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.

36 Responses to “Short Story Club: “The Things””

  1. Ziv Wities Says:

    I hadn’t seen the film; didn’t even recognize the reference until I started browsing others’ reactions. While reading, I just assumed this was portrayal of a fairly generic “mind-infecting alien entity” SF/horror scenario, and ran from there.

    Like Evan and Matt, I didn’t feel there was much to this story beyond the portrayal of an alien mindset; for me, that didn’t feel like enough to carry the story. I felt like I got the basics within the first couple of scenes; the rest felt like repetition on the theme and expansion of the details, which I really didn’t feel were of much particular interest – maybe they were necessary to reconcile the description of the Thing to the source material? On its own, I don’t feel the narrative here was compelling; the fact that I was treating the scenes as stereotypical genre story staples, rather than retellings of specific scenes, probably didn’t help.

    I do like Evan’s take on the ending, and really on the story entire: that the story first paints the Thing’s destruction as unintentional, but leaps from unintentional destruction to intentional subjugation. I like that because it nicely separates the two – a lot of damage done really is unintentional – it’s in the acknowledgement of the damage done and pressing on that the true arrogance and hubris lie. For this, I can better understand the use of the movie – the story really does need to justify as accidental each thing the Thing did. OTOH, that only makes the purpose and subject of the story clear at the very end, which doesn’t serve it very well.

  2. Matt Denault Says:

    I thought “The Things” was a decent story although a bit flat/limited/unambitious. I’ve read a fair amount of this sort of twice-told POV-reversal story [1], and I’ve read several of Watts’s novels and short stories. I feel like if you had told me the pitch for this one–Watts re-writes The Thing from the point of view of the monster–this is almost exactly the story I’d expect, at a minimum level. Interesting alien physiology and alternative system of intelligence, check; explanation of limitations of human biological systems we take for granted as normal, check; negative biological metaphor for something we regard as making humanity superior, check; everybody-bar-one dies and humanity is screwed, check. It’s a story that seems fully implied by its concept, that never really becomes more–and so is more impressive as an exercise than a story.

    The concept is at least a clever one. I’m in some middle ground, where I saw the movie 15+ years ago and can only vaguely remember it. So I didn’t immediately cop to what Watts was doing; three or four section into the story, I was thinking to myself, “I can almost envision the horror film this is describing,” when I put that together with the title and realized that I really could envision it. Watts seems to do a nice job explaining some of the film’s oddities while re-reinforcing its impact: I have the feeling that re-watching The Thing with this story in mind would be a more scary experience. The hard-core fans of the film commenting at Clarkesworld certainly seem to think Watts has done a nice job, and knowing the touchiness of most fandoms, that’s high praise in itself.

    That said, while I do suspect that the story is comprehensible without having seen the movie, it does feel beholden to the movie in elements like the sheer number of largely-disposable characters, and various plot detours that feel unnecessary. As a result there isn’t quite the same depth I’m used to from Watts: usually he’s better at building-in better characterization, or metaphors, or interesting and surprising secondary story elements–or all of the above at once.

    The point of view here also left me puzzled somewhat, and not, in the end, in a good way. I enjoyed the vertiginous plunge into the story, that initial section where we’re left trying to figure out who or what the narrator is. But after that, things get a lot more conventional. I never again really felt that this was a networked, distributed intelligence that we were reading: there’s far less simultaneity after the initial section, less parts operating separately but with the same understanding of the same goal. There’s never indeed a sense that this alien, this “I”, was in fact part of an entity whose self-identification spanned worlds. Instead, especially right after that cognitive stomach-punch of an introduction, the language that the story falls back on was hard to credit to the alien as we’re supposed to understand it: “missionary,” “ambassador,” “soldier.” These just don’t seem like concepts it would use, or even understand, based on its conception of how life works.

    There’s also the matter that this is another first-person narrative where I can’t imagine the narrator ever actually telling the story as they do, in the present tense. To whom is the story being told? It seems especially odd because, if Watts was determined to use first-person, he had options: first-person could have been achieved through a series of communions (which would have left the final chunk of the story as a somewhat scary communion with us, the reader); alternatively, the end of the movie gives a perfect opening for a first-person recounting of story that does make sense within the overall scenario, Childs talking to MacReady.

