Friday, October 28, 2011

A Dang-Blasted Theory: The Thing

A Dang-Blasted Theory: The Thing

Warning: The following post will make little sense if you have not seen The Thing. In addition, it contains many spoilers about events in the movie, so if you have not seen The Thing and plan to, perhaps you shouldn’t read this.

I just re-watched John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film, The Thing -- partly in honor of Halloween and partly to gear myself up for the prequel. Yeah, I’ve heard from pretty much every source that the prequel is lousy. Still gonna see it, mostly because I’m curious to see how well it synchs with the Carpenter film. Also, everything with Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje in it is worth my time. But I’m not here to talk about my man-crushes.

I love Carpenter’s Thing. It’s creepy, bleak, icky, unsettling, dreadful (as in, “full of dread”), and all-around one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever encountered. Rewatching it with full knowledge of what happens, I was able to focus on other details, and to further admire the way in which the film keeps us guessing, right up until the end. Who is human, and who is a monstrous alien in disguise? After the viewing was done, I found myself entertaining a wicked little theory, one which blossomed in my mind, one that I will now share with you: that the hero of the film, steadfast chopper pilot R.J. MacReady (played by Kurt Russel) is, in fact, a Thing for most of the film. I’m sure others have written stuff about this theory, but here’s my take.

What got me thinking was an odd sequence partway through, after the men in the Antarctic station become aware that the Thing exists, and it could be one of them. One man, Fuchs (Joel Polis), follows a shadowy figure out into the snow and finds some torn-up clothing, including a jacket with MacReady’s name on it. It’s already been established that the Thing ruins clothing as it transforms. Fuchs then abruptly dies offscreen; the others find his charred corpse. Accident, suicide, or murder? We never learn. MacReady notices a light on in his private lookout shack, and takes Nauls the cook (T.K. Carter) to investigate. When they don’t come back, the others begin to barricade the doors. Nauls reappears in a fright, explaining that he found MacReady’s torn clothing in the furnace and left MacReady behind in the storm, believing him to be a Thing. MacReady then breaks into the station and regains control of the situation. A later blood test reveals that he is human.

Or is he?

That sequence seemed so odd to, I think, it was intended to. Why is Fuchs killed off so suddenly and inexplicably? Who turned on the light in MacReady’s shack, and what exactly happened between MacReady and Nauls when they were in there alone? This strange series of events is obviously intended to make us think MacReady might be a Thing. So, could he be? I think it is not improbable. Let’s break down the theory.

When was he infected?

I think it makes the most sense to assume MacReady became a Thing early on. The most likely culprit for infecting him is the dog-Thing that escapes from the ruined Norwegian station. It had enough chances to get at MacReady. We see that he spends time alone in his shack. Also, the dog handler, Clark (Richard Masur), is suspected of being a Thing by the others -- but after Clark dies, a blood test reveals he was human. Why didn’t the dog get Clark, such a close and easy target? Maybe because it had already done its work of infecting other men. In addition, Fuchs explains that a small particle of the Thing is enough to infect a victim. Like, hair? There are plenty of opportunities for MacReady to pick up the infection.

Why does he keep acting human?

One problem with the MacReady-as-Thing theory is that we see him act consistently human, even when he is alone. He also chats with Blair (Wilford Brimley), who we learn later was a Thing the whole time. Why would they talk as humans if they were both Things? Here’s my explanation: the Thing is cunning, so cunning and cautious that it plays its part perfectly. It’s made clear that the Thing would rather keep its disguise and avoid confrontation. Perhaps the MacReady-Thing is determined to play human even when it seems to be alone, just so it is sure of keeping its cover. In fact, it plays its part so well that it attacks and fights other Things, sacrificing them to make itself look more convincing. Even at the end, when MacReady blows up the monstrous Blair-Thing, he’s still playing the part on the slight chance that Childs, Nauls, or Garry (who is dead by then, but he doesn’t know that) might be watching. Likewise, Blair continues to act human for as long as he can; he and MacReady don’t dare converse as Things, because there are real humans nearby who might overhear.

Do the Things know who the other Things are?

Possibly. Judging by what happens, I suspect that the Things are self-sacrificing. Since they’re all really part of a single, collective entity, they are willing to eliminate themselves if it helps achieve their ultimate goal: to kill or infest all the humans, and to be picked up and transported to civilization. They’re playing a deadly game, and some pawns have to be sacrificed. They’re willing to die if it helps the Thing win overall. And they’re all helping MacReady by continuing to draw suspicion away from him. That suggests they know each other, perhaps by scent or an empathic link. Alternatively, perhaps the Things do not know each other -- in which case, they don’t dare try to find out who else is a Thing, in case they guess wrong and blow their cover. Both theories work.

