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June 22, 2011

I have seen the aliens ... and we are horrifying

I was a fan of science fiction from the time I first learned to read; Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were my favorites, and they both published in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction during the '30s and '40s -- hell, Heinlein published his very first story in Campbell's magazine!

Campbell was no slouch as a writer; perhaps his most famous story was 1938's "Who Goes There," -- very scary -- adapted for the big screen in 1953 as The Thing From Outer Space," starring James Arness as, well, a giant carnivorous carrot. Not scary. But it was remade in '82 by John Carpenter; his version of The Thing," starring Kurt Russell, was a classic, a truly terrifying tale of a shape-shifting extraterrestrial picking off the members of an isolated antarctic research station, one by one, assimilating and incorporating them into itself, assuming their shape and identity, quite faithful to Campbell's novella, which you can read here.

Nearly thirty years later, I stumbled across Peter Watts' story, "The Things," told from the perspective of the alien. I don't know that I've ever read a more disturbing piece of science fiction. Watts' manages to make us seem thoroughly alien, and the protagonist's point of view, his -- its thoughts about our world, our seemingly-isolated existence, our seemingly-inexplicable reluctance to be "assimilated" by the creature is deeply unsettling.

It begins:

I am being Blair. I escape out the back as the world comes in through the front.

I am being Copper. I am rising from the dead.

I am being Childs. I am guarding the main entrance.

The names don't matter. They are placeholders, nothing more; all biomass is interchangeable. What matters is that these are all that is left of me. The world has burned everything else.

I see myself through the window, loping through the storm, wearing Blair. MacReady has told me to burn Blair if he comes back alone, but MacReady still thinks I am one of him. I am not: I am being Blair, and I am at the door. I am being Childs, and I let myself in. I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.

The world has found me out. It has discovered my burrow beneath the tool shed, the half-finished lifeboat cannibalized from the viscera of dead helicopters. The world is busy destroying my means of escape. Then it will come back for me.

There is only one option left. I disintegrate. Being Blair, I go to share the plan with Copper and to feed on the rotting biomass once called Clarke; so many changes in so short a time have dangerously depleted my reserves. Being Childs, I have already consumed what was left of Fuchs and am replenished for the next phase. I sling the flamethrower onto my back and head outside, into the long Antarctic night.

I will go into the storm, and never come back.

I was so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.

So much wisdom I had. So much experience. Now I cannot remember all the things I knew. I can only remember that I once knew them ....

Read Campbell's "Who Goes There," or watch Carpenter's The Thing, then read Watts' "The Things."

You may not sleep well, but it's worth it.

Posted by Mike Lief at June 22, 2011 10:19 PM