In this episode we discussed Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator.
Here's a link to the painter and video artist Kim Anno.
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is email@example.com.
Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, find her work at makiyamazaki.com
Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and his band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk
Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, and today we’re going to be discussing the 1984 novel Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator. Enjoy!
Ren: So, Interstellar Pig by William Sleator. How did you find out about this, Adam? Because it’s not something I’d ever heard of before.
Adam: I’m pretty sure I found out about it through Adam Cadre, who’s an interactive fiction writer and blogger who I’ve followed for years and years, and I think I’ve read more words by than any other author living or dead. If he ever gets super famous and needs someone to write his biography, I could probably just dictaphone it, to be honest.
But he likes doing review projects, and he read every one of Sleator’s young adult fiction books and reviewed them all. I had vague memories of Interstellar Pig, I don’t know if I ever read it but maybe I’d seen a copy as a kid, or maybe there was just a lot of porcine young adult fiction and I’m getting mixed up with the Demon Headmaster series with the pig. But anyway, he reviewed them all, and I read House of Stairs and thought it was pretty good, so I read that one and The Green Futures of Tycho, and for this I read Interstellar Pig. So I’m not a Sleator expert or anything.
Ren: So this is a kind of early entry into the ‘Entering into a board game’ genre of fiction, before Jumanji. (Ren thinks about this statement for a moment) Is that a genre? Is it just this and Jumanji?
Adam: I was going to say, do you have a litany of examples? That book where they become real-life participants in a horrifying game of Buckaroo. I guess there are films, like Clue, as the Americans call Cluedo, which to be fair is a better name, because what’s a Cluedo? That’s a fictionalised version of the board game, but Interstellar Pig is a meta board game book, it’s a game in which people play a board game.
Ren: So Interstellar Pig is the name of the space-themed board game that turns out to not be a board game, but a game played among actual extra-terrestrials for the fate of their planets.
Adam: Which I have to say, sounds a lot more fun than the pig game I used to own, which was Pig Pong. I picked it up from a charity shop, mostly on the appeal of the name, and I suspect the name came first when designing the game.
Basically it was ping pong, but instead of a ball there was a foam stylus, and there were two pigs and each player had to squeeze the plastic pig, and air would be exhaled from the pig’s snout, and this flume of air would theoretically keep the foam stylus aloft, but it was nowhere near powerful enough. Literally unplayable. So Interstellar Pig by contrast sounded like a pretty good game.
Ren: Yeah, the pig part comes from the name of the token that you want to have at the end of the game to win, which is called The Piggy. And sort of looks like a horrible leering pigs face.
Adam: Yeah, it doesn’t really look like that on my cover, it’s just got one eye and a kind of non-plussed line for a mouth. It doesn’t even have a nose.
Ren: Oh yeah, let’s talk about our covers. Because I quite like mine.
Adam: It sounds like you’ve got a better one than me. Mine’s quite generic. It’s just got a hand thrusting forwards, like it’s the hand of the reader, maybe. You’re in position, looking at your own hand on the front cover, holding some cards, the top one being The Piggy.
Ren: Mine’s a bit more exciting. It’s a backdrop of the milky way galaxy with planets coming forwards, and there’s Barney, who’s the main character and the three alien neighbours around the card table, and they’re sort of mid-transformation into their true alien selves. So one of them…
Adam: Do you want to introduce the characters?
Ren: Yes, okay. So, the main character is Barney, who is on holiday with his parents, on a vacation to the beach. But he’s completely unable to spend any time in the sun, so he spends all his time inside reading while his parents go off and sunbathe.
And the neighbours are three young people/aliens called Zena, Manny and Joe. So they’re all gathered round, and Zena’s legs are turning into spider legs, because her true alien form is Zulma, who’s an arachnid humanoid. And either Manny or Joe, his top half is a hunky ‘90s guy with curtains, and his legs are growing octopus suckers. And then in the foreground is the other one who’s got a green pointy ear and scales going down his neck.
Adam: Sounds pretty squamous.
Ren: The other thing I liked was one of the quotes on the back: ‘Will raise readers hackles and incite nervous laughs’ - Publishers Weekly. Doesn’t raising hackles mean you want to fight it? You will laugh nervously and fight this book.
