piecing together shocking truths of human anatomy that are, well, not very shocking to most readers.

What redeems the story, mostly, from my usual complaints is the last line, which I won’t spoil here. It’s at once a little funny, a little offensive, and a little thought provoking (your mileage may vary on the exact proportions here). One of the comments at Clarkesworld calls it inappropriate and unearned, a criticism Watts then responds to directly. I agree with Watts that it is earned, but I’m not really sure it’s appropriate (I would argue what we’re dealing with here is a lot closer to murder). Still, I like stories that end with a bang, not to mention stories that are thought-provoking, so I was left feeling pretty positive about the whole thing.

Evan also looks at the last line, which is clearly one possible hook for discussion:

The final line signals that we’re not being told the story that we expect we’re being told. We spend the entire story meticulously repicking each pivotal moment of the film, explaining why the missionary isn’t at fault, how the harm it caused all springs from incomprehension. But at the last we see the reversal: the missionary does mean to have us all, to release use from death and our tiny, brutish suffering.

The last line is there to tell us that we’re exploring ‘evil’ from the inside and that while we’re seeing the other side of the story, the interior interperetation is entirely consonant with the exterior.

It’s a neat trick.

I’ll also pull out his conclusion, for comparison to Matt’s:

4: Conclusions

This story more than most is ensnared in nets within nets of meaning, right from the word go. “I am going to rewrite The Thing from the alien’s perspective”, is a simple enough statement. But since the source text for this remix exists in the way it does, you already have threads about cancer and paranoia and our unreliable biology and the feeling that death is hunting us all down one by one anyway, all before you write a single word. The colonialist stinger in the tail adds another layer of difficulty. I guess what I mean here is that I can’t get past the excellence of form and all of the accreted meaning to what Watts is trying to actually say. Which may be nothing, honestly, other than that it’s a fun thing to try and rewrite The Thing from the alien’s perspective.

And now, the floor is open.

Short Story Club Reminder: “The Things”

So, the first of this year’s stories is “The Things” by Peter Watts. I’ll put up a discussion post on Sunday, and we’ll see if everyone has as much to say as they did when we kicked off last year!

London Meeting: Dan Abnett

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Dan Abnett, author of a lot, including the “Gaunt’s Ghosts” series of Warhammer 40,000 novels, and the recent alternate history Triumff. He will be interviewed by Lee Harris.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

There will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

World Fantasy Awards Nominees

Full list available at Locus Online. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that I’m thrilled to see In Great Waters in Best Novel, and Helen Keeble’s “A Lullaby” in Best Short Fiction, and Susan in Special Award, Non-Professional; but there’s a lot of other good work on there as well. Congratulations to all the nominees.

Link Plenty

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Short Story Club 2

Many thanks to everyone who offered suggestions in the earlier discussion — and here’s the schedule. I’m planning to keep the same arrangement as last year: I’ll post a reminder of the week’s story on a Friday, and then a discussion post on a Sunday that rounds up as much comment as I can find (with a link from thist post to the discussion). And since we went in alphabetical order last time, I figure we’ll go in reverse alphabetical order this time.

Without further ado, then:

And there’s a wrap-up discussion here.

Under Heaven

Under Heaven coverCasting around for a way to start to convey what Guy Gavriel Kay gets up to in Under Heaven, I found myself thinking of another recent fantasy novel. Jo Walton’s Lifelode (2009) is a rather different kind of book, one that does not attract adjectives like “sumptuous” so readily — it is, for not quite enough of its length, a beautifully low-key rural-domestic fantasy, set in a world in which time moves faster, and life is more wild, the further East you travel. Perhaps partly in response to this flux, and the effect it has on people as they travel, the characters in Walton’s novel have a word to describe someone who is being utterly, characteristically, themselves: truly embodying a quality. No such word exists within the world of Under Heaven, and for a reader looking in from outside the reason seems clear: it is unthinkable that any character in Kay’s novel could act in any way other than to be utterly, characteristically, themselves.

The daunting clarity of Kay’s vision extends beyond the individual. It’s probably well-known by now that Under Heaven tells a story inspired by events that took place in China’s Tang Dynasty — it’s certainly not a secret, since a letter to readers at the start of the Roc ARC sets out to justify this choice. And in fact, I’d argue that any solid understanding of the novel must confront and absorb at least the implications of Kay’s approach. (A deep reading would consider the details of the execution as well, but that’s not something I’m competent to attempt.) Under Heaven’s debt to history is heavier than most epic fantasy seeks, and evident in its choice of setting, story and characters, most of which have real counterparts; even if you don’t accept Kay’s assertion that this is a more moral strategy than straightforward history would be, it’s worth recognising how it shapes the narrative and tone of the novel. Precisely because it is a fantasy novel, and not a historical novel, Kay’s creation can be what you might call a platonic ideal of Tang China: a world of heart-stopping beauty, home to humans capable of astonishing subtlety and cruelty, all described with precision and thoroughness. Or to use Walton’s term, Under Heaven seems raensome.

