Short Story Club: “The Things” by Peter Watts

Over at Torque Control, Niall Harrison is doing a Short Story Club, hosting discussions of SF short fiction. As I always vaguely regret not reading enough short fiction to make sensible nominations for the Hugos, this seemed like a good opportunity to read a selection of stories that a smart person with pretty good taste thought were worth discussing. As a bonus, these all appear to be available online for free, so it doesn’t require me to buy, let alone subscribe to, one of the big magazines.

The first story up in this year’s edition is “The Things” by Peter Watts. It’s a fast read, if you want to check it out. My spoiler-laden comments are below the fold.



OK, this is basically a retelling of the John Carpenter movie The Thing, a Kurt Russell movie from the early 80’s. If you had cable in the 80’s, this was on a lot.

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 whole story is there, but it’s told in such a convoluted way that I had a little trouble putting it all together, and I’ve seen the movie (though not recently).

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. He does about as well as you could with the notion, but those are tough constraints to work in.

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.

In the past, I’ve compared him to Morrissey (and the Smiths), who is famously mopey to such a degree that it almost becomes comical. I like the Mojo Nixon cover of “Girlfriend in a Coma” a whole lot better than the original, because of the inserted bridge specifically mocking this.

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.

So, anyway, I’ll be interested to see what redeeming qualities other people find in this, because it falls pretty flat for me.

4 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Things” by Peter Watts

  1. The story also handwaves away the fact that, if the alien is able to possess you just by touching you one time, then there shouldn’t be any reason for the “standoff” at the end of the movie; the alien (posing as Childs) could just jump on MacReady and take him over.

  2. Hmm…pretty negative comments on a good story. Suspiciously negative…as if Chad were trying to drive readers away from reading it. As if the story discusses something he doesn’t want us to know…

    I think maybe he should supply us with a blood sample.

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