The Thing is coming for you! But you don’t know which one of your friends is The Thing! Paranoia… gore… body horror… and all of the above recently retold from The Thing’s point of view.
It’s an interesting chain: the original short story from the 1930s, a
B-movie adaptation in the 1950s, a gore/paranoia-fest of a movie remake
in the 1980s, and just this year, a short story retelling the 80s movie
by noted Canadian SF author Peter Watts. And Watts caps it with a bang!
I won’t say much about the first two items: “Who Goes There?”, written by John W. Campbell, Jr. in 1938 (available here from fansite Outpost 31), and The Thing From Another World, the movie from 1951. Campbell’s story is definitely a famous one, foundational to a great deal of the genre work after it, but it’s written in a style that’s more dated than I thought it would be. Likewise, the first movie from the 50s: it’s known for being one of the best of the wave of B-movies of the time, but that’s a pinnacle that only reaches so high. Especially for jaded modern audiences.
Interestingly, The Thing, directed by John Carpenter in 1982, is a bit out of sync with the expectations of modern movie-goers as well. Briefly: a group of scientists in an Antarctic research facility are attacked by a shape-changing alien. Any one of them could already have been replaced – who is really human and who is an evil alien bent on their destruction? The movie was notorious at the time for its gory special effects (Ebert’s review, as always, is a useful look back at how a movie was regarded in its time), but for fans of splatter flicks, the movie is loaded down with useless things like character development and the puzzling matter of who to trust. On the other hand, if you are a fan of paranoia/puzzle films, the movie is a little too light on essential clues like… who’s doing what, which guy is who (the character names, treated like news from on high, whizz by incomprehensibly), and so on. I guess I have this idea that movies have gotten more specialized; in any case, The Thing is a generalist of a movie that tries to straddle gore and paranoia, and falls between the two.
Along comes Peter Watts. His short story, “The Things”, was published in Clarkesworld Magazine in its January 2010 issue, and is freely available online. I’m not quite sure how to describe this story: the hook is that it retells the John Carpenter movie from the point of view of the alien.
Is it fan fiction? Of a sort I guess. But I can’t think of another story like this that goes back into the guts of a throwaway genre flick from the 80s with the intent of fixing it so rigourously. Maybe fixing is not the correct concept here, although Watts’ interstitial version actually makes the movie make sense! More precisely: Watts add the horror back in, the horror that went missing after 3 decades of ever-gorier movies that have all tried to outdo the movie before it, but instead just ruined the usefulness of said techniques. And how does Watts do that? By fucking with your mind – a phrase I wouldn’t necessarily use for a story by any other author. Somehow it suits Watts though, and this is a story that definitely calls for a little profanity.
A proper mindfuck of a story requires that you get the details absolutely correct, and Watts clearly did his homework, both about the movie (in the comments on Clarkesworld, Watts says he had the Carpenter movie on repeat in the background as he was writing, and you can tell) and about what might be actually scary about a shape-changing alien arriving on our planet. The change from singular to plural is the key here: the alien is horrified by us, by the whole idea of things that are separate from one another. Faced with the gift of communion and infinite adaptation, we humans respond with violence and retreat into our isolated, finite existences.
Watts seems to be on a roll lately with his short stories/novellas. His novella, “The Island” (available here), won the Hugo Award this year, and “The Things” is picking up quite a bit of steam as well. And I must say, I kinda prefer this shorter format to his novels. I liked his books, but Watts never seemed interested in creating… what I will call a pleasant reading experience, as the nicest way I can put it. On the home page of his site, Watts proudly displays the following quote from James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.” To put it another way, reading Watts at a shorter length feels like “He’s effing with my mind, dude!”, whereas the novel length feels more like the ironic truth from Nicoll’s quotation. Weirdly, Watts has been working on a videogame project with Richard Morgan and Crytek. I’m very curious to read that book, since I have no idea what it will be like!