This week is Peter Watt’s The Things. This is another Clarkesworld published fuzzy consent story that got a lot of attention. It was shortlisted for just about everything and won a Hugo. It’s also the source for everything I know about what happened in the movie, since (despite meaning to in preparation for this post) I’ve never seen the source material.
This is another story where you have very careful build-up to an important last line that delivers the strength of the ending to us. A lot of that success in this case hinges on very carefully chosen vocabulary.
I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.
The first, possibly most important, major vocabulary choice comes right at the beginning: the use of the word “communion.” It is a literally correct choice, but it’s also extremely loaded, with implications of sacrement and positivity. It immediately establishes, very clearly, what the invasion is for the Thing, and that its perspective is diametrically opposed to ours. It also sets us up for its horror at our failure to share its understanding. Its perspective up to encountering us is one of universal communion, and we introduce it to the concept of ex-communication. Fear of actual, personal ex-communication isn’t something most people in our society today have to contend wtih (though I’ve come closer than most) but it’s something we understand, and it’s a framework we’re ready to approach the story with now that it’s been invoked.
And how could these skins be so empty when I moved in?
Having already established our Thing protagonist on some sympathetic footing, Watts then leads us toward the aspect of its outlook that are intrinsically horrifying very carefully. The key word here is “empty.” Alien possession is scary, a protagonist who blithely engages in such behavior is unsalvageably unsympathetic. But that’s not what our protagonist is doing. It’s engagging in communion, and distressed to find its object “empty.” Moving in on someting empty or unused is understandable. And with that one word we’re willing to give our protagonist more time, and Watts has us already primed to accept what would otherwise be completely beyond the pale.
It said that bipeds were called guys, or men, or assholes.
I’m pulling out this quote for its use of “assholes.” First, because it’s funny. The Thing doesn’t understand that asshole is a vulgarity, so we get a chuckle out of its ignorance. But it also establishes that it isn’t picking up the connotative meanings of the vocabulary its picking up. This is really important for the impact of the last line.
I shared my flesh with thinking cancer.
Cancer is the loaded word here, though it’s probably best to take “thinking cancer” as a unit here because, ick. There are things out there creepier than the idea of thinking cancer, but it’s definitely right up there on the list of things mae of Do Not Want. Our protagonist is horrified, we’re horrified, and with this carefully chosen phrase Watts has us revolted by our own brains. He probably couldn’t have sold us on it earlier in the story, we wouldn’t have been invested enough in the Thing’s perspective to go there with it, but now we’ve gotten used to seeing the world with its perspective, and gently laughed at it. We’ve bought in, so we’re ready to go along with it, even when that turns our perspective on its head.
Who would assimilate who?
Just to make sure we stay on board with our perspective alteration, Watts takes us immediately into the consequences of “thinking cancer.” And, in keeping with the classic advice to “Give your villain a teddy bear to love,” he does it by showing us the Thing vulnerable and worried. It isn’t just horrified to discover a world run by thinking cancer, but threatened by it. And as readers, we are worried about it too. No, amusing alien who doesn’t understand what’s meant by asshole, don’t get subsumed by thinking cancer! We are on Team Thing. Which makes the next ploy for sympathy even more effective.
I have been wrong about everything.
The important word here is wrong. Not just because this is an unabashed admission of a mistake, something we’re greedy to have these days, but because “wrong” is an inherently loaded word, and applies to just about everything with this story. Just look at the comment thread at the end of the story. But here this admission doesn’t just make us admire the protagonist for being able to admit its error, but it opens up the opportunity for it to expand on the implications of that error. Before this section it’s planning to return to its ship and hide until time passes and things change. Its understanding of its error changes that plan, and while everything that follows makes sense from its perspective – we’re very familiar with its perspective – this is the section of the story where we start to break from it. From our perspective, the Thing was confused before, but now it’s wrong. Horrifically, frighteningly wrong.
I will have to rape it into them.
Well, we’re not pulling any punches with that for a last line. The key word we want to focus on here, obviously, is “rape”. This is its second appearance in the story. It was a bit of a throw away the first time though, just a passing thought from the mind of a possessed scientist. This is where we see the payoff from the “asshole” joke, though, because we know that the protagonist is deaf to connotative meanings. It took away the literal meaning of rape, discusses it even at the first appearance, but didn’t pick up on the emotional load carried by the term. We do, though. And if you hadn’t started to back away from the protagonist’s perspective before, you certainly do now. The shock here works particularly well since you were buying into the perspective up to that point. We’re getting used to the “Showing the villain’s perspective,” and showing that the typical bad guy is really just misunderstood. What Watts does here with this line is go, “Oh yeah, the villain is totally the hero of their own story, but they’re still the villain.” (Apparently everybody speaks in italics today)
What I particularly like about this last line is my mental image of the shrug accompanying it from the Thing, the idea that as much as I’m going, “Uh, error, error!” it is oblivious. Because our protagonist is morally motivated, you know that if it did understand our concept of rape as we understand it, then it would likely share our response. I’m not sure that’s a reading everybody is going to get to, but its definitely there and I like it.
Does this story read differently if you’ve seen the movie?
Next week: Victimless Crimes by Charlie Jane Anders
Then my uplifting Christmas special: Chop Shop by J.B. Park.
I think I’ve pulled all the initial suggestions for CC stories so far. Anything else people want to put in the queue?