Adam: It’s a very odd response to the book to be honest. I don’t think it raised any of my hackles, nor incited nervous laughs. Maybe they thought the book was talking about something that actually happened. I guess if you though the book was documentary evidence of a real board game orientated alien invasion it might raise my hackles and incite nervous laughs. Curious.
Ren: So the story: Barney is stuck inside all the time in the cottage reading, and he’s looking at the neighbours who are staying at the cottage along the way, there’s something a bit odd about them from the start, because they were very keen on getting the cottage that Barney and his family are staying in. Which has a horrible backstory. Shall I describe the horrible backstory?
Adam: The horrible backstory is one of my favourite parts of the book, actually.
Ren: Yeah, so it’s the captain’s cottage, and the captain is Captain Latham, whose brother killed a man who the ship had rescued. His brother claimed that the man had show himself to be the devil, so he’d had to strangle him. But rather than executing his brother outright, the captain chose to have him keelhauled, which means he was tied to a rope and thrown overboard and dragged underwater for the whole length of the ship.
This was supposedly the more merciful option, because there’s a chance of survival. So he did survive, but he became brain-damaged from the lack of oxygen, and in heavy air quotes, left him ‘a raving lunatic’. The captain them kept his brother in the back-bedroom of the cottage for the rest of his life, where he scratched at the walls leaving deep gouges that are still there when it’s Barney’s bedroom in the book.
Adam: Sounds like a pretty awful time for him. But Barney’s quite taken with this tale. I wouldn’t say he’s pleased that that happened or anything, but he’s quite excited, at least that there’s some history to the place they’re staying in. And as you say, these alien neighbours seem very keen to get into the house.
Ren: Yes. Pretty much at the first opportunity they get, they invite themselves over when Barney’s parents are down at the beach, to come and have a look inside the cottage. And when I say have a look, they really turn everything upside down and rifle through absolutely everything in the house. And are particularly interested in the scratches around the window, and spend a long time examining those. The other first indication that they’re a bit odd is that they have this glamour around them, so different people see them differently.
Adam: — But all varying shades of yuppie, right?
Ren: Yeah, yeah. Barney sees them as glamorous athletic people in their late teens. And his parents see them as… glamorous athletic people in their 30s.
Adam: Movers and shakers.
Ren: His parents are slightly unpleasant social climbers.
Adam: This seems to be a bit of a theme in the little Sleator that I’ve read. Rather venal or self-absorbed parental figures. Parents in his books never seem like very nice people, just as an observation.
Ren: Hmm, well, the only other one I’ve read is House of Stairs, and there aren’t any parents in that.
Adam: No, but there are adult guardians who aren’t painted in the best of lights.
Ren: So then Barney, as a kind of payback, goes to look through their cottage when they aren’t there, and is a bit creepy and looks through and even smells Zena’s underwear?
Which is a bit awful.
Adam: I’d forgotten about that! That was odd.
Ren: He doesn’t seem like a particularly….
Adam: Well there’s not much sex in Sleator’s books generally, to be honest. Adam Cadre noted that his characters are often in their mid to late teens, Barney’s 16, and I guess 16 year-old boys, stereotypically at least, are meant to be thinking a lot about sex. And there isn’t very much of this in Sleator. So it was a bit of an odd moment out of the blue, actually.
Ren: So that happens, and he also finds copies of the captain’s diary entries, that Zena has annotated, so he has proof that they definitely came here for something to do with the captain’s cottage.
Adam: And can I read a little bit from the Captain’s diary?
Ren: Oh yeah.
Adam: Because this is what he describes. As you said, the ship’s picked up this unknown passenger who actually we know by the end of the book was an alien with a parasitical tongue. But there’s a really nice description in the captain’s log describing this transformation:
'A moment later I bared my eyes and beheld — merely the body of a strangled man. Black and hideous of countenance it was, yes, with staring eyes and distended tongue. And yet now what I had seen — or imagined I had seen — at first impression.
