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.
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:
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.