The torn clothing

Nauls finds someone’s torn clothes in the kitchen, which leads the men to realize that the Thing rips through clothing when it assimilates and mimics humans. MacReady seems particularly interested in the torn clothing, and looks at it with worry. Because he’s wondering who is infected? No, because he is infected, and frets that someone will find his own torn clothes. He tries to burn the evidence, but is interrupted by Fuchs, who glimpses him and follows him out. Since Fuchs is found burned to death, my guess is that he committed suicide rather than let MacReady devour him. I should mention that MacReady’s later explanation for his torn clothing -- that someone else must have borrowed his jacket -- is really, really lame.

The blood test

Here’s the biggest hole in the MacReady-as-Thing theory. During the blood test sequence, MacReady determines that everyone present is human except Palmer (David Clennon). That includes MacReady himself; we see him test his own blood. In order for our theory to work, MacReady would have had to swap his blood for someone else’s, without anyone seeing. Impossible? Maybe not. We never see MacReady bleed into a petri dish onscreen. And when he was collecting blood, everyone else was bound except for Windows (Thomas G. Waites), who’s a bit of a flake. Maybe MacReady had collected some human blood when Dr. Copper’s samples were sabotaged earlier (there was blood all over the floor; he could have scooped some up), and carefully slipped it into the dish instead of his own. Unlikely but not beyond him, especially as he’s such a resourceful chap.

What about Nauls?

So, why didn’t MacReady burn his torn clothes after killing Fuchs? Maybe because he had a bigger plan...a plan involving an accomplice. Here’s a crazy notion: MacReady infected Nauls when they were alone in the shack, and Nauls is also a Thing. Think about it: Nauls comes stumbling in, babbling about the torn clothes and how MacReady might be infected. Suddenly, all suspicion is on MacReady, and no one thinks Nauls might be lying. Maybe MacReady and Nauls, both Things, are working together. Remember, as long as one of the Things succeeds, they all do. It could have been Nauls who sabotaged the blood samples, while the others were locking Blair up. This would mean that MacReady would also have had to fake Nauls’ blood sample -- but if he could fake one, why not two, especially during the chaos when Palmer is revealed as a Thing. Another blow against Nauls: during the climax, he goes off to investigate weird noises and is never seen again. The real reason for this is that his death was written and possibly filmed, but Carpenter didn’t like the result. But if we just take the movie at face value, we never see Nauls die. Maybe he actually merged with the Blair-Thing, or maybe he found a quiet little nook to freeze himself and hibernate until more humans found him...

Anyone else?

I just thought of something while I was writing this. What if Windows was a Thing? What if the dog got him early on as well? During the blood test sequence, MacReady and Windows are the only two men not restrained. They could have conspired together to fake their tests. We see Windows cut his finger and bleed into a dish while MacReady watches; they could have made sure the other men saw it happen, then switched the blood quickly. Of course, shortly after, Palmer is revealed as a Thing and then brutally attacks Windows. But maybe it’s all for show. Windows fails to torch Palmer with his flamethrower; he seems to be frozen in fear. Or maybe he’s letting Palmer attack him so he will look innocent. Sadly for them, MacReady is forced to burn them both. But, again, self-sacrifice. Everything is part of the ongoing scheme to draw suspicion away from MacReady, to make him look like the Thing-killing hero -- until he is totally sure all the others are either dead or infected.

The ending

One of the great things about The Thing is its utterly downbeat ending. The station has been destroyed, and only MacReady and Childs (Keith David) are left. Neither of them can be sure the other one is human -- and so they sit, slowly freezing to death. End of movie. Okay, assume MacReady is a Thing. Why doesn’t he just reveal himself? Because he is weakened by cold and injury, and Childs, who is in better shape, has a gun. If Childs is human, he can probably overpower MacReady. And I think Childs is human at the end. See, the Thing can’t mimic inorganic matter (the 2011 prequel makes much of this fact), and Childs has an earring. It’s still in his ear at the end. Now, that doesn’t prove anything -- Childs could have been infected much earlier and re-pierced his ear -- but even if he is a Thing too, he’s also afraid to reveal himself, just in case MacReady is human and can overpower him. Assuming one or both of the men are Things, he/they realize that the best course of action is to just let themselves freeze, hibernate, and wait for the rescue team. In which case...the human race is pretty much fucked.

So, there you have it. I had fun working through this theory, and it adds some interesting stuff to the film if you watch it assuming that our “hero” is really the Thing. I’m not sure if I actually believe this theory; I think I’d prefer to think that both MacReady and Childs are human at the end, just because it’s slightly less bleak. However, one of the pleasures of a movie like this is being able to turn it this way and that, examine various pieces of evidence, and hypothesize away. Are we sure we know what we know? I dunno. And that’s why I get creeped out every time I see The Thing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels

If I may make a bold statement entire life is pretty much defined by fantasy and science fiction. It’s what I read, what I write, what I watch, and what I aspire to do for a living (“aspire” being the key word). It gets very little respect and that’s too bad, because it can be absolutely breathtaking. Granted, a lot of fantasy and sci-fi is utter shit -- glorified fan-fiction by smug retards who can barely string two words together. But a list of my least-favorite genre work would probably take up a few GBs, so here are my top ten all-time favorite novels of fantasy and science fiction, ranked tenuously in order of preference. Try these out; I promise you the real world will vanish.


10. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)
Two words that are incredibly useful to the genres are “What if?” Sci-fi speculates about the future and fantasy imagines other worlds completely, but both take delight in revising the past. I love alternate histories and Susanna Clarke’s meaty debut novel is a doozy. In a version of 19th-century Britain where magic is commonplace, the two titular magicians -- one dry and paranoid, one daring and charismatic -- come to blows, symbolizing the era’s rough transition between modes of thought. History and myth collide, and sparks fly. Clarke’s writing mimics the period but adds a delicious pinch of wit; her long, exhaustive footnotes are as much fun as the novel itself. This magic-haunted world feels real. I put this at number ten because it’s been ages since I read it; otherwise, it might rank higher.

9. Embassytown (China Miéville, 2011)
China Miéville is a writer who takes joy in knocking down expectations. I love most all his work, but was blown away by his first hard sci-fi novel, which gets sci-fi so right that it’s dizzying. On a distant planetary outpost, humans live as nervous guests to the Ariekei, a race of aliens so strange and inscrutable that every scene quivers with fascination. You see, these aliens’ thoughts are tightly linked to their dual-voiced language; they cannot lie, and we can only communicate with them through specially-grown empathic clones. All hell breaks loose when the Ariekei become physically addicted to a human voice. This book is packed with good ideas. Aliens should not be British-accented dudes with Silly Putty on their foreheads. Aliens should be alien, dammit, and Miéville’s are off the deep end of bizarre wondrousness.

8. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1996)
How can a story about a diplomatic team voyaging to a distant planet seem so unlike science fiction? By being intelligent, wise, and deeply humanistic. Russell’s tale has everything you’d expect, but sticks to hard realism: the voyagers are Jesuits, the spaceship is a refurbished asteroid, and decades pass on Earth during their journey. As for the aliens, well...let’s just say that they don’t disappoint. We learn at the start of the book that the Jesuits’ mission went hideously wrong; gradually we discover why, and it’s both heartbreaking and all too plausible. The Sparrow is simply about people, human and otherwise, and the ways in which they can come to understand, or misunderstand, each other. It is also about the breaking and painful rebuilding of faith. It is powerful and tragic and it left me gasping.
(The story begun in The Sparrow concludes in its sequel, Children of God.)

7. Mattimeo (Brian Jacques, 1989)
The late Brian Jacques’ Redwall series hasn’t aged too well for me; his exploits of sword-wielding woodland creatures got progressively dumber, and these days I find them morally simplistic and kind of racist. However, they are a beloved facet of my childhood, and my favorite is and will always be Mattimeo. It’s got everything! Long-distance questing, noble heroes and quirky sidekicks, vile villains, riddles, feasts, and many, many swashes to buckle. As the warrior mouse Matthias and his friends chase after their enslaved children, their home, Redwall Abbey, is threatened by a band of evil birds. The pace is breakneck. The climax, set in a creepy underground kingdom, is all kinds of awesome. And Jacques created a knockout villain in Slagar the Cruel, a mutilated mercenary fox with a harlequin mask and one hell of a vendetta. Pure fantasy escapism, bless its furry little heart.
(Mattimeo is a direct sequel to Jacques’ debut novel, Redwall. It helps to read the first one.)

6. Ilium (Dan Simmons, 2003)
No novel should have this much stuff in it and still work. Okay, here we go: The Greek gods of Olympus are staging the Trojan War, only it’s actually the far future and the gods are super-evolved humans, and back on Earth everyone is fat and stupid and parties all day, and the worldwide data network has gained sentience and taken on the persona of Prospero from Shakespeare’s Tempest, and meanwhile some sentient robots from Jupiter’s moons are flying in to investigate, and...SEE?! And I’ve only lightly brushed the surface of Simmons’ crazy, glorious sci-fi extravaganza. It might not be as epic or beloved as his earlier Hyperion series, but I still like it better, because...well, it’s the kind of book I dream of writing. A story that dazzles the senses and engages the gray matter, that weaves together a thousand elements into one beautiful tapestry.
(The story begun in Ilium concludes in its sequel, Olympos.)