It had been a false vision, my first impression, the product of my overwrought condition, and of my brother’s hysterical utterance — of that I am now convinced. For what I had thought to be a coarse, leathery, greenish, reptilian hide was indeed only a man’s flesh ravaged by the elements and the unnatural manner of his death; and what in horror I had perceived against all reason as some invertebrate organism, gelatinous, sluglike, protruding from the cracked, blackened lips, that in my swoon had appeared to actually writhe in most grisly and somehow beckoning manner — I quail now at the very memory — was in truth merely his deformed and swollen tongue; and that most ghastly of all, the third eye, the yet living eye, that had appeared to wink from the folds in his forehead, yellow and filmed with slime — ’twas not but a bruise, a swollen contusion of the struggle, partially obscured by matted hair. Nothing, nothing but that.’
Ren: (Pleased noise) Yeah, that’s good.
Adam: Yeah, wearing a bit of Lovecraft on his sleeve there. But nicely done.
Ren: So that’s an alien called Luap, who is a sapient reptile who has a symbiotic relationship with the slug-like invertebrate that lives inside his mouth. This is the character that Barney plays when they all play the board game later on.
Adam: So the neighbours find Barney snuffling around the underwear drawer, I guess, and they probably know that he knows they’re up to something. So instead of saying ‘Get out of here, you pervert! We’re talking to your parents!’ they say ‘Hey, pervert, do you want to play a board game with us?’
I mean to be fair they’re aliens, they don’t know the human customs. So as far as they know, what Barney’s doing is perfectly acceptable.
Ren: So he’d seen them playing the board game when he’d come over the first time, but when they catch him this time, Zena cajoles him to come and play the game outside, in the sun, where he will inevitably get sunburned.
Adam: Which seemingly she knows, right?
Ren: This is her ploy, so that he will be sunburned enough that he won’t be able to come on the expedition the next day and mess with their plans anymore. So Zena teaches Barney the game, and this few pages made me quite anxious, because one thing I really don’t like is learning complicated board game rules.
Adam: I think I’ve never seen you look so frayed and frazzled and generally fed up as when you first played Settlers of Catan. And it’s partly that our mutual firned, Ali, who is very good at board games, was working out tactically through a process of probability and elimination, what moves to make. And I just remember that you were not having a fun time.
Ren: Zena is quite an impatient teacher, and she’s rushing Barney along this quite complicated set of rules of this game and chiding him when he doesn’t get it immediately. And it gave me a little vicarious anxiety.
The premise of the game is that you play different aliens from different planets who have different strengths and weaknesses in surviving. You have cards, and one person has the Piggy, and they have to hide it somewhere that the other players can’t get to easily, because they’re not adapted to surviving in that environment.
Adam: So, if there’s some kind of aquatic alien who wants the Piggy, it might be a good idea to hide the Piggy on a desert planet, for instance. Where they’re going to need additional breathing equipment to lug around with them.
Ren: Yeah, because they can have a certain amount of equipment to help them, but only a few bits each. The person who has the Piggy at the end of the game wins.
Adam: One thing I like about the description of the board game is that you never quite know it’s relationship to reality.
I thought at first that it was going to be like Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, that what’s happening in the board game is happening in real life, literally. I.e. if you die in the board game, you die in real life. So in Only You Can Save Mankind it’s basically Space Invaders and then it turns out that these are actually aliens.
And one thing I liked is that when the board game is described in play you don’t know to what extent Barney’s imagination is filling in the details, and to what extent the action is playing itself on the board. There’s a suggestion that the board is almost holographic, but it’s never clearly established. And I kind of like that, because it plays of that when you play D&D you can get quite lost in that world, and you imagine these worlds when you’re sat around talking and with cards.
Ren: And also each character has an intelligence quotient, and that’s kind of blurred. The line of how much their actions are constrained by the intelligence of the character they’re playing.
There’s definitely hints of the game being a bit other-worldly and mesmerising. In this scene where Zena’s teaching it to Barney, as he looks at the cards they seem to shimmer and blur, and he thinks that it’s the sun but actually it turns out that it’s the text translating itself into English as he looks at it.
So in this game Zena wins, and there’s a bit of sinister foreshadowing as she shows her willingness to eradicate an entire planet’s population to win, which Barney seems slightly unsettled by. But then he realises that he’s getting sunburnt and rushes off.
Adam: And his parents are quite jealous, that he got to spend time with the glamorous neighbours.
Ren: Who they’ve sort of imagined as….
Adam: Jet-setters, I don’t know —
Ren: — glamorous philanthropists.
