Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Peter Watts’s “The Things,” first published in the January 2010 issue of Clarkesworld. Spoilers ahead.
Trigger warning for rape as a (possibly very apt) metaphor.
“Mutinous biomass sloughed off despite my most desperate attempts to hold myself together: panic-stricken little clots of meat, instinctively growing whatever limbs they could remember and fleeing across the burning ice.”
The scene is Antarctica, and a US research station in turmoil. Our narrator gives no name for itself but many names for the “skins” it’s currently “being”: Blair escaping into a rising storm, Copper rising from the dead, Childs guarding the main entrance. Not that names matter; all biomass is interchangeable.
This world has destroyed narrator’s half-finished lifeboat under the toolshed, and it has no choice but to “disintegrate” for a while. Therefore, as Childs, it heads out into the polar wilderness.
Before it crashed on this planet, it was an ambassador, explorer, missionary. It “spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. [It] was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. [It] was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.” The crash destroyed much of its biomass. What was left managed to prepare for freezing and long sleep. When it finally woke, it found itself .surrounded by chittering bipeds of astonishingly inefficient morphology. Though disabled itself, it reached out to fix them—and was rewarded by vicious attacks!
It left that place in ruins and fled in a quadruped form better suited to the climate and terrain. Unfortunately the bipeds in its second refuge proved no more open-minded than those in the first. This world doesn’t like what it doesn’t know, so as an antifreeze-augmented Childs it must again submit to ice-bound hibernation.
Only it’s already spent so much time since the crash asleep, perhaps a million years according to records from the first place, the Norwegian station as the biped skins called it. Why do these skins reject communion? Why don’t they understand the most irreducible truth of biomass, that adaptation is fitness, is survival? And why are these skins so empty? It can occupy them but it can’t access their memories or comprehension. It’s a new experience, and a frightening one. Narrator drives its skins crudely as they go about their business, live their own alien inscrutable lives.
Soon the Childs skin will blast its temporary grave from the ice with the flame thrower it carries. Until then, in the peaceful isolation of the storm, it reviews what it’s experienced over the last few days, all the mysteries it’s been too busy hiding to address. Why don’t these skins change shape? Why, when their fear and mistrust are surging, don’t they join souls instead of searching for enemies outside themselves?
Behind, in the snow-swirling abyss, a fitful glow appears. Battle’s begun between its abandoned biomass and the biped skins. Time to sleep, to wait out the ages. Yet it moves instead toward the light, and a long-skirted impossible truth.
As the Childs skin’s consciousness fades, it turns inwards, addresses the Narrator.
Parasite. Monster. Disease.
How little it knows. It knows even less than I do.
I know enough, you mother f___er. You soul-stealing, sh__-eating rapist.
It doesn’t know what a rapist is, but there’s violence in the word, a forcible penetration of flesh. It can’t interrogate Childs: He’s winked out, gone.
MacReady would know. MacReady was always the one in charge, despite all the plots it set in motion against him.
What it now knows is that this world hasn’t forgotten how to change. This world never could. The bipeds fight so hard for the continuance of one body because they can have no other. 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.
“And that means—I think—that they stop. They just, just wear out over time.”
Ahead, against the inferno of a second ruined station, is silhouetted a single biped: MacReady. He meets Narrator, seems to accept it as Childs—or if not, he’s too tired to care. In answer to its question about what they should do now, he says “Why don’t we just—wait here a while. See what happens.”
Narrator is overwhelmed by the loneliness and futility of the things’ lives. It was quick to blame them for their violence, but now sees they’re so used to pain they lash out at any perceived threat. It can’t just leave, escape into the future. It must help them, carefully, from behind the mask of skins like Childs.
“It won’t be easy,” it knows. “Tortured, incomplete, they’re not able to understand. Offered the greater whole, they see the loss of the lesser. Offered communion, they see only extinction…These poor savage things will never embrace salvation.”
No, it thinks, waiting with MacReady, taking up that last gift of a concept from Childs: “I will have to rape it into them.”
What’s Cyclopean: The narrating Thing sleeps for “aeons.” That is not dead which can adapt its cells to produce antifreeze and then hibernate for extended periods.
The Degenerate Dutch: The narrator is more disturbed that it’s possible to distinguish individual humans than it is by the exact nature of those distinctions.
