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Space horror: five recent works

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Space horror is one of my favourite subgenres of science fiction. Outer space, being so vast, cold and unknowable, is a rich setting for some really scary stories. Hollywood has exploited this idea for ages, producing such creepy films as Event HorizonPandorumSunshine, and of course the incredible Alien series — although we all know the latter is a mixed bag quality-wise. Count me in as one person, by the way, who actually enjoyed Prometheus as a horror film, even though it was ridiculous as a SF film. Anyway, I digress.

Sadly, there have not been too many space horror novels. Over on Goodreads I created the “Space horror” list which I’ve been adding to (as have others) for a few years, any time I hear about something space-horror-ish. While Goodreads’ lists are prone to spamming by self-published authors (who are the bane of Goodreads and of the writing industry in general), I think the list has evolved into a generally good survey of the space horror genre. But it’s not a huge list overall.

I haven’t read all of the books on the list — in fact I’ve barely read any. However, since finishing The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher I thought I’d do a little post reviewing five recent works in this subgenre. I write this in the hopes that someone out there might find it useful when they’re searching for a novel with the vibe of the great space horror movies I listed.

In rating each work, I used an overall score out of ten, as well as three specific ratings for different elements of the works. These are described below:

  • HORROR: The effectiveness of the book in generating terror, an oppressive atmosphere, horrific imagery, and general creepiness.
  • SCIENCE FICTION: How good the book is as a science-fiction story, including the quality of its plot, and getting the science right.
  • MYSTERY/SATISFACTION: Whether the book has a gripping mystery at its core, and the level of satisfaction left in the reader as to how that mystery is revealed/solved. Answers are good, but sometimes too many answers can diffuse the tension and fear.

So, here are the reviews!

* * * * *

UNTO LEVIATHAN (A.K.A. SHIP OF FOOLS)

sh_untoBy Richard Paul Russo, 2001

A generation ship, torn apart by politics, comes across an abandoned human colony with a horrible secret. Fleeing, they later encounter a spookily uninhabited alien ship in deep space, which may have the answers to what happened to the colony. The tedious political and religious machinations on board the generation ship really detract from the terrifying alien plot, in my opinion.

  • HORROR: Lots of dread and a few gruesome discoveries, but it never really reaches the chilling crescendo you hope for. 7/10
  • SCIENCE FICTION: Yet another generation ship story in the SF