Adam: Which I guess shows how good their disguise ability is, because they don’t do anything to suggest that they’re philanthropists at all.
One thing I like about the way they’re described is that he gets a fair amount of mileage out of the aliens using words in foreign languages, generally French, in a way that’s slightly off, or slightly inappropriate. They could be yuppies trying to be slightly more sophisticated than they are, or of course, what it is, which is aliens who aren’t quite sure with their use of human language. So I thought that was nice, that it could potentially be either way.
Ren: They have this quite arch banter between each other, and their use of language is just slightly odd, I didn’t pick out any examples, but just using slightly the wrong word.
So back at the Captain’s cottage, Barney traces the scratches that the captain’s brother made around the window and finds that if he extends the lines they all converge at a boulder on an island that’s just off the bay, which turns out to be the location of the Piggy.
So he doesn’t know what it is, but he knows there’s something there that’s significant and something that the neighbours want to get to. So the next day he’s horrendously sunburned, but he still feels like he has to go to the island to discover what they’re looking for. And he manages to get them to reluctantly agree, by basically saying that if they don’t let him go with them he’ll get his dad to trail them in a boat and watch them with binoculars the whole time. So they go windsurfing off to the island —
Adam: Which really manages to situate the book in a certain point in time. Windsurfing.
Ren: All the windsurfing and sunbathing.
Adam: Weren’t you fascinated by my mum’s collection of old Masterchef books?
Ren: (extremely enthusiastically) Oh my god, I love those!
Adam: From the early ‘90s, and it lists people hobbies.
Ren: Yeah, it listed people’s hobbies and it was just a museum of middle class hobbies of the early ‘90s. So there was lots of badminton and windsurfing. Although this book is ’84.
Adam: So slightly before the times with its windsurfing. But I guess it is American, over here in Britain we were probably late adopters.
Ren: It took people a while to get up the nerve to do that —
Adam: — in the cold English sea. Just a quick diversion, I’m currently, in my job at the University of Suffolk the liaison for a Californian video artist, called Kim Anno, who I recommend looking up, her work looks really good, especially her paintings actually, and she’s currently doing this project which involves the effects of tidal erosion on people’s leisure time.
So she’s going round the world and filming coastal areas of tidal erosion, and filming people playing sports on the beach. So she wants to film some of the students playing cricket. However she wants to do this with them half-submerged in the sea. Now, I’m slightly concerned that she hasn’t played cricket before. So I don’t know if she knows that there has to be a wicket, and it’s going to be quite hard to keep that in place in the sea.
And also she asked me, she skyped me last week form California and she said ’So, do you think the sea’s going to be warm enough?’, and she’s coming in a few weeks and I said ‘It’s probably going to being quite cold’. And she wants cheerleaders as well! Which I’m hoping is a deliberate juxtaposition and she doesn’t think we actually have cheerleaders.
Ren: Cricket cheerleaders.
Adam: Yeah, I quite like the idea. So it’s going to be interesting. But I’m slightly concerned that I may end up —
Ren: — half submerged in the sea —
Adam: — half submerged in the sea wearing cricket whites, desperately trying to hold a wicket to the sea floor.
Ren: In February. On the Suffolk coast. Yeah! Well, do let us know.
Adam: Keep tuned. I mean I do like the idea of me looking slightly worried or unhappy, half-submerged in the sea potentially being played in some gallery somewhere around the world. That’s quite exciting.
Not quite on topic.
Ren: So it is a bit of an uncomfortable windsurf, maybe not as uncomfortable as you were describing, but Barney is very sunburned, and he’s trying to hold onto the board and it’s scraping against his tender skin. But they get to the island and he heads straight off for the boulder that the scratches were pointed to, and he gets there before the others and finds a little rusted box and hides it before the others can see.
Adam: And reading this bit, I thought ‘ah, this is reading really like Robert Louis Stevenson, it’s like Treasure Island’. And then Barney himself makes that observation on the next page, ‘Ooh, it’s like I’m in Treasure Island!’ I felt Sleator was laying it on a bit thick. So he finds the box and it’s very apparent that that’s what the neighbours were searching for and they’re quite peeved it wasn’t there.