Mythos Making: Watts got it from Carpenter. Carpenter got it from Campbell—and listed Lovecraft as one of the movie’s influences as well.
Libronomicon: No books.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Paranoia isn’t very good for enhancing planning ability among us isolated organisms.
This may be an obvious thing to say, in a blog series about a subgenre defined in reference to a single author, but we read a lot of stories here that are based on other stories. Homage. Mash-up. Pastiche. Sequel. Clone. Commentary. They range from why-bother to award-earning. Watts’s “The Things” falls on the high end of the scale: a Hugo-nominated, Shirley-Jackson-winning short story based on a movie based on a short story. This one is commentary, subclass fix-it fic, turning a scary movie with some plot hiccups into a first-person close-up of the abyss staring back into you.
In Lovecraft—and in Carpenter—difference equals horror. For Watts, that works both ways. The singular Thing is shocked and frightened by our individual isolation, our inability to change, our inevitable mortality. Our brains are sapient tumors, our bodies haunted by invisible ghosts. We’re like nothing it’s ever encountered before, though its instinct in the face of that strangeness suggests we might have something in common after all.
For the human readers, the horror of Carpenter’s original shapeshifting identity thief is amped up to a universe in which our individuality is the aberration. We’re a fragile fluke amid worlds of communal entities engaged in an ecstasy of mutual assimilation. Resistance is futile—we survive only as long as we’re not noticed.
I’m writing this on the way home from Arisia, where I participated in a panel on homages. One of the questions raised was whether a story can truly be good if it depends on familiarity with the source material. We didn’t come to any definite answer, in part because it’s hard to pin down whether any given story has such a dependence. Would “A Study in Emerald” work for someone who’d never heard of either Lovecraft or Doyle? Find such a reader and ask them—if you can. At the very least it would be a different story.
Similarly, I went into “The Things” without ever having viewed The Thing. But I’ve heard of it, knew instantly what the story’s title referred to, and could connect the events to the bits of the original plot I’d picked up through osmosis. And the original plot, in turn, hews closely to the archetype of a particular class of monster movie. Humans will always be terrified of competing apex predators; stories from the predator’s point of view are likely to remain compelling. Trying to disentangle the power of “The Things” from the power of this larger conversation is as fruitless and unnecessary as distinguishing individual strands of a giant ecstatic hive mind.
Finally, the semantic elephant: the Thing labels what it does to humans as “rape.” By the end of the story, that’s deliberate and “for their own good.” Writers are generally advised, and for good reason, not to use rape as a metaphor—most often it dilutes the word rather than being appropriately descriptive. But once the Thing understands what it’s doing, it chooses violation. Watts’s word choice seems all too appropriate, and earns its shock value. Our narrator describes its “communion” as normally ecstatic and sensual, and the closest it comes to reproduction. The ability to transform such acts into horrific and patronizing violations… really, our species have so much in common with each other. It’s a wonder we can’t just get along.
June of 1982 was a banner month for SFF movies. First came the blockbuster ET. Two weeks later came Blade Runner and The Thing (aka John Carpenter’s The Thing.) I was lukewarm about ET—he was too cuddly an alien for my taste, and Spielberg really let his (saccharine) sweet tooth go in this movie. Blade Runner, on the other hand, was awed love at first viewing. I walked out of the theater feeling like I’d never seen a science fiction movie before. I’d gone in with high expectations, too, given the reviews of Ridley Scott’s second SFF masterpiece in a row and my own enthusiasm for his first, Alien. And while we’re speaking of aliens –
The critics panned Carpenter’s 1982 SF-horror movie, but what the hell. I remembered the original Thing (aka The Thing From Another World) with great fondness. You’ll remember, that 1951 RKOer featuring Marshall Matt Dillon as a blood-guzzling plant-man from outer space, scientists with their heads too far up their scientific butts to use common sense, and firm-jawed no-bull military guys who Do What Has To Be Done To Keep The World (America) Safe From Xenomorphs/Commies. You could catch this classic on the Saturday afternoon TV desert or the late night spook shows, and I did, repeatedly. We pre-Internet kids were a sadly unsophisticated lot. We knew nothing of tropes and irony. We could just lean back and let Marshall Veggie Vampire scare the Sugar Babies out of us.