    But ah, the ending of this story. Matt Hilliard thinks the last line is earned, but (like a few commenters at Clarkesworld) wonders if it is appropriate. I think I’m the other way around. That last line struck me as a bit artless: on reading it, I was immediately aware that Watts had thrown in the previous line about rape, only a few paragraphs before, expressly so he could use it again in the ending as he did. That felt…overly obvious, forced. To my mind it would have worked better if the concept had appeared more than just once in the story. I can imagine the creature puzzling over it: how could increasing genetic diversity be a negative thing in a species whose evolution happens far more slowly than the environment’s ability to change?

    The line itself, though, if it could have been better setup, does work for me, because it conveys an interesting ambiguity. One shading of the line’s meaning is that it is dry and unemotional, the creature using a word clinically that isn’t quite right, that has connotations that it does not, cannot understand: it is a horrific line because its shape and cadence is to human ears so malicious, but to the creature it is so correct and logical. Another reading of the line, though, is hinted at when Childs wonders “Who assimilates who?”–it made me wonder if we were supposed to understand the line as conveying at least the possibility that the creature had assimilated some base bits of humanity, sexual urges coupled with fear and the consequent drive for power. It’s the way that line leaves the story a bit open, leaves me wondering which of the two shadings is worse, that made it an effective close.

    One last thing in the story that I wondered about. When the alien is recounting its crash on Earth, it says many bits of itself fled. Then later in the story, it says that it could have restored itself (in scope and intellect if not memories) from just a few cells. So…what happened to all those other bits, I wonder, that have had millions of years to grow, commune, evolve?

    [1] And indeed we talked about several in last year’s short story club–I could copy and paste large chunks of what I wrote about Goss’s “The Puma” here, for example.

  3. Abigail Says:

    I haven’t seen the film, which turned out to be a barrier to enjoying the story. I wasn’t expecting it to – I may not have seen The Thing but I’ve certainly seen enough movies of its ilk to anticipate the beats of its plot – but the story seems to me to be too much in conversation with the film. You can almost picture the individual scenes that it’s retelling – almost, but not quite, which turned out to be the worst of both worlds. By the way, I haven’t read the Campbell story yet, but from the Wikipedia page for the film it seems that Watts is retelling the film version almost scene for scene, so unless Carpenter was very faithful to the novella, I think calling “The Things” a retelling of “Who Goes There?” rather than The Thing may be misleading.

    It’s interesting that Chad identifies Watts’s pessimism as a discouraging trait in general, and in this story in particular, because according to Wikipedia one of the reasons that Carpenter’s Thing failed at the box office and critically was its unsparing nihilism.

    Like Matt, I have to wonder if there’s more to this story than retelling an alien invasion from the alien’s point of view, and like him this seems like ground that has been covered a little too often. It’s well done – Watts is a fine writer – but it feels as if I’ve read this narrative, in which an alien is horrified to discover that humans are individuals, that they are mortal, once too often. I’m not sure Watts brings anything new to the mix besides hanging the story on the scaffold of a piece of cult pop culture, which as I said I wasn’t able to properly appreciate. I also fall in the camp that thinks that the last line is a bit of a cheat – apparently Watts tries to justify the alien’s use of the word ‘rape’ by having one of the doomed men introduce him to the concept, but to my mind that’s just pushing the unlikely word choice to another character – how often do men, particularly macho men, characterize themselves as having been raped?

  4. Martin Says:

    Last short story club we talked about the genre’s tendency to riff on previous texts and there was a general sense of weariness with this. I think in part that was because authors were taking major source texts and doing very little with them. So it is nice to see Watts taking a minor, slightly trashy text (since he obviously is using the 1982 film as his basis) and beefing it up into a proper SF story.

    As for the last line, Watts says it all in his comment: the alien is re-using the metaphor that has been given by Childs. So I can’t see anything offensive or implausible about this. (I don’t really see it as a spoiler either.)

  5. Martin Says:

    And everyone has commented at once!

    So…what happened to all those other bits, I wonder, that have had millions of years to grow, commune, evolve?

    I took them to have died. They split off in blind panic before the narrator could assert his control. He could then only save what was left: “I barely managed to grow enough antifreeze to keep my cells from bursting before the ice took me.” Presumably the rest couldn’t.

    how often do men, particularly macho men, characterize themselves as having been raped?

    I don’t think this is unbelieveable. Macho men use this as (offensive) hyperbole all the time when referring to financial deals and this is a much more apt situation to make the analogy.

