Carcinization in Science Fiction

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.  This post may also contain spoilers for Tomorrow News Network books that I have not yet written.

Hello, friends!

In my research process, there comes a point where my brain switches over from learning science facts to making up science fiction.  Over the last month of so, I’ve been doing a ton of research on carcinization.  In that time, I have not become an expert on this topic—not by a long shot.  But at this point, I have learned enough science facts for my brain to switch over to Sci-Fi mode.

Carcinization is commonly defined as the process of evolving into a crab.  This has happened a surprising number of times, leading to Internet memes about crabs being some sort of “ultimate life form” or some sort of evolutionary end goal.  Given how common carcinization is (or at least how popular the memes about it are), I’ve often thought that we should see way more crab monsters in science fiction.  And nothing in my recent research has dissuaded me from that opinion.

Of course, giant crab monsters have appeared in Sci-Fi before.  The nameless time traveler in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine has a close call with some giant crabs:

Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front?  Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there.  I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flicking and feeling as it moved.

The word carcinization didn’t exist yet when Wells wrote The Time Machine, but the idea of carcinization did.  As far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists were already puzzling over “the many attempts of Nature to evolve a crab.”  With that in mind, I think H.G. Wells knew exactly what he was doing when he populated the Earth of the distant future with giant, hungry crab monsters.

More recently, a crab-like extraterrestrial appeared in Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir.  I’m pretty sure Weir even used the word carcinization in his book, to help explain how this crab-like species could exist (though after spending about twenty minutes flipping through my copy of Project Hail Mary, I couldn’t find the reference—it’s possible I’m misremembering things).  Fortunately for the protagonist of Project Hail Mary, the crab-like extraterrestrial he meets turns out to be friendly.  An important ally, in fact!

After all the research I’ve done, I feel pretty comfortable exploiting the concept of carcinization for a Sci-Fi story.  And given that H.G. Wells and Andy Weir already did this, I feel like I’m putting myself in good company, too.  Now I do not currently have a release date set for the next Tomorrow News Network novella, but I can tell you that I’m working on it, and there will be giant crabs from outer space.  Will they be friendly crabs, like the crab-like alien from Project Hail Mary?  Or will they be hostile, like the future crabs from The Time Machine?

Okay, yeah, they’re definitely hostile. Sorry for the spoiler.


Please check out some of my previous posts on carcinization, as well as my post on orthogenesis (a closely related concept).

9 thoughts on “Carcinization in Science Fiction

  1. Yes! You’re ready to switch into science fiction mode. I like to put real science in my stories too… but scifi involves things that we don’t know today. To include a surprise you’ve got to reach beyond. Too much studying and your imagination may get stuck on “but that can’t be…”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right, too much studying and you can get mired down in details that probably don’t matter for your story. But reading things like Universe Today or Scientific American, or going a step further and reading actual research papers, can be a great way to find Sci-Fi writing prompts. That’s one of the reasons I do it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The aliens in Project Hail Mary were pretty interesting. Weir did a good job of exploring their differences and how it affected their view of the world. (““You hear light, question?”)

    I have to hand it to HG Wells, The Time Machine has always haunted me. None of the adaptations were ever brave enough to portray it in the stark sense of the original, in a manner that thoroughly skewers human conceit. The crab scene, after we’d already seen how humanity had devolved, was just icing on the cake.

    To Kate’s point, I remember once reading how unhappy Jules Verne was with Wells’ writing. Verne was always careful to work out the science and technology in his stories. Whereas Wells just dreamed up stuff like antigravity paint, Martian invaders, and time machines. Verne’s rigor enabled him to do an admirable job predicting future developments. But his stories never had the existential punch that Wells’ did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point about Wells and Verne. I have an old copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some of the concepts have been reused many time right up to today (because they are great and because they are out of copyright – that’s my suspicion.)

      Verne wrote what might pass for a travelogue on The History Channel today – lots of true stuff spiced with great characters and imagination. If you’re curious, I reviewed it here:

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It never occurred to me before, but yeah, Verne was basically writing a travelogue. If he were around today, he’d probably be writing pseudo-documentaries in the style of Walking with Dinosaurs.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s always been funny to me that the soft Sci-Fi vs. hard Sci-Fi schism can be traced all the way back to Wells and Verne. I do love seeing scientific accuracy in a story. But at some point, the needs of the story have to come first.

      Andy Weir does a great job of writing hard Sci-Fi. However, even he fudges the numbers sometimes and handwaves a few details away, both in The Martian and Project Hail Mary.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, very little science fiction is diamond hard. It’s just too limiting. Or, perhaps more accurately, we have limited information on what the real options might turn out to be.

        Weir admitted in interviews that he made the dust storm in The Martian far more dangerous than it would be in real life, just because he needed something to strand the protagonist by himself on Mars. When I heard that, I immediately started trying to think of an alternate scenario. Every option I came up with would have led to a very different story. I can totally see why he did it.

        Liked by 1 person

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