The Thing, by Peter Watts

Yesterday I quoted at length from Peter Watts’ Blindsight (available online for free here) in which he argues that self-awareness isn’t so much “the next stage in the evolution/progression of intelligence” as it is something that actually hinders intelligence’s full potential. This makes sense especially if you think of intelligent agents as efficient cross-domain optimizers, and is made all the more interesting by the extensive number of publications in the literature backing it up. It’s the main thrust of the book, and it’s a topic Watts has returned to time and again; his second novel Echopraxia set in the same fictional universe extends upon the idea for instance, as does his multiple-award-winning short story The Thing (based on the cult-spawning SF horror film of the same name by director John Carpenter, but told from the perspective of the alien itself). Here are a few relevant excerpts:

I.

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.

.

II.

This is what the world taught me: that adaptation is provocation. Adaptation is incitement to violence.

It feels almost obscene—an offense against Creation itself—to stay stuck in this skin. It’s so ill-suited to its environment that it needs to be wrapped in multiple layers of fabric just to stay warm. There are a myriad ways I could optimize it: shorter limbs, better insulation, a lower surface:volume ratio. All these shapes I still have within me, and I dare not use any of them even to keep out the cold. I dare not adapt; in this place, I can only hide.

What kind of a world rejects communion?

It’s the simplest, most irreducible insight that biomass can have. The more you can change, the more you can adapt. Adaptation is fitness, adaptation issurvival. It’s deeper than intelligence, deeper than tissue; it is cellular, it is axiomatic. And more, it is pleasurable. To take communion is to experience the sheer sensual delight of bettering the cosmos.

And yet, even trapped in these maladapted skins, this world doesn’t want to change.

At first I thought it might simply be starving, that these icy wastes didn’t provide enough energy for routine shapeshifting. Or perhaps this was some kind of laboratory: an anomalous corner of the world, pinched off and frozen into these freakish shapes as part of some arcane experiment on monomorphism in extreme environments. After the autopsy I wondered if the world had simply forgotten how to change: unable to touch the tissues the soul could not sculpt them, and time and stress and sheer chronic starvation had erased the memory that it ever could.

But there were too many mysteries, too many contradictions. Why theseparticular shapes, so badly suited to their environment? 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. I took communion, when it wasn’t offered; the skins I chose struggled and succumbed; my fibrils infiltrated the wet electricity of organic systems everywhere. I saw through eyes that weren’t yet quite mine, commandeered motor nerves to move limbs still built of alien protein. I wore these skins as I’ve worn countless others, took the controls and left the assimilation of individual cells to follow at its own pace.

But I could only wear the body. I could find no memories to absorb, no experiences, no comprehension. Survival depended on blending in, and it was not enough to merely look like this world. I had to act like it—and for the first time in living memory I did not know how.

Even more frighteningly, I didn’t have to. The skins I assimilated continued to move, all by themselves. They conversed and went about their appointed rounds. I could not understand it. I threaded further into limbs and viscera with each passing moment, alert for signs of the original owner. I could find no networks but mine.

.

III.

Autopsy.

MacReady and Copper had found part of me at the Norwegian camp: a rearguard offshoot, burned in the wake of my escape. They’d brought it back—charred, twisted, frozen in mid-transformation—and did not seem to know what it was.

I was being Palmer then, and Norris, and dog. I gathered around with the other biomass and watched as Copper cut me open and pulled out my insides. I watched as he dislodged something from behind my eyes: anorgan of some kind.

It was malformed and incomplete, but its essentials were clear enough. It looked like a great wrinkled tumor, like cellular competition gone wild—as though the very processes that defined life had somehow turned against it instead. It was obscenely vascularised; it must have consumed oxygen and nutrients far out of proportion to its mass. I could not see how anything like that could even exist, how it could have reached that size without being outcompeted by more efficient morphologies.

Nor could I imagine what it did. But then I began to look with new eyes at these offshoots, these biped shapes my own cells had so scrupulously and unthinkingly copied when they reshaped me for this world.  Unused to inventory—why catalog body parts that only turn into other things at the slightest provocation?—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 had one. Each piece of biomass carried one of these huge twisted clots of tissue.

I realized something else, too: the eyes, the ears of my dead skin had fed into this thing before Copper pulled it free. 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.

.

IV.

A whole planet of worlds, and not one of them—not one—has a soul. They wander through their lives separate and alone, unable even to communicate except through grunts and tokens: as if the essence of a sunset or a supernova could ever be contained in some string of phonemes, a few linear scratches of black on white. They’ve never known communion, can aspire to nothing but dissolution. The paradox of their biology is astonishing, yes; but the scale of their loneliness, the futility of these lives, overwhelms me.

I was so blind, so quick to blame. But the violence I’ve suffered at the hands of these things reflects no great evil. They’re simply so used to pain, so blinded by disability, that they literally can’t conceive of any other existence. When every nerve is whipped raw, you lash out at even the lightest touch.

“What should we do?” I wonder. I cannot escape into the future, not knowing what I know now. How could I leave them like this?

“Why don’t we just—wait here awhile,” MacReady suggests. “See what happens.”

I can do so much more than that.

It won’t be easy. They won’t understand. Tortured, incomplete, they’re notable to understand. Offered the greater whole, they see the loss of the lesser. Offered communion, they see only extinction.  I must be careful. I must use this newfound ability to hide. Other things will come here eventually, and it doesn’t matter whether they find the living or the dead; what matters is that they find something like themselves, to take back home. So I will keep up appearances. I will work behind the scenes. I will save them from the inside, or their unimaginable loneliness will never end.

These poor savage things will never embrace salvation.

I will have to rape it into them.

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