Ren: Yeah, they’re pretty despondent. But they invite him over anyway, that evening, for dinner. And they’ve guessed that he has what turns out to be the Piggy, which was inside the box. So I’ll read the description of the object the Piggy:
‘There was a face carved on this side, nothing but a rigid, slightly smiling mouth under a single wide-open eye. The lips and eye were sculpted in sharp relief. The vertical iris, inlaid in bright silver, gave the eye a piercing alertness. Crude as it was, the thing seemed alive. And it was the brutal wrongness of it, the mouth smiling with such placid idiocy, noseless, under the solitary gaping eye, that made the face so repellent.’
So it doesn’t have a nose.
Adam: Which is odd… I very much associate pigs with snouts.
Ren: But there you go. He hides it inside an old yearbook in the cottage, they invite him over and they start offering him things in exchange for the Piggy. Like, a youth serum and an intelligence booster and access to hyperspace if he’ll just give it up. But he doesn’t tell them.
Adam: Which is pretty noble of him, I think.
Ren: Yeah, he’s quite concerned for what they want to do with it exactly.
Adam: I think apart from the Arnold Lane like aspects of his character, he’s not so bad. I mean maybe this is just in contrast, we’re obviously going to get on next week to House of Stairs, in which characters do rather horrible things to each other.
Ren: Barney seems like a pretty good soul. Apart from the underwear sniffing.
Adam: Apart from that. But I guess, who’s the real sick man in this so-called society. Is it the boy, who covertly sneaks into his neighbours house, stealing their underwear to sniff secretly. Or is it the yuppie aliens looking out for the survival of their own planets. It’s Barney.*
Ren: Yeah, it’s clearly Barney. So they sort of disappear his parents. Do his parents ever come back?
Adam: Oh my gosh! We don’t know. That’s a good point. Not within the book… they’re not definitely dead, but that said, the aliens are pretty damn mercenary, so that seems possible. Rather puts a dampener on the ending, because at the end Barney’s just staring wistfully out into space.
Ren: Although actually, I found out that there is a sequel to this book called Parasite Pig.
Adam: Does it follow Barney?
Ren: I don’t know, it carries on 3 months later. I don’t know if Barney’s in it.
Adam: But if we want to know if his parents are still alive, we need to consult. Maybe it’s a deliberate cliffhanger.
One thing I wanted to note about the book… the back of my copy has a little author’s note by Sleator, talking about his writing of the book and he says originally there was nothing about board games in this book whatsoever, and it was only when his editor rejected the fourth manuscript she said ‘maybe you could put a game in this story’ and that’s when he put the game in. But a lot of the book is the game, so I find it quite hard to imagine what the book would have been without the game as a central structuring element. I guess you could still have aliens looking for something.
Ren: The whole thing is the tie-in with the captain’s story is that Luap lost the piggy on Earth —
Adam: Yes, so he pulled out for his equipment choice, trans-spatial time travel and managed to blip himself back into the past.
Ren: And then was killed, and then the piggy was lost. You could still have a trio of aliens coming to Earth and looking for something that was lost in the past.
Adam: I can see it wouldn’t be nearly as good, because you need the board game as a structuring device and also it does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to a sense of ambiguity and not knowing what these neighbours are up to, and whether the game is real or whether it’s not.
Ren: They insist on coming over to the captain’s cottage to play the game, which is closer to where Barney has hidden the Piggy. However this time when they draw their cards, Barney doesn’t draw a character, he draws himself. He draws the Barney card. Because he’s entered the game. Which is quite cool, a little creepy touch.
Adam: It would be really cool, if say this was re-released as an e-book, right. You could do it so you had to put in your name, or it gets your name from your amazon or your google account, because, hell, it’s all linked up now, why not use it for something fun. And then it shows you a picture of the card and it’s your own face and name on it!
Ren: (nervous laughter)
Adam: I mean, don’t think about the ethics, they have all that information already!
Ren: Yes, wouldn’t that be fun! ahaha.
Adam: Well, I like to think that the government agencies listening to us as we’re recording right now are having a nice laugh out of this.
Ren: (more nervous laughter)
Adam: There’s the nervous laughs that Publisher’s Weekly promised us! So… he’s in the game.
