association-list a veritable mint for dunning-kruggerands

"The Things" by Peter Watts

I see a few ways in here, craft-wise.

1: Misdirection

One way swings around that deliberately provocative ending line. We’re asked to fully reimagine the movie from the perspective of the all-invading alien monster, protean, agressively hegemonzing. A monster for whom the very rape cannot have any meaning. In the comments, Watts says, > Yeah, I went back and forth on that line for exactly the reason you suggest: a metaorganism without sex wouldn’t know what rape was. Which is why I introduced the “rapist” dialog with Childs’ searchlight a couple of scenes earlier, during which the missionary admits to levels it cannot understand in that word. But it does learn connotation of “forced penetration of flesh”.

Which is enough, I figure, to save that last line. And my ass.

The typical convention to signal that a word being used is foreign is to put it in italics. Watts, or Clarkesworld, hasn’t done so here, but I think that it might have been useful to do so, just to emphasize that the creature doing the talking doesn’t actually understand the concept, but I figure it isn’t strictly necessary. There’s an argument to be had there, as the convention is certainly used earlier: > Later I hid within the bipeds themselves, and whatever else lurked in those haunted skins began to talk to me. It said that bipeds were called guys, or men, or assholes. It said that MacReady was sometimes called Mac. It said that this collection of structures was a camp.

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.

2: Pacing

Another way to look at it is how to tell a story that most of the readers already know in a way that’s compelling. Reimagining is often a sterile exercise (imagining is often a sterile exercise), but finding a motivation for the creature, working a backstory that fits the facts on the ground and enriches, rather than usurps the polt. Whe shuffle back and forth between two strains. Missionary-as-Childs, walking into the long night and thinking through its experiences; and a retelling of the events in the movie, reinterpereted through the newly invented backstory.

Left alone, neither of these threads would work. A simple recounting of the story of the movie would leave us bored. What does it matter if the creature is there, sorrowing at the hostility that it encounters? By the same token, its reflections on the differences between its nature and that of the world that it finds itself in are hollow without the context of the framing story. Compellingly written, sure, but nothing but a decision and a small, quiet death happen. It takes a different kind of artistry to raise this sort of introspection out of the level of the dull. It’s unclear whether or not Watts can manage it, but here, hung of the scaffolding of the other thread, it becomes a sail, rather than a baggy pile of canvas.

3: Critter gonna get ya

Something of the evergreen popularity of this genre of story is that it makes for almost automatically compelling cinema. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to fuck it up too bad. Your characters can be paper thin or gilt cardboard and no one is going to care. Faults are excused and rationalized away by the stark moral dilemma of needing to get rid of the monster that is killing everyone one by one. No one really cares that MacReady is a swaggering jackass with silly hair, he’s as close as we’re going to get to a hero, so we’ll root for him as long as he lasts.

One of the things that makes The Thing so sticky in the memory is that the critter might already have got you, but you haven’t realized it yet. It’s a break from the standard convention. Later betrayals might not be telegraphed, as is a core of the form, because the characters are never sure which side they’ll shortly be on.

To some extent, to offer the critter’s perspective is to defuse the tension somewhat. Part of the fear comes from the fact that you never know where the threat is going to come from. I think that Watts does the best thing here. He doesn’t try. He knows that most of the readers will know how it comes out, that even if they haven’t seen the movie, they’ll know the form, know the standards. He allows the movement and tension of the story to come from a course of revelation walked in a void in the existing story. Who will the creature get next stops being important. At the time of the telling, everything is already over, or almost. Who it will get next stops being the question, and it starts being, ‘What will it decide, and what will that mean?’.

4: Conclusions

This story more than most is ensnared in nets within nets of meaning, right from the workd 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.

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