  6. rreugen Says:

    I saw the film, quite a few years ago.

    The first time I read the story, I started skimming through it after the first scenes. Too much explaining.

    I read it again for the purpose of this discussion and I realized that I’m simply not interested in a retelling of The Thing (a movie which I found entertaining but not great) and, as the previous commentator noted, the narrative was not compelling on its own.

  7. Lois Tilton Says:

    The inversion of a classic story to an alternate pov is itself a classic mode in the genre, and I have no problem with the concept of this one.

    My problem is with the first-person narrative. The alien talks too much to itself, repeats itself. And in particular it tries to convince itself, justify to itself what it is doing. It protests too much.

    It’s clear that the real audience for all this maundering is the reader where no reader is implied, and the real speaker is the author, not the character, whose point of view is almost solipsistic.

  8. Niall Says:

    I do like Evan’s take on the ending

    I wondered about that, actually. If one of the things that can be read into all versions of this story is othering, what does it mean if the human perception of the alien as threat turns out to be essentially correct? You can say that the human response shaped the alien’s actions, and that’s true to an extent, but it seems likely the alien would be horrified by humanity no matter how it had come to understand our nature. For myself, I’d say there’s a useful tension between the story’s very dark take on Campbellian human exceptionalism — we’re exceptional, but as Matt says, in ways that are ultimately to our detriment; I hadn’t considered before how much of Watts’ work treats the Campbellian view in this way, but it’s one of the big appeals of his work as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t get behind Chad’s view that it’s a flaw at all — and its ending, which suggests that prejudice is common to all.

    I have read “Who Goes There?”, and seen Carpenter’s The Thing; I wouldn’t really expect the story to stand alone, so I was surprised to see comments that it did over at Clarkesworld. The story is clearly primarily about the Carpenter film (which makes both Dozois and Rich’s comments a bit odd), although that doesn’t mean it’s not about the same themes and materials as the other two works. That said, I don’t have detailed recall of either film or story. Watts does defuse the ambiguity of the film’s ending, which is interesting; and I have a nagging feeling that he plays around with who has been assimilated when a bit, but I couldn’t go into detail without rewatching. (I also suspect students of film horror would object to Martin’s characterisation of it as a minor text…)

    I’m in the camp that thinks the last line does work, much for the reasons Matt D outlines. The biggest strength of the story, for me, is the construction of the alien perspective which, while not flawless (who was being talked to bugged me as well), did absorb me. Where Ziv and Lois see repetition, I see elaboration; I take Matt’s point that it’s more or less the story I’d expect Watts to write, given the premise, but it doesn’t feel phoned-in, it’s quite convincingly intense at points.

  9. Joe Sherry Says:

    Haven’t seen the movie, and that wasn’t a barrier to enjoying the story.

    What I appreciated about it (the story) was that rather than simply riffing “alien invasion”, it was more “alien survival”. If the narrator is to be trusted, it was once a part of a much vaster and “superior” race and due to the crash, is diminished. It’s fighting for its own survival, but the horror of what is happening to the humans is never really left for granted.

  10. Niall Says:

    (When people say they feel like they’ve read this story too often, which other stories are they thinking of?)

  11. Ziv Wities Says:

    (When people say they feel like they’ve read this story too often, which other stories are they thinking of?)

    Oooh, I was just going to ask the same thing!

    Actually, what sprung first to my mind was Card’s Hive Queen. Same hive mind, arrogance, accidental destruction. Same “you humans are so absurd” and “what, you humans haven’t figured out how to shapechange/communicate philotically?”. Even same “last survivor of a glorious empire, with my marvellous memories left in shreds” element.

  12. Alison Says:

    I do remember The Thing very well, because it is one of my favourite films and I watch it regularly. I can’t imagine reading this story in any other way, than as a vigorous appropriation and remaking of the body of the film. So, I suppose I expected (from the perspective that ‘everyone is just like me’ of course) that everyone loves The Thing and therefore it is enough for Watts to suck it in, and then to imitate its form, but made out of different stuff, and that is fun. Good fun for me anyway.

    I think there is one problem with using ‘rape’ in the last line. It introduces inappropriately weighted language, as if the universe had some kind of stance on the issue.

  13. Chad Orzel Says:

    It’s interesting that Chad identifies Watts’s pessimism as a discouraging trait in general, and in this story in particular, because according to Wikipedia one of the reasons that Carpenter’s Thing failed at the box office and critically was its unsparing nihilism.