Ren: He’s in the game, and we see the neighbours in their true alien selves for the first time. Which are pretty horrible! So their alien names: Zena is Zulma who’s a humanoid arachnid from Vavoosh, Manny is Moyna, who’s an octopus-like gasbag creature, and Joe is Jrlb, who’s a water-breathing gilled man. There’s a description of Jrlb:
‘He emitted a powerful briny reek. Salt water and scummy foam dripped from his smooth oily gray hide. He stood upright, learning forward slightly. His hands and feet were huge and webbed and covered with scales, spread far apart to help him balance. He had no neck, or nose, or ears. Red rectangular goggles hid his eyes. His mouth was a wide lipless slit beneath the glasses, pressed tightly shut’.
And Moyna is… I’ll just read the description because it’s also quite horrible.
‘Her huge soft head was slimy with mucouslike membrane. Thick veins branched across it. She spasmed and pulsed like an exposed internal organ. The long threads that undulated around her tentacles made me think of earthworms. The tentacles themselves were pliant but muscular, their undersides stippled with suction cups secreting a yellow gluey substance. The eyes above the tentacles bulged out and then retracted, and then bulged again’.
So, some fairly gruesome monsters, they’ve become. And also we haven’t yet mentioned the star of the book —
Adam: I knew you’d think this!
Ren: Introducing the Carnivorous Lichen of Mbridlengile! Which I’m quite keen on.
Adam: So they’re a kind of slightly peevish hive mind, I guess?
Ren: Pink, sponge-like, semi-sentient lichen.
Adam: With a voracious appetite.
Ren: Barney, in his first game with Zena, draws their card, so he’s playing as them, and she describes them: ‘It would take them quite a time to digest you, and you’d be conscious for most of it — they go for the brain last’.
Adam: And this turns out to be something of a piece of dramatic irony because Barney ends up disguising himself as one of them.
Ren: Yes, he gets to pick a few bits of equipment, and one of them is an immunity pill which happily gives him immunity to the carnivorous lichen. And the other thing is disguise equipment, so he can disguise himself as part of the lichen, and sort of ooze across the floor and the ceiling towards the Piggy, being part of the hive mind.
Adam: If this was a Goosebumps book, this would have been the entire premise for the whole book. It would have been: ‘Help! I’m a lichen!’; ‘I never guessed when I moved house that I would become a lichen!’. But since we’ve had Barney in human form, it’s quite exciting when he turns all lichen on us, I think.
Ren: Because first he withers the lichen because he’s immune to it, when it tries to touch him and eat him it just kind of crumbles. I was thinking that we should, inspired by the Beetlejuice digging scene that we should look for the best tactile sensation or texture in things that we discuss.
Adam: Okay, do you have one then?
Ren: I do have one. Which is when Barney kills the lichen underfoot with his immunity, it says: ‘I stomped gaily through it like a child playing in the rain. Under my feet, the lichen crunched like potato chips’. Which I enjoyed.
So they’re all in the house, in their alien forms and various skirmishes are happening, and more aliens are coming, the other players of the game are coming to Earth.
Adam: Yeah, Barney can hear scraping and chirruping and squelchy noises from outside of the house, suggesting that other alien life forms have arrived. You don’t see these, which I thought was quite effective.
Ren: And he starts to hear the piggy talking to him, but in sort of quotes, and strange fragments of sentences. Which I wasn’t quite sure what to make of.
Adam: Well, he slowly realises that it is effectively a recording device. And when he realises this he discovers that the Piggy is just a kind of information suck, that its drive is to record more and more of the universe. It’s almost like a meme, this self-propagating information unit that sucks up information and relays it back without rhyme or reason. So you start getting snippets from the yearbook, so it says ‘the student council this year has been extremely active in school affairs and in stimulating school spirit among the student body!’.
So the only way Barney can learn from this is to read between the lines, because it doesn’t seemingly have many thoughts of its own. It just retrieves information and then plays it back out.
Ren: And he’s trying to work out what exactly the Piggy does, because we learn just before this final real game, that this is still the first game, it’s never ended.
Adam: So when we see them playing the board game, when they get to the end of the game what happens is that those who don’t have the Piggy are obliterated along with their home planets, but this was just the board game. It wasn’t the real, life version of the board game. So all the aliens are operating under the assumption that if the game ends and they don’t have the Piggy they’re going to be obliterated along with their species, but they don’t know this. So they’re just operating from a position of fear.
