“The Things” by Peter Watts

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Deal Me In 2014 Short Story Reading Challenge – story #6

This story was recommended to me by Taryn, the astute author of the blog, Book Wanderer. When she informed me it was a version of the classic sci-fi story, “The Thing,” told from the alien’s perspective, I knew it was going on my short story roster for DMI2014. (Also of note is that the movie, “The Thing” first came to life from a novella by John W. Campbell, “Who Goes There?” (This novella is available online at. http://www.scaryforkids.com/who-goes-there-by-john-w-campbell/ ) )

(below: from the original motion picture – it starred James Arness(!) who lurched through some scenes in costume in the title role)

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Ever wonder why, in most of the science fiction shows we watch or books we read, that the aliens are often humanoids? Okay, well maybe with something funny going on with their ears, nose or forehead (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Star Trek), but still they’re all roughly human. Far more likely, as I’ve heard many scientists say, is that extraterrestrial life, if any exists, would be WILDLY different from our own forms here on earth.

The author of this story is thus taking on a mighty challenge. We’ve all heard the oft-repeated advice to prospective authors of “Write what you know,” but this is impossible here. No earthbound writer has ever KNOWN how a creature like The Thing would think or act. Watts does an admirable job of imagining how it does, however, right from the opening paragraphs:

“I was so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.”

The Thing can “hijack” the bodies of other living things, as he often does in this story. Injured in a crash of his spaceship though, he is at first so depleted that he cannot exert much control, only hitching a ride.

“But I was only riding a searchlight. I saw what it illuminated but I couldn’t point it in any direction of my own choosing. I could eavesdrop, but I could only eavesdrop; never interrogate.”

The Thing was also confused by dreams:

“At first I only took control when the skins closed their eyes and their searchlights flickered disconcertingly across unreal imagery, patterns that flowed senselessly into one another like hyperactive biomass unable to settle on a single shape. (Dreams, one searchlight told me, and a little later, Nightmares.)”

I even began to feel some empathy for the thing. It (he?) had never encountered a planet with life like Earth’s before. His thoughts:

“Because here, tissues and organs are not temporary battlefield alliances; they are permanent, predestined. Macrostructures do not emerge when the benefits of cooperation exceed its costs, or dissolve when that balance shifts the other way; here, each cell has but one immutable function. There’s no plasticity, no way to adapt; every structure is frozen in place. This is not a single great world, but many small ones. Not parts of a greater thing; these are things. They are plural.”

I loved this story and appreciated the difficulty its subject matter presented AND the brilliant writing it took to surmount it. Now I want to go back and watch the movie versions of this story again!

(below: a dramatic scene from early in the original film. An unidentified flying object has crash landed in the arctic, leaving a trail of melted and re-frozen ice in its wake. The men spread out to find the borders of the object beneath the ice and find it’s circular – a “flying saucer!”)

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At the time of this writing, the story may be read (or listened to) for free online at

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dGjJ8vfh5CI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DdGjJ8vfh5CIP

(below: John Carpenter’s 1982 remake “The Thing” was also well-received)

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(Below: one edition of the original novella)

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8 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    February 9, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Jay, I remember seeing this film a while ago – along with Creature from The Black Lagoon with a very young Clint Eastwood. I enjoyed watching them, but this story sounds even better! The quotation about dreams is classic.
    -Dale

    Like

    • Jay said,

      February 9, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      I hope to find time to read the original novella some day.

      Like

  2. Hanne, on Cloud 9 said,

    February 9, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Gosh those Clarkesworld covers are always utterly amazing! I really should read more of their stories.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      February 9, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      I agree. Beautiful! I discovered they have a free app for the iPad for their magazine too. Of course you still have to buy the magazine, which I almost did before I remembered I’d declared this “spending freeze February!” 🙂

      Like

  3. February 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I read this back in 2011 during awards season. That was a really strong year and The Things was one of my favorites. (Although I probably would have given every award ever to Kij Johnson’s “Ponies”.)

    Original-wise, I’m partial to the John Carpenter remake. 😉

    Like

    • Jay said,

      February 13, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Thanks for the comment, Katherine. I’ve made a note of the Kij Johnson story you mentioned for future reading.

      I liked the 1982 movie also. I was pretty young when I first saw it, but the tension it elicited was quite memorable…

      -Jay

      Like

  4. February 12, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Hi Jay! I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed “The Things!” I was completely blown away the first time I read it, and I’m happy you liked my recommendation.

    I’ve never seen the original movie, but I love the eeriness of that photo still you posted. I will have to check it out sometime!

    – Taryn

    Like

    • Jay said,

      February 13, 2014 at 9:10 am

      Hi Taryn,

      Thanks again for making me aware of this story. It exceeded my expectations and will likely be one of my favorites this year.

      I remember watching the original movie when I was a kid. My brothers and I couldn’t believe that James Arness (who we only knew as Marshall Dillon from the tv show Gunsmoke!) was really playing “The Thing.”

      -Jay

      Like


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