Charles Tan Interviews Peter Watts

Peter Watts

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is it about The Thing that appealed to you and made you want to revisit it?

Warning:  there are serious movie spoilers in the following answer.

Carpenter’s movie is perhaps the smartest monster movie I’ve ever seen, on all counts:  the script, the characters, the monster itself.  The fifties-era Howard Hawkes version showed us a creature which was presumably smart enough to travel between the stars, and yet whose actions when he finally got here amounted to no more than roaring and smashing things.  Ridley Scott’s Alien (much as I love that movie) gives us people who know there’s a killer alien on board and who will nonetheless go off looking for the ship’s cat all by themselves.  Stupid monsters and stupid victims seems to be a staple of the genre.

Now look at Carpenter’s “The Thing”.  The moment the humans realize they’re dealing with a shapeshifter, they burn everything that might be contaminated.  They start talking about serological detection methods.  They prepare their own food, keep an eye on each other, never go off alone (well, except at the end, but by then they’re running out of people to buddy up with).

Now look at the alien: it sees the blood test coming from miles away, and destroys the baseline samples.  Posing as one of the crew it disables the helicopter and the camp’s radio equipment in a carefully planned rampage that a) effectively isolates the humans; b) deflects suspicion away from it; and c) gets it locked away in a tool shed “for your own protection”– where it is free to build its own escape vehicle from the cannibalized parts of the wrecked chopper.  This is not just a monster, it is a thinking creature, and it’s a few steps ahead of our protagonists throughout most of the movie.

Then there’s the script itself, which is utterly relentless.  This is a movie that earns its nihilism.   Even at the very end,you don’t know who won.  You don’t know if anybody did.  There’s no tacked-on happy ending, no last-minute rescue.  The best-case scenario is that everybody dies.

So, yeah.  A fine movie, that stands up pretty well even today.  And yet there are all those dumb things about it, too.  The FX gaffes (am I the only one to notice that Copper’s forearm snaps off a couple of inches above where the thing bites through it?)  The (to be charitable) questionable biology:  the almost nuclear metabolic rate necessary to support that kind of rapid shapeshifting.  And how many desktop computers in 1982 came bundled with software that let you check the odds of your friends being taken over by an alien?  (Today, of course, such apps come standard on any iPhone.)

So I started out not only to pay homage to one of my favorite movies, but also to take a stab at retconning some of its dumber bits (a recent paper on “somatic evolution” — I blog it at http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=84 –  gave me some inspiration on the biological front).

I was as surprised as anyone when it turned into a rumination on the missionary impulse.

What’s your perspective on fan fiction? During the writing process, did it occur that “The Things” might not be publishable or did you not allow it to bother you?

I’ve never really thought about fanfic that much.  Once or twice I’ve encountered fan fiction set in the universe of my own work, and I’ve been nothing but flattered.  I have a vague awareness that certain multinational conglomerates are fond of stomping on people who play in their trademarked sandboxes, but I never really understood the rationale beyond sheer dickishness; if the next Star Wars movie doesn’t do well, it’s not gonna be because some fan wrote a story about the gang-rape of Jar-Jar Binks.  And in the present case, I just assumed that my take was so utterly orthogonal to the original (think “Rosencratz and Guilderstern are Things”) that it fell under the rubric of “transformative work”.  It certainly wouldn’t be taking any money out of Universal’s pocket (on the contrary, I know of a few people who bought or rented the DVD solely on the basis of my story). So I never thought of it as a problem.

I only started to think otherwise when the folks originally slated to run the story insisted on a contract that explicitly left me holding the bag in the event that any Hollywood sharks did come cruising.  (I don’t hold their caution against them, by the way, although ultimately the story went to a different outlet.  But I do believe that if a risk does exist, it should be shared by all those who would otherwise stand to benefit.)

When we speak of horror, science fiction doesn’t come up often (although there are clearly works where both overlap). What’s your opinion when it comes to horror and science fiction, or is it simply that we’re not looking hard enough?

Unless you define horror as a genre that must explicitly contain some kind of supernatural element — which I don’t — I think the distinction is fairly meaningless.  Science fiction plays with the ramifications of science and technology.  Horror goes for the brain stem.  There’s no reason why a piece of fiction can’t do both; certainly some of science’s recent findings about the human condition are plenty horrifying in an existential kinda way.

Cinematic cases in point are almost too numerous to mention: “The Thing” (of course), “Alien”, the various body snatcher movies all qualify as horrific sf.  But there are plenty of literary examples as well: a lot of Stephen King, for example.  Hell, even my own Blindsight gets described as horror — I’ve been surprised by how often the word “Lovecraftian” got attached to a work which, by all accounts, is pretty solidly hard-sf. (And speaking of Lovecraft, the whole Cthulhu mythos can be regarded as science fiction of an especially squicky sort).  More recently, Dave Nickle’s marvelous “Eutopia” is being widely lauded as a masterwork of period horror — one critic compared it to early Stephen King — but nobody seems to have remarked on the fact that it is, in fact, a piece of science fiction that just happens to take place against the background of the Eugenics movement in 1911.  While there is creepiness and horror galore in that novel, there is nothing supernatural about it; all its monsters and mayhem are grounded in basic (albeit speculative) biology.

So, yeah.  Horror vs SF?  It’s like asking whether there’s an overlap between plot and character development.

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