Ren: And then Barney starts to think that maybe, in fact, the opposite is true, and the planet that has the Piggy will be destroyed. And he has to weigh up whether he wants to keep the Piggy or if he wants someone else to have it. And then realises that in fact, neither is true, and the Piggy just wants to be passed around from planet to planet to gain knowledge. So he lets the lichen leave Earth with the Piggy. Which has now sucked up a lot of 1950s yearbook as part of its repertoire.
Adam: So the end of the book, we finish with the lichen on their spaceship trying to extract meaningful information from the Piggy as it spouts out yearbook quotes.
Ren: Leading to the last line of the book being: ‘The lichen were confused’.
Adam: Which is a pretty special last line. Weirdly, it also reminded me a bit of the very end of Hitchhiker’s Guide, as in the end of Mostly Harmless.
The whole thing’s very convoluted, but it ends where the book starts, basically, with the Vogon fleet about to destroy the Earth. So we’ve gone back in time, and now Arthur, and Ford, and Zaphod Beeblebrox and all of the other characters are all on Earth and this time they let it happen. So instead of hitching a ride on the Vogon spaceship they stay put and the Earth’s destroyed, and there’s an epilogue with the Vogon commander sat in the spaceship just in silence and darkness, all the lights go out, and it ends with the Vogon sat in this meaningless void. Their beaurocratic work has been done, and there it is. They’ve gained no joy from it, but that’s where the book ends.
It always kind of haunted me a kid, that ending. My Dad read me Hitchhikers when I was very young, and that always stayed with me, it’s a very odd ending. I mean, the last two Hitchhikers books are very gloomy because Adams didn’t really enjoy writing them anymore and that’s why he kills all the characters off. But I did rather like the idea of these lichen in their spaceship endlessly trying to get some kind of intelligible meaning out of the Piggy.
Ren: So, a strange book, definitely. But is it a scary book. Is that even a question to ask about it?
Adam: It’s thrilling rather than scary, I suppose. I think it’s not particularly scary when you’re reading it, but when you think about some of the ideas it is quite scary in an existential angst kind of a way. The idea of all of these aliens desperately, neurotically playing this board game in the hope that it’ll keep their planets from being annihilated, and actually that’s not going to happen and the whole thing’s pointless, and they don’t know that. I think there’s something sad and haunting about that.
Ren: There’s definitely a lot more of that sort of meaningless action, being trapped in a cycle of actions with dubious purpose, in House of Stairs.
Adam: Well, there is a higher purpose in House of Stairs, but it’s not a purpose that the characters are aware of for the whole of the book, it’s not a purpose that benefits them. So it’s kind of similar in that sense, in that the Piggy is exploiting these aliens who think they’re doing what they’re doing for one reason, and actually they’re wrong, and they end the book none the wiser.
So our three aliens jet off into space, continuing the game and bickering amongst themselves, none the wiser for their experiences in the book.
Ren: So House of Stairs is going to be our next episode, and maybe Parasite Pig at some point.
Adam: It would be intriguing to see where that goes. Maybe when Parasite Pig came out video games were all the rage.
Ren: Yeah, it came out in 2002.
Adam: So maybe it’s a video game rather than a board game. With polygonated graphics. Did you enjoy it?
Ren: Yeah. I found it a bit baffling, had to read it twice. Particularly the ending was fairly confusing but there’s definitely parts of it that I really enjoyed. The lichen, yes, and the captain’s backstory which I found quite haunting.
Adam: I think it has a certain something. It has a certain charm to it.
Ren: Do you have a sign off?
Adam: Erm. (long pause) Keep it… piggy? I mean, that’s not a…
Ren: Yeah, keep it piggy.
Adam: I should really come up with these in advance.
Ren: Might help. Sorry I put you on the spot.
Our theme music is by Maki Yamazaki, our outro music is by Joe Kelly and our artwork is by Letty Wilson. If you enjoyed this episode maybe leave us a review on itunes, that would be cool. And see you next time!
(outro music plays)
- Solemnly resets the ‘Episodes since a TMWRNJ reference’ counter to 0.