    It’s not the pessimism that bugs me, it’s the extreme to which it is taken– Blindsight and “The Island” are overwrought to the point that they almost become funny. The movie is sort of grim (though the ending offers some ambiguous hope), but in a matter-of-fact way. All the hand-wringing by the narrators of Blindsight and “The Island” over how horrible they are and how awful their situation is goes past the point of being genuinely creepy and into Tragic Goth territory, at which point it becomes difficult to take seriously any more.

  14. Rich Horton Says:

    As to my comment — I haven’t seen either film version of “Who Goes There?”, but I immediately on reading the story recognized the situation as coming from “Who Goes There?”. I know of the films, of course, but a) I didn’t recall the specifics of the Campbell story well enough to be sure how close Watts’ story hewed to its specifics; and b) I did recall that Carpenter’s film was said to follow the Campbell original at least more closely than the 50s film.

    I suppose I am one of fairly few people who will naturally be more likely to have read the source material to “classic” SF films than to have seen the films … at any rate, for me, the original novella is “more important” in some sense than either film.

  15. Rich Horton Says:

    And all that said … the name “Childs” is of course from Carpenter’s film, and not from Campbell’s original (while Blair and Copper are names from the Campbell story first).

  16. Tristan Says:

    The story hit a referential sweet spot for me, in that I saw the movie as a teenager but had completely forgotten about it – except for a few vivid images – until reading the story. With that level of recall, it absolutely worked.

    However, I think Alison is dead on about the last line. Peter Watts always reminds me of Greg Egan in post-human mode: self-consciously writing about issues deemed more cosmically important than mere human politics. To introduce such a politically/sociologically heavy word as “rape” in the last line is not offensive so much as totally wrong for the narrator’s voice.

    I also agree with Ziv about the narrator’s tone being like OSC’s hive queen. There seems to be a default register – mythic, arrogant, not-very-specific, prone-to-addressing-humans-in-general-in-the-second-person – that SF writers often fall into when trying to convey a near-omniscient alien consciousness. Apart from OSC’s hive queen, it also reminds me a bit of some of the Cylon rhetoric from the later seasons of BSG.

  17. Nick N Says:

    I have little to add in terms of substance – like some others, “rewrites” like this typically aren’t my cup of tea, but this still drew me in despite not knowing the source material very well. I mostly wanted to add that Kate Baker has a great audio version of this story here. It’s the version I “read”, and I think her delivery fills in some of the blanks that I might have missed just reading it myself.

  18. Ian Mond Says:

    Coming in late on this one. Is it bad that I’m shocked by how many people haven’t seen the film. It scared the crap out of me when I was in my teens.

    I enjoyed the story. Yes, it’s fan fiction, but it’s very well written fan fiction that not only attempt to explain the film it’s based on but also provide an interesting enough insight into the alien POV.

    I loved how Watt’s characterised the human mind/brain as a cancer. Though, like Abigail, I felt the alien’s repulsion at our individuality felt like something I’d seen before.

    Overall, good story. And the nice thing is I get to tell him that because he just landed in Sydney on his way to Aussiecon4.

  19. Evan Says:

    Looking at other people’s reactions, I feel like this is one of those stories (“The People of Sand and Slag” being another notable example) that, for whatever reason (possibly personal), has a lot of punch and impact on the first read, and steadily becomes less impressive on continued exposure. Like Matt says, we’re plunged into the viewpoint, and the shuttling back and forth into the backstory keeps your memory too busy trying to match it up to the movie to really notice the story’s problems.

    But once you’re out of that state (or if you’ve never seen the movie), you’re left with the fact that the story just isn’t about anything. It’s like a formal exercise, say writing 100 sonnets over a fortnight; moments of great beauty might accidentally occur, but it’s, you know, an accident.

    Revisiting the rape line (yet again), it’s pretty clear what he wanted to do with it, but there are issues. I think that he chose the loaded word for impact, which is in questionable taste. It isn’t the right word, clearly, but it isn’t clear what the right word would be. From the perspective of Childs, ‘thief’ would work better than ‘rapist’, just in terms of how people naturally think of things. But you can’t then turn it around and say that you’re going to steal salvation into people. A more blackly funny take on it would be having the alien misunderstand ‘fucker’, and suggesting that it’s going to fuck salvation into the world, but honestly I may just have been exposed to too much Warren Ellis.

