Remedial Gigerology, Part 2


I’m guessing this portrait is already familiar to a lot of you, since I got the link both from a fellow skiffhead and a boardroom mundane, but — speaking as a biologist — this is one of the creepiest, most unsettling creature pics I’ve ever seen. This thing has teeth where a beak should be — disquietingly human teeth, at that. (In fact, the species profile does refer to a “beak”, so this has got to be a superficial resemblance, not a homologous structure. Still.)

I never really thought about it before, but this picture makes me wonder if the secret to generating creepy-verité is not to create something completely alien, but to create something mostly alien and then insert a clearly human feature onto the strangeness. Or maybe it’s all about mouths; maybe I wouldn’t be so creeped out if this little monster had a humanoid eye where its mouth is. I dunno.

But maybe I was missing the point when I tried so hard to make Blindsight‘s scramblers so utterly alien in every respect. Maybe, to make them really scary, all I had to do was add a little humanity.

Thanks for the nightmares, Mac.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Saturday October 27 2007at 06:10 am , filed under biology, marine . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

19 Responses to “Remedial Gigerology, Part 2”

  1. The cover of Felidae has a cat with human eyes.

    What’s funny is how long it took me to work out where the strangeness was exactly. I had to have it pointed out to me.

  2. I remember that cover. It didn’t creep me out nearly as much as this pic does.

  3. But… I had thought some fan made you a scrambler figurine!
    I thought to myself: “Woo, this is exactly how I’ve imagined them”

  4. Image related.

  5. For a while there was a picture going around that showed a woman’s breast superimposed with some sort of.. flower face, with seedpods. They were supposed to be maggot sacs or something. Anyway, it was disgusting and disturbing and.. I still have nightmares about it.. and suddenly my boobs itch – even though I *knew* it was fake. But the combination of two otherwise normal and non-disturbing images still managed to create something truly shudderific. I’m getting the same vibe from your teethy creature. More worrisome is that it isn’t fake.

  6. Damn dude, of *course* the alien/familiar combo is the scariest.

    Getting your throat ripped out by a predator — Earthly or otherwise — is just part of being soft and pink and edible. But threats to our very morphology are *perversions* of our very selves, *sins* against the flesh, and that shit shakes you up.

    I still remember being 16 and seeing the 1978 Body Snatchers remake, which featured a little dog with a human face. It was bad enough just standing there, but then it licked its human face with its doggie tongue and freaked me right out.

  7. i think you may have stumbled onto something there. wait no. the idea has been around. what springs to mind is the silent hill series of horror vid games where creators (in the “making of” feature) describe this very methodology for creating their creepy crawlies. of course being japanese they have to take it one step further and make that human element of an overtly sexual nature.

    P.S. to be honest with you i’d be hard pressed to choose apples over oranges (or vice versa) 😉

  8. I’m always reminded of the POS computers they had onboard the Alien ship. Super technology hurling through space with the ability to stall your metabolism and stop aging while you cryo-sleep 10 years away… only to wake up and play on a commodore 64. BUT.. it seems more post-apocalyptic-dirty-techno-blue collar gear than any of the cgi effects Lucas threw into his “new” Star Wars episodes. Yay for familiarity.

    That silent hill stuff that was mentioned definitely hit a chord on the creepy vien, especially when I saw the actor that played the main baddy.

  9. cow_2001 said…

    But… I had thought some fan made you a scrambler figurine!
    I thought to myself: “Woo, this is exactly how I’ve imagined them”

    and then Scott C. said…

    My brother has an obnoxiously complex and well maintained saltwater/coral tank at his apartment, and he has some of those “Brittle Stars” in there. I took one look at those things, and I said, “Hey, Scramblers”.

    Yup, brittle stars were pretty much where I started from when I designed the scramblers. (Especially the way they move; they really do scramble.) In fact, I have a photoshopped mockup of a scrambler for a rifters.com web page that I never got around to finishing (there’s a couple of Blindsight pages on indefinite hiatus — although now that I’m easing back into full-time writing I might just finish ’em up as displacement activity). Nudge me if I haven’t posted it in a few days and I’ll throw it up.

