Science fiction author Peter Watts is a big fan of John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, about an Antarctic research station haunted by a shapeshifting alien.

“It was just so refreshing to see a movie in which the people didn’t act like idiots,” Watts says in Episode 315 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And the alien was smart as hell. Chess is a motif that goes through this whole movie, and there’s a reason for that.”

Watts loves The Thing so much that he even wrote his own take on it, called “The Things,” which is told from the alien’s point of view. In it Watts questions many aspects of the original film, such as a TRS-80 that seems to come pre-loaded with software to model the population growth of an alien monster.

“It started off as a love letter to one of my favorite movies,” Watts says, “in which I took the opportunity to retcon some of the stuff that was dumb about one of my favorite movies.”

In the hands of most authors, “The Things” would be just a good-natured lark, but Watts’ version is much more than that. The story is not only a startlingly effective portrayal of alien psychology, but also a thoughtful exploration of religion and the missionary impulse.

“The idea of this thing that makes everything else over in its own image, and honestly believes that what it’s doing is good for the other guy, that’s what missionaries do,” Watts says.

“The Things” even has fans among the cast and crew of the original film. “Simon Pegg sent me an email telling me that he knew all these guys,” Watts says, “and everybody thought it was awesome.”

Listen to the complete interview with Peter Watts in Episode 315 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Peter Watts on science:

“Because my formal background is in science, and because I came up from that generation that basically regards anybody who reads this science fiction stuff as like one step up from child molesters, I try to retain some shred of empirical credibility by backloading all of my novels with actual lists of technical citations from the peer-reviewed literature. … In Maelstrom I basically stopped the plot dead and almost killed the book with a two-page synopsis on how this alien microorganism could get by the plasma membrane by using receptor-mediated endocytosis without triggering immune responses on the part of the cell—again as a pure act of self-defense against scientists who would probably never be caught dead reading my stuff anyway.”

Peter Watts on the brain:

“[Sony] has this kind of blue sky patent that they’ve been renewing that is for a proprietary technology that allows you to implant sensory input directly into the sensory cortex. … They’ve been selling it as, ‘Think of the things we can do with medicine! Think of the things we can do with gaming!’ And I’m thinking, yeah, but a neuron firing is a neuron firing, whether it’s firing to convey a sensory impression or whether it’s firing to convey a political belief. So you’re talking about something you aim at the occipital cortex to induce a sense of seeing something, but you turn that beam just a little bit to the right, and you could also induce an irresistable craving for a certain type of beer—or a certain religious belief. The mechanism, as far as I can see, is the same.”

Peter Watts on The Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler:

“He spends like three pages talking about how incredibly beautiful women would be in the afterlife. And he came up with this formula to explain the maximum amount of sexiness a woman could have without short-circuiting a male’s central nervous system through sheer jizzmatic overload, and that computationally you would be able to sustain a woman who was ten times that attractive in this afterlife. It gradually started to dawn on me that the reason that Tipler was going on so much about the afterlife was because he was obviously not getting out at all in this one. I have to admit it kind of soured me on the credibility of the man, and his theory has not stood the test of time very well.”

Peter Watts on his trial:

“My lawyer and I were in a hotel room, and we were on a voice conference with somebody from the Jury Project, and they started talking about how they were going to handle the fact that I was a doctor. It took me about five minutes to clue in, because they were treating this as if it were a bad thing. And all of a sudden I realized that it was a bad thing. They were worried because the prosecution was going to go out of their way to call me ‘Dr. Watts.’ … Having an education makes you hateable, at least in Michigan, and given that this person from the Jury Project was talking to us from California, I’m guessing that throughout wide swaths of the US, being educated is, in the eyes of your average juror, a crime in and of itself.”

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