  20. Karen Burnham Says:

    I’m in the camp of those who’ve read the novella (about four years ago) but not seen the movie. I also knew (because of other people’s comments) what Watts was going for with this story. So when I was reading it, I kept getting bogged down in the details: I kept trying to remember how things may have lined up with the source text, and that kept me from fully getting ‘into’ the story. I definitely like the depiction of the alien conciousness, as that’s one of the things I tend to like about all of Watts’ fiction. But I was too busy trying to fit everything together with my dim memory of the original text to really appreciate its other qualities.

  21. Niall Says:

    I’ll respond to some of the above in the morning; in the meantime, a quick link to some more discussion of the story.

  22. Ted Says:

    (When people say they feel like they’ve read this story too often, which other stories are they thinking of?)

    Perhaps the Borg episodes from ST:TNG? Or something else from this list:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_assimilating_races

  23. Mike Johnstone Says:

    I read “The Things” for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I did not even know of or suspect its relationship with the film *The Thing*, a film I have not seen, until reading the comments on Clarkesworld. I read the comments here yesterday, read the story again today, and then went through the responses and reactions compiled by Niall. I still haven’t seen the film, though I want to. :-)

    Not having seen the film and so lacking that point of intended intertextual reference, I took the story as is, in a New Criticism kind of way. I’m sure the story gains resonance with knowledge of the film close at hand; however, I don’t think the story *needs* the film to work, as is. In fact, the first time, once I started reading “The Things,” I couldn’t stop: the alien’s voice, the wider story to which the alien alludes and the specific events occurring in the alien’s present, and the “cold equations” logic with which Watts pursues the story’s subject just proved too engrossing. The second time, I focussed on how the story works as a story, regardless of the film, and I found it to be extremely well constructed and purposeful, not just a mere “exercise” as Matt Denault and Evan say or “overwrought” as Chad says.

    As it happens, I am maybe not so much surprised as puzzled by the general response here to dismantle of the story as opposed to building it up.

    I’ll concern myself with strictly the story’s last sentence, as it seems to be the road to which most responses lead, in the end.

    In my first reading of “The Things,” the last sentence nearly punched me out of my chair, it felt so surprising and concrete and right. My second reading convinced me further of the last sentence’s rightness, and I so am intrigued by the discussion of whether or not “rape” is the “appropriate” word — by the claim from some that “rape” is actually the wrong word and speaks of “questionable taste” (Evan) on Watts’ part.

    “Rape” is definitely a controversial word, particularly for all the negative denotations and connotations it carries. So, on one hand, I can understand the questioning of its appropriateness and Watts’ taste in using it.

    On the other hand, I feel that such questions steer away from why the word *is* there in the story’s final sentence, from the purpose it serves at the end and within the story as a whole. I feel that such questions don’t address why the word is appropriate to and right for *the alien*. In this light, “rape” is not simply a gimmick, but a sort of summation of the alien’s “assimilation” of its experience of, education in, knowledge about humanity … its taking on of a more humanlike perspective, with its ultimate goal being to save humanity from the limitations of that perspective by forcing humanity to change toward the apparently evolutionary norm of the universe, thereby experiencing the pleasurable expansiveness of “communion.”

    The alien’s use of “rape” most immediately, yes, relates back to the language and connotations it learns from being (inside) Childs, the one moment in the story of mutual, conscious recognition between human and alien. The alien seems to connect most with the meaning of “the forcible penetration of flesh,” a meaning perhaps at the forefront of and wholly apposite to Childs’ accusation. “Communion” from the human side of matters is a seizing of, a snatching away of, a plundering of, a devouring of, a (sexual) violation of one’s body, mind, self.

    From the alien’s side, though, I see “rape” as wholly appropriate because it epitomizes the way it has acquired human language, specifically English. Only hiding in humans, mostly seeing through humans’ “searchlights,” the alien gathers human words at a distance, so to speak, such that its relationship to those words is predominantly literal, denotative, almost objective. For instance: “This Side Up”; “clock”; “autopsy”; “cancer”; “Dreams” and “Nightmares”; “heart condition”; “Parasite. Monster. Disease.”; “Thing”; “rapist.” In the alien’s mind, then, the only way to bring humans “salvation” is literally to “rape” them — violate them by seizing control of them from the inside and so snatching away and devouring their evolutionarily ineffective separateness and resistance to change. This is an uncomfortable, disturbing, and *alien* logic, but a logic with enough of a tint of the human in it to be even more discomfiting for its familiarity. Thus, “rape” is not “totally wrong for the narrator’s voice,” as Tristan suggests, but completely right and logical.