5. Chaga (Ian McDonald, 1995)
Everything Ian McDonald writes is awesome. EVERYTHING. It’s hard to pick a fave. I’m giving the edge to Chaga (published as Evolution’s Shore in the US), in which a mysterious, vegetative alien entity crashes on Mt. Kilimanjaro and begins to slowly engulf the continent of Africa. In an inspired move, the heroes are media hounds, riding on the dizzy high of the Ultimate Scoop. McDonald goes on to juggle an expansive cast of mercenaries, scientists, gangsters, politicians, militia, and average joes as the world reels with the knowledge that we are being invaded -- and, possibly scarier, that the invasion is not necessarily malevolent. Is the Chaga alien at all, or is it merely the next stage in human evolution? Do we flee from it, or flee toward it? Absolutely nothing is simple in this blistering and ultimately optimistic look at what wonders our future might hold.
(The story begun in Chaga concludes in its sequel, Kirinya.)

4. Bridge of Birds (Barry Hughart, 1984)
It’s hard to balance elaborate mythology and black comedy. Barry Hughart struck gold with Bridge of Birds, an absolutely insane (in a good way) adventure set in a fantastical version of ancient China. It is...what is it? Detective story, quest for magical macguffins, affront to good manners, loving parody, all of the above. The protagonist, sweetly naive peasant hunk Number Ten Ox, finds himself sidekick to Master Li, a withered old sage with a “slight flaw in his character” who specializes in murder and mayhem -- all in the name of good, of course. Between the evil immortal duke and the sexy ghosts and the invisible monsters and whatnot, the plot never pauses for breath -- and I should mention that it’s all hilarious, setting up comedic punchlines with great care and maintaining more running gags than Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a delightful antidote to all that somber, earnest bullshit you find in fantasies these days.
(Bridge of Birds has two sequels, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Each one is self-contained and they’re not quite as good...but still worthwhile.)

3. American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)
No contemporary author does gods better than Neil Gaiman -- and if said gods are flesh-and-blood, living in modern America, you’ve got a recipe for a masterpiece. This book has won a zillion awards, and deserved every one. It’s a road trip through myth and legend, Americana and tall tale. It is about nothing less than the future of human faith, as the gods of old, kept alive by belief, do battle with the new breed of deity: sparkling gods of media, technology, sex, greed. The hero is an ordinary man gifted with extraordinary duties, and his odyssey reaches into every corner of the strange, ramshackle nation of America. Perhaps only a Brit like Gaiman could peer so unflinchingly into the cobwebby depths of whatever makes this country tick. The result is profound and poignant. I’m a raging Gaiman fanboy, but Everyone should be a fan of this book. It escapes from the fantasy ghetto and is just one of the best books of its decade, period.
(American Gods has a follow-up novella, Monarch of the Glen, and a sort-of spinoff novel, Anansi Boys. Both quite good!)

2. Otherland (Tad Williams, 1996-2001)
I cannot adequately describe Otherland in this small space. Let’s just say that its own author once suggested it might be the most epic story ever written, and I thought that maybe he wasn’t just being an egomaniac. It’s set in a future where virtual reality is commonplace and concerns a ragtag group of folks who infiltrate a top-secret network run by the world’s most powerful people. It’s four books long, and each has at least 700 pages. There are dozens of characters and subplots. If you’ve ever tackled Game of Thrones, this is the cyberpunk version. And it is SO FUCKING COOL. Williams gives us one crazy VR world after another, and while parts of the narrative do seem like padding, it never gets boring. Never. So many mysteries to untangle, and unlike certain other myth-heavy stories I like (Hi, Lost!), there’s a satisfying answer for every single one. Otherland flat out blows my mind, and it’s another type of saga that I want to write day.
(The four novels in the Otherland saga are City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light. It didn’t make sense to select just one, as they are all part of a single story and can’t really be taken separately.)

1. The Halloween Tree (Ray Bradbury, 1972)
Here it is: My favorite fantasy novel of all time. A slim little story that could be read to a child. I rave about this book to people, and they react with polite incomprehension. I don’t really know why I adore The Halloween Tree so much. It has something to do with Ray Bradbury’s wry, poetic prose. Something to do with his amazing images, from the kite made out of old Circus posters to the titular pumpkin-garlanded tree. Something to do with Autumn, my favorite season, and with the cider-scented wave of nostalgia he conjures. What’s the book about? Well, it’s about a group of chums floating through history to save their Tom Sawyer-esque friend, accompanied by a very strange character named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who may or may not be Death Himself. It’s about the history of Halloween, presented not as a fearful thing but as a giddy, delightful rush of arcana. It’s about losing your childhood but discovering that you never lose it completely. It’s an adventure told in metaphor. It’s everything I love about the written word. It snaps and crackles like burning sparks on a fire. I read it aloud to myself sometimes, savoring every sentence. I have the Tree tattooed on my arm...because when I’m an old man, I know I’ll still look at it and smile. Read this book, if you haven’t already. Maybe you won’t get as much out of it as I do, but I guarantee you’ll feel the frisson of a beautiful story running up your spine.