This affect — magic but little mystery — is familiar from the other Kay novel I’ve read, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), and from what I gather it’s an increasingly prominent feature of his work. But it seems particularly useful here, given the particular history being reworked, in defusing the notion of inscrutability. Characters outside the empire of Kitai — Kay’s Tang — are liable to find its citizens as baffling as Western stereotypes assert in our world, complaining of “the breeding and courtesy” that Kitai citizens “donned like a cloak” (29). A courtesan known as Spring Rain, brought to the very heart of Kitai from Western lands, reflects that she could study her masters until she was “bent like an ox-cart wheel” without understanding them, “or how the Celestial Empire dominates the world they know” (148). And Kay’s superlative-rich style risks beauty fatigue; there are more than a few moments when it seems the extravagance of his vision might be better expressed as one of the poems whose cultural importance he so openly admires.

But we readers are led into the minds the outsiders cannot know: so we can appreciate how the elaborate dances of the Kitai Court are designed to both channel and restrain human responses, how they perpetuate themselves and how human passions, like water from a dammed river, may find a new course. It is an article of faith within Kitai that it represents “the most civilized empire the world had ever known” (79). The intertwined superiority and fear that this attitude breeds snake into every character’s heart, surfacing in the superstitious caricaturisation of the world beyond Kitai; or in the tendency to philosophise about changes in “the world”, as though Kitai were the whole of it. The empire is a weight; a lot of characters spend a lot of time being angry under its burden, or exhausted by the attempt to negotiate the elaborate formalities of their society.

Our guide in this, the figure to which the novel most consistently returns, is so far as I can tell one of the characters that Kay creates from whole cloth. Shen Tai is the second son of a dead general; a man of deep passions and firm convictions. When we meet him he is embarked on a ritual mourning whose duration and ambition would be absurd if not rendered within Kay’s stately narrative. He has travelled to the edge of the empire and beyond, to the site of a great battle — a place whose extraordinary beauty is thrown into relief by the numberless bones that litter it — to bury the dead of both sides. As the novel opens, two things happen that will draw Tai back East, to the heart of the Empire. The first is that he escapes an assassination attempt for which there is no clear motive. The second is that a princess of Kitai’s past opponents, ostensibly as a token of her admiration for Tai’s work, gifts him two hundred and fifty quality horses — “Heavenly Horses”, as they are known, bigger and stronger than any Imperial stock — instantly, and unwelcomely, making him a player in the Emperor’s court.

Although the assassination attempt initially provides the more urgent narrative impetus, in the end it’s the existence of the horses that shapes the story told in Under Heaven as much or more than the actions of any individual characters, providing the new angle on the well-known story. It’s an interesting frame; it keeps some of what might be expected to be big set-piece events off-stage, but I think Kay is less interested in capturing those than he is in describing the feel of a moment of historical possibility. What’s significant about the gift of horses is that it positions Tai as someone able “to play a role in the balance of power towards the end of a long reign” (139). Certainly, Tai himself seems crafted to play this role: his connectedness allows him to slide in and out of the levels of society, while his initial innocence enables him to serve as our guide. It is easy to follow him. But more than that, both Kay’s letter-to-reader and the text of the novel are at pains to point out that creating a fantasy of history such as this is inherently an act that creates possibility. That is, the novel does successfully open up a space between what was and what might happen: enable a sense that, in contrast to the fatalism on display from some in the Kitai court, lives can and do fork, and that there can be, for better or worse, other worlds.

At this point I should probably specify that the historical event from which Kay weaves his story, the narrative through which Tai and his horses ghost, is the eighth century An Shi rebellion, in which a powerful governor of humble ancestry attempted to usurp the ruling dynasty, resulting in nearly a decade of strife and the deaths — as much from famine and disease as anything else — of several tens of millions of people. To set this out is not a spoiler, not just because Kay acknowledges the inspiration, but because of that possibility space, which refreshes the seeming inevitability of history.

But the relationship goes deeper. Kay is scrupulous about emphasising that Under Heaven is a story. We are, he writes, pattern-seeking creatures, and this shapes our approach to history: we are liable to abstract it, to simplify it, to use it for our own ends. Put another way, the creation of a possibility space — the creation of story from history — creates meaning. The novelistic attention to coincidence becomes an illustration of such: “Only a patient historian with access to records is likely to discover such links,” Kay writes; only “someone shaping a story for palace or marketplace … would note these conjunctions and judge them worth the telling” (542). And for all that Kitai is no less concrete than a description of the historical Tang would be, for all that the overlap between the two is not nearly small enough for Kitai to be taken as entirely independent — for all that Under Heaven’s raensomeness inescapably makes it a novel “about” Tang China in a way that it is not a novel “about” any specific Tang figures — it is still an abstraction, still a use of history. Under Heaven aims to extract the essence of a time and a place, such that it becomes “universalized in powerful ways”: but it tells you it’s doing it, and argues that if all history is story, there can be no final, specific truth, only degrees and directions of universalization.

Such an argument requires a carefully controlled narrative, and Kay’s control of his narrative is very good indeed; may be the best thing about the book, in fact. He works diligently not just to create but to maintain the spaces he claims, particularly in Under Heaven’s final third, when it is confirmed that the novel is a threnody for a culture at the height of its power choosing to diminish. As the implied narrator becomes a real narrator, and the focus gradually pulls back from the story’s present, we are reminded that this telling is only one among an endless series of interpretations and reinterpretations. It’s a hugely moving and fascinating gambit: never in the novel is the potency of historiography clearer, never the distinction between story and history more important, never the tension between the transparency of Kay’s created characters and the unattainability of the people who really lived more palpable. It is, in many ways, a tremendous achievement.


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