    I think there’s also another aspect of the alien’s logic that gives “rape” at the end such force. It’s that aspect of the alien’s understanding of adaptation that’s couched in a religious/ritual (and a perhaps colonialist/imperialist) discourse: “communion”; “soul”; “salvation.” This discourse makes the alien, for me, truly alien, as its appropriation or assimilation of this discourse describes what for it constitutes a literal act. “Communion” is sacred because it is enacted physically, because it is “pleasurable.” To the alien, the ability to adapt through communion is material evidence of a “soul.” Therefore, humanity, as soulless and physiologically denied communion, must be saved … against its will, but subtly, carefully, patiently.

    In the end, here — at the level of language — is where I think “The Things” becomes more than just fan fiction and more than just another story of a weird alien’s realization of the weird alienness of humans. The impact and rightness of “rape” is bound up in the ways the alien assimilates human language and puts it to use to tell its story, to describe its perspective, to explain its motives.

    Wicked stuff, in my opinion. :-)

  24. Ziv Wities Says:

    Heh. The Borg are hardly as eloquent. Or as long-winded.

  25. Alison Says:

    I like what you say about the re-purposing of language, Mike, like the re-purposing of flesh and of story. I don’t think he’s chosen quite the right word, but you make a good case. I suppose the logic is that the Thing appropriates Childs’ term, seconding it as a flag for a thought, while removing the social context which gave it meaning. It might even signify that the Thing is becoming more human-like, as it adopts human language, and perhaps becomes diluted as we are many.

  26. Ziv Wities Says:

    In Hebrew, the word “rape” (אונס) is identical to the word for “against a person’s will.” You can say “X raped me to do Y,” meaning “X forced me to do Y,” although of course you rarely, except perhaps in legal or lyrical contexts.

    So I really had no trouble with the use of “rape”; I guess in English this use is rare-to-nonexistent, but for me it ties together very naturally.

  27. Mike Johnstone Says:

    I like that phrase “the re-purposing of language,” Allison. I think it gets at precisely what the alien is doing with the English it acquires, and at the irony/ironies of how it uses that English (from the readers’ perspective, perhaps).

    There is definitely that lack of a social context for the alien, or a poorly understood social context. Hence the literalness with which it takes in and applies particular words.

    Also, yes, that process of the dilution of the alien is crucial to its decisions, as Watts plays them out. One theme in the narrative is the alien’s fragmentation, its lessening, its reduction from something greater and vaster to something more limited and local. Having permanently lost parts of itself, having not been able to reassemble more cells, it has forever lost memories and so knowledge — of other worlds and species, other ways of being, and so forth. Now needing to hid and go by subterfuge, instead of enjoying communion openly and ecstatically, the alien is itself being changed by its contact with and assimilation of humans, changed in ways that surprise it and that it lacks the social context to comprehend fully.

    So, its “re-purposing of language” occurs in the context of those changes. An intriguing question, which relates to the “ambiguity” that Matt Denault discusses: to what extent might the alien grasp, and intend, the possible ambiguities of “rape”?

    Hmm ….

  28. Nick H. Says:

    Even though I haven’t seen the film, and if I have read the original novella it was so far back in my adolescence I can’t recall it at all, I can’t have been more than a paragraph in before I had the story pegged as a re-telling of “The Thing”.

    I didn’t feel disadvantaged by not having seen the film, but there were points where the story felt constrained by the structure. Hewing so closely to the film, as I gather the story does, gave it something of an on-rails feeling, where events were happening not because they were growing out of the story, but because it had to keep matching the source material, even when seeing it from the other angle it’s less obvious why.

    Ultimately, the story felt to me like a writing exercise rather than a fully-fledged story in itself.

  29. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    Slightly late to the start of the book-club party this year, but I am hoping to stay to the end this time, rather than fading halfway as I did last year.