    LoopdiLou said…

    For a while there was a picture going around that showed a woman’s breast superimposed with some sort of.. flower face, with seedpods. They were supposed to be maggot sacs or something. Anyway, it was disgusting and disturbing and.. I still have nightmares about it..

    (insert shudders here) There was guy I knew back in high school, worst case of acne you ever saw. His whole face was a ripe field of whiteheads — and of course, given my imagination I could never look at the guy without imagining that all those embedded eggs were about to hatch, and that any moment his face would erupt into a twitching mass of pulsing grub-snouts, embedded in the flesh.

    Christ, Lou. Thanks for reminding me…


    The ever-reliable AR said…

    Image related.

    Now that isn’t repulsive or scarey by any means. But it is… disquieting…

    Nas said…

    Damn dude, of *course* the alien/familiar combo is the scariest… But threats to our very morphology are *perversions* of our very selves, *sins* against the flesh, and that shit shakes you up.

    And then kinkaid_0 said…

    wait no. the idea has been around. what springs to mind is the silent hill series of horror vid games where creators (in the “making of” feature) describe this very methodology for creating their creepy crawlies.

    I’m thinking that’s why Cronenberg was so influential during his Eww, gross period…

    Jason said…

    I’m always reminded of the POS computers they had onboard the Alien ship. Super technology hurling through space with the ability to stall your metabolism and stop aging while you cryo-sleep 10 years away… only to wake up and play on a commodore 64.

    Anachronistic technology in sf has always been a huge honking cucumber up my ass — the Aliens movies were classic cases in point — and it took Battlestar Galactica to pull it out for me (at least partially because they acknowledged the anachronisms explicitly, and justified them; so we still had the gut verisimilitude of the familiar, but without the cognitive dissonance of knowing how unrealistic the familiar would be in the future). That York conference I was at a while back? The keynote speech I gave there — “Anachronism, Battlestar Galactica, and the Turd in the Punchbowl (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Singularity” was exactly about that. I could go on and on about it here (and that might be a trial for some of you, although worth it for others because I spend the last half of the talk admitting that I had my head up my ass throughout the first half), but I don’t want to deplete my arsenal of pithy insights. You never know when someone might ask me to give a talk on short notice.

  10. You know it’s coming: Captain Spinks leans over the main console in the bridge of the inter-galactic space cruiser Marion and orders his First Engineer to “start er up”. To no ones surprise, First Engineer Milky’s voice crackles over the intercom “Vista says its found new hardware again, captain, shall I cancel the wizard?”

    My google account is locked..
    ^^ Jason

  11. Dude, the combination of the alien and the familiar is the main reason vampires are creepy. they’re inhuman, not abhuman.

    The scramblers worked to scare me, but for different reasons. Sarasti is scary-creepy because he’s familiar-but-not. The scramblers are scary because we have no recourse to reasonable discourse in dealing with them – they’re like a boulder rolling down a hill at you. The only thing you can do is get out of the way if you don’t want to get crushed – and this particular boulder may or may not have homing mechanisms built in.

    The fear from vampires, and smilesquids, is rooted in our aversion to the dead. (which makes sense, dead people are dead for a REASON and you don’t want to catch it.) The fear of scramblers is rooted in our fear of falling rocks.

  12. Not too mention that if you move too far from familiar we can’t relate, which leads to a disconnect with the material, which leads to easily identifying fact from fiction, which makes fiction less scarey. One way or another the material needs to capture the reader/viewer/listener.

    Jason – still locked from google for no apparent reason. Why did I depend on google !!!

  13. Fraxas said…

    Dude, the combination of the alien and the familiar is the main reason vampires are creepy. they’re inhuman, not abhuman.

    Thing is, I don’t find vampires particularly creepy, not in terms of their appearance. They’ve always just basically come down to guys with pointy teeth. If they skittered, maybe. Or were even a little less partial to clothing. Something. (That head-twisting baby who crawled along the ceiling in “Trainspotting”? That was closer to the truly creepy in my mind.)

