“The Things” by Peter WattsAugust 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments
Tags: Peter Watts
Niall Harrison is running another Short Story Club for the next few months at Torque Control. I participated in most of the discussions in the first one, so I was happy to see it return. Unfortunately I am usually the bad cop when it comes to short stories. In most cases I feel like sub-novel lengths are too short for interesting characters, world-building, or plot, which means for me short stories live and die by ideas. Most online stories are ten thousand words or less, which is barely enough even for ideas. At any rate, although science fiction is supposedly the literature of ideas and probably has more prominent short stories than any other genre, the fact is delivering a genuinely interesting idea is hard. Ted Chiang does it reliably, but so far I haven’t seen anyone else do nearly so well. The situation for fantasy stories is even worse given the emphasis on world-building, but Kelly Link has opened my eyes to its possibilities in the short format. In any case, even though last year I didn’t like most of the stories, I enjoyed discussing them.
First up is Peter Watts’ “The Things”, published by Clarkesworld. This is a pretty strong story, considering it is less than seven thousand words long. I haven’t seen The Thing (though I’m familiar enough with it to catch the basic reference unaided) but for people who have, the story is able to build off a bigger foundation than its mere length. 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.