    I have almost certainly read the Campbell story at some point way in the past, but along enough ago to have mostly forgotten the details, although the story was familiar. However, I am quite certain I haven’t seen any version of the film. On that basis, I can say that Watts’ story stood on its own two feet for values of being able to see the fundamental premise and that Watts was working against it. Obviously, I can’t say what I’m losing in terms of intertextuality from having not seen the film, but I went to read the Campbell once I’d started reading the commentary on Torque Control, just to cover that base, and it did strike me, as various people commented, that Watts is working, to some extent, in the Campbellian mode, even if, as people have also noted, he is riffing off the Carpenter film more than the original novella. Either way, I do wonder what the point of the exercise was. I’m not a huge fan of sequels and/or retellings unless they do something utterly radical with the original premise, and I didn’t think that was happening here. And I guess Watts’ core readership should be assumed to all be familiar with the film; clearly, I’m not part of that core readership.

    I am inclined to agree with Evan when he talks about the story in terms of a formal exercise. I wondered if Watts was trying to do the Campbellian thing from the alien’s point of view, something I suspect Campbell probably didn’t ever think of trying out. Such a move usually signals an alternative viewpoint, often presenting the alien as ‘misunderstood’ in some way, and maybe offering a more sympathetic account. As people have noted, that’s clearly not the case here, which is maybe a point in the story’s favour. But if not that, what then? The alien’s ongoing sense of rage is mad quite clear, and perhaps not unreasonable given it’s adrift in the universe with no obvious plan of action any more. And yet, and yet, if that’s what it is about, that’s all it is about, and this seems to be to be unsatisfactory in narrative terms, if all the alien is going to do is to flail around. Here I have to agree with the people who use the words ‘overwrought’ and ‘repetitive’, though I’d argue the original Campbell story was also a tad on the repetitive side, with a lot of rather tedious to-ing and fro-ing. However, that doesn’t mean one should lovingly recreate it.

    Putting aside the final line, and various thoughts about language, which I don’t feel equal to dealing with this afternoon, the biggest problems I had with this story were the attempt to portray an alien mind-set and the first-person viewpoint; here the two are inextricably intertwined. I noticed last year, during the Book Club readings, that I was becoming increasingly irritated with first person povs, and I’m dissatisfied with the novel I’m currently reading (Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth) for similar reasons. We could debate how best to portray a truly alien mind-set but it is always going to be trapped by the ability of the human writer to really dig into alienness; I don’t honestly think first-person is the way to go. I agree with Matt D. that Watts made a decent fist of things at the beginning, but there was only so far he could go without repeating himself, and he went beyond that.

    And that’s probably about as far as I want to go tonight. I’m still thinking about language and the final line.

  30. rreugen Says:

    Ziv Wities Says:
    August 31, 2010 at 8:45 am
    “In Hebrew, the word “rape” (אונס) is identical to the word for “against a person’s will.” You can say “X raped me to do Y,” meaning “X forced me to do Y,” although of course you rarely, except perhaps in legal or lyrical contexts.

    So I really had no trouble with the use of “rape”; I guess in English this use is rare-to-nonexistent, but for me it ties together very naturally.”

    In Romanian the word for “rape” (viol) is used in a similar manner. Actually, the corresponding legal term for “breaking&entering” is “rape of property. (viol de domiciliu)”

    But when I read the story the word was “rape” and not “viol” and it didn’t feel right.

  31. Abigail Says:

    It’s true that in Hebrew the word for rape has a wider meaning than the sexual one, but it seems disingenuous to pretend that Watts wasn’t thinking of, and indeed aiming at, the sexual connotations of the word (and the cultural association we have with those connotations), especially given that he was writing in English in which its meaning is primarily if not exclusively sexual. Which is the root of my objection to the final line. I’m not offended by it, but I am annoyed at such a blatant and, within the context of the story, unearned shock tactic.

  32. James Says:

    Just caught up. Lost interest when I realised it was The Thing, which I haven’t seen either. The 1951 version is pretty funny.

    It occurred to me that the story was just too long. Too much repetition. By half way through I’d got the point, I didn’t need endless “woe is me” alien thoughts. Bit of a shame, the start was promising.

  33. Short Story Club 2 « Torque Control Says:

    […] Short Story Club: “The Things” […]

  34. Short Story Club Post-Mortem « Torque Control Says:

    […] “The Things” by Peter Watts [discussion] […]

  35. A short post on the BSFA Award short lists « It Doesn't Have To Be Right… Says:

    […] Peter Watts (Clarkesworld 40) This was one of last year’s stories in Torque Control’s Short Story Club. Most seemed to think it good, but I wasn’t so impressed. The conceit just didn’t seem […]


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