So if only for nostalgia’s sake, I went to see the Thing remake. And holy June of ’82, another masterpiece of its genre! Carpenter’s Thing was very little like the 1951 movie; instead it looked back to John Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the ur-Thing. Not only did it scare the not-yet swallowed Sugar Babies out of my tightly clutched box, I think it scared out some still-undigested Charleston Chews, circa 1967. I was tense from the moment that sled dog came bolting across the Antarctic snow plain, pursued by a helicopter blazing rifle fire and lobbing grenades. By the time the alien, ah, adaptations started springing out of infested human flesh, I was so terror-fascinated I forgot my usual defensive tactic of between-fingers peeking and stared bare-eyed at the most monstrous conceptions I’d encountered outside a Mythos story. No surprise, then, that one of Carpenter’s inspirations was H. P. Lovecraft, our own Howard.
(Side note: 2011 saw Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel to Carpenter’s The Thing, also called The Thing, which tells the tale of the doomed Norwegian station. Anyone seen?)
Last week we had a graphic adaptation of a novella. Carpenter did a film adaptation of a novella. And in “The Things,” Peter Watts does what’s essentially fan fic of Carpenter’s film. Around and around the ideas go! No, bad metaphor. Ever outward they go, like the branches of a tree, no, more like a family or taxonomist’s tree come to life. And this tree is doubly magical, because every branch bears foliage and flowers and fruit different from the root stock, whether subtly so or wildly.
Look at the fruit on Campbell’s branches, which spring from the native roots and trunk of his imagination. Now look at the fruit on Carpenter’s branch. There’s a strong family resemblance between the two “crops.” The dominant genre “flavor” shifts from science fiction to horror, the final triumph of science to the end product of paranoia: two men (maybe?) warming themselves beside the flames of their base’s destruction, nowhere left to go, no way left to know human from monster.
Now compare Watts’s branch to the other two. It’s easy to trace the lineage of “Things” directly back to Carpenter’s film—Watts makes the trail explicit, down to an exact concordance of character names and plot points. So does his story differ from the movie only by having more than one Thing? Nope. Watts pulls the BIG switcheroo, bags a monster plot bunny that’s proven its fertility in everything from fanfic to litfic. Take Harry Potter and make Voldemort the point-of-view character, the mind we enter, the one whose motives we come to understand, perhaps even to sympathize with. Read John Gardner’s Grendel after Beowulf or Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea after Jane Eyre. Damn. Hip-checking the good guy out of the spotlight and shining it on the bad guy, does that make the BAD guy GOOD?
Probably not. Hopefully not. More likely it will make him an antihero, which can layer in some tasty complexity and thought-teasing reader ambivalence.
I think a true antihero realizes that she doesn’t have traditional heroic qualities, that she may even range from scofflaw to scoundrel. By that definition, is “Thing’s” narrator an antihero? Certainly not in its own eyes, however myriad they may be. It sees itself as explorer, ambassador, missionary, hand of Creation. Whereas the savages that pry it from icy slumber are empty skins incapable of communion, adaptation, or salvation. Thinking cancers, out to eradicate it.
It must defend what’s left of its biomass. It can’t reach the savages’ minds, can’t reason with them.
Then it does flash on thought in one skin. What does Childs mean by calling it a rapist? The concept’s unfamiliar, something about violence, penetration of flesh. But Childs’s consciousness fades out before it can question him.
There’s another unfamiliar concept it must face before it understands this world. It’s always believed that instant somatic evolution, assimilation and communion are universal constants. Yet here’s a world of creatures not parts of a greater whole but separate entities. Plurals. Things. Things that must end. The walking dead. Oh, the loneliness, the futility!
It must play missionary here after all! Which could start a whole new discussion on the ethics of imposing one’s culture/beliefs/religion/ideas on others, however pure one’s intentions. Especially when the difference between parties is as different as that between the group-mind/collective advocates and the primacy-of-the-individual adherents. No time here for those tussles, just a second to admire Watts’s last sentence, in which his narrator uses its new (and I think tragically misunderstood) vocabulary word “rape” to describe how it will save the poor things of Earth. With love, oh united biomass of the universe, with selfless-all-selves love.
Next week—d’you remember Bokrug from “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”? He’s still around aeons later, and still causing trouble, in Lin Carter’s “Something in the Moonlight.” You can find it in the Cthulhu Mythos Megapack.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.