The Things

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

Peter Watts’ short story ‘The Things’ (2010) is an ingenious take on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Taking the perspective of the alien shape-shifter itself, we’re taken on a ride through the exact same narrative, only this time inhabiting a viewpoint which sees humans as strange, vicious, and ultimately horrifically lonely organisms.

There’s much in here which beautifully echoes my reading of The Thing in North. I picture the Thing as an avatar of the pre-civilised, decentred flows of psychic energy which made up the cosmos of the hunter-gatherer. Agricultural religions, obsessed with a split between Heaven and Earth, projected all this teeming sentience into the far-off celestial realm — the realm of gods — leaving Earth evermore moribund. Then the Copernican Revolution collapsed this split cosmos into one flat expanse of matter. Those animist energies hoarded in the upper branches of the World Tree fell down, and were quickly buried by early modern science’s anti-religious materialism. In modern myths of the terrestrial poles — such as Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and The Thing — these buried remnants are exhumed. They come back to life — and they’re pissed off.

The sentiment of Watts’ narrative (until the crushing punchline) mirrors this reading, figuring most of the Thing’s viciousness as the effects of the trauma of crashing to Earth, being frozen for aeons, then being assaulted on awaking by incomprehensible creatures who can’t understand the necessity and pleasure of transmutation and communion.

The Thing decides to hide within human forms, echoing Carl Jung’s vision of humanism’s devaluation of the non-human world: ‘For the first time since the dawn of history we have succeeded in swallowing the whole primordial animatedness of nature into ourselves.’1 But its experience of dwelling inside the human form is disturbing for it. It senses a rift between being and body:

If the soul was cut off from the flesh, what held the flesh together? And how could these skins be so empty when I moved in? I’m used to finding intelligence everywhere, winding through every part of every offshoot. But there was nothing to grab onto in the mindless biomass of this world: just conduits, carrying orders and input.

These are certainly the feelings of a remnant of the world of animism, thrown into a world of isolated units of consciousness roving in a field of dead matter. It’s a critique of the alienation of ancient and modern civilisation, but it’s rendered with the poetic force of science and physiology into a vision of the human form — perhaps even of most forms here apart from a few invertebrates, like jellyfish — as being hampered in its communion with the world and itself by a terrible top-down, centralised aspect to its structure:

I really saw, for the first time, that swollen structure atop each body. So much larger than it should be: a bony hemisphere into which a million ganglionic interfaces could fit with room to spare. Every offshoot [person] had one. Each piece of biomass carried one of these huge twisted clots of tissue … A massive bundle of fibers ran along the skin’s longitudinal axis, right up the middle of the endoskeleton, directly into the dark sticky cavity where the growth had rested. That misshapen structure had been wired into the whole skin, like some kind of somatocognitive interface but vastly more massive. It was almost as if… No. That was how it worked. That was how these empty skins moved of their own volition, why I’d found no other network to integrate. There it was: not distributed throughout the body but balled up into itself, dark and dense and encysted. I had found the ghost in these machines. I felt sick. I shared my flesh with thinking cancer.

The brain becomes an emblem of the parasitic, destructive nature of hierarchical power. And The Thing hints that our world is the first it’s encountered — after encountering thousands of worlds across the galaxy — which is hobbled by this tumorous centralisation.

How can this world not see the folly of hierarchies? One bullet in a vital spot and the Norwegian dies, forever. One blow to the head and Blair is unconscious. Centralization is vulnerability and yet the world is not content to build its biomass on such a fragile template, it forces the same model onto its metasystems as well.

Locked into individuality by these centralised structures, humans appear to The Thing as painfully lonely. In its way, it feels pity. ‘Would the world awaken from its long amnesia, finally remember that it lived and breathed and changed like everything else?’

But this avatar of animism hasn’t crashed back to Earth unchanged. It seems to have retained traces of the singular godform it was forced to occupy for so many millennia. Communion… Salvation… The greater whole… Beneath its amorphous multiplicity, this being’s plans to rescue humanity from isolation carry vestiges of the totalising belief in one way, one truth, one life…