    That’s why I tried to describe Sarasti not so much in terms of appearance as in terms of movement: motionless for hours, like an insect, then whap faster than the eye can see. And that’s why (in addition to my limited artistic skills) I can’t really convey my sense of the thing through a static pencil sketch.

    That said, I saw “30 Days of Night” a few days back, and I’ve now changed my mental image of Sarasti completely. Now, Sarasti looks like that ectomorphic vampire with the big adam’s apple and the longish greasy hair. Except with short hair. And without the impulse control issues.

    Jason said…

    Not too mention that if you move too far from familiar we can’t relate, which leads to a disconnect with the material, which leads to easily identifying fact from fiction, which makes fiction less scarey. One way or another the material needs to capture the reader/viewer/listener.

    Which is, I think, the main reason why we keep getting shotguns in “Outland” and trucker chic in “Alien” and a galaxy-spanning technology that can’t make nonpeeling paint in “Star Wars”. You can argue all you like about the uneven distribution of advanced tech (you listening, Ray?), but there’s no way that most filmmakers (with the notable exception of the BSG team) think that deeply about their set design. It all comes down to familiarity. We accept CRTs on the Nostromo, not because that’s consistent with a 23rd-century technology, but because it feels real in the gut, and it feels real because we grew up with it. We reject Star Trek’s lycra jumpsuits and shiney corridors as hokey not because they’re implausible (although they might be), but because they’re unfamiliar.

    It’s a real pain in the ass trying to describe advanced technology that is both objectively plausible and subjectively relatable to a contemporary audience. Kubrick had to resort to metaphoric screensavers and baby pictures to even hint at the disconnect; Charlie Stross didn’t even try to take us into Economics 2.0. But Cowpokes in Space &mdash boy, people can’t stop drooling over that one…

  14. Was 30 days of night good? Vampires must be a tough write, and you can probably blame Anne Rice for it. So many stories and movies romanticize the Vampire as the lonely yet seductive feline of the night. It’s silly how many people long to be a Vampire, desiring that image regardless of the murderous nature. I should probably read Blindsight before getting into this conversation :)

    Jason

  15. I haven’t seen 30 Days ( I just realized how similar that sounds to 28 Days, and don’t think that’s coincidence), but I do applaud any movie that tries to make vampires scary again, as opposed to sexually ambiguous, leather-clad euro hipsters…with guns. When did we get so desensitized as a culture, we though that vampires needed guns?

    As far as vampires being scary or not, I think the best, which is to say, scariest, Vampire stories have always been more of a “pod person” story, playing on the fear of loss of self, which most good horror and sci-fi has always been about.

  16. Well, 30 Days of Night is adapted from a comic book first published in 2002, and 28 Days Later came out in 2002. Considering they were worked on simultaneously, and that 30 Days takes it’s name from the idea that above the arctic circle, night lasts for a month (that’s the brainstorm this band of vampires hits on, much the the misfortune of some arctic townsfolk), I doubt there was any name imitation here. Just coincidentally similar names.

    Haven’t seen it yet either, but I read the comic, and the comic was good.

  17. Oh, I would never question the intentions of the original artists involved. It’s all about the producers, after the fact, who decide what movies to make, when to make them, and how to market them. I assure you, that movie was greenlighted for no reason other than it’s title, the fact it was about zombies, er, I mean vampires, and that they could keep it’s budget under x. The fact that the source material might have actually been any good, or that the ensuing movie may have ended up ok, is entirely coincidental.

    /cynicism off

  18. Jason said…

    Was 30 days of night good?

    Wasn’t bad, relative to some I’ve seen. Could have been better. It has some great iconic scenes — an aerial pan over a massacre-in-progress, a memorable opening shot of the old tramp freighter that brings the invaders, striking sunrise/sunset sequences — but there are some lapses in logic and some clunky edits. (How do our heroes survive undetected for two weeks in the general store — which has no secret hiding places or fortifications of any kind — in a town swarming with ornery and peckish vampires who’ve already eaten everyone else out of house and home? Why, we cut to a subtitle that says “Day 27”, and there we are!)

  19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_Valley

    It is wikipedia but the concept is interesting and seems to explain quite well why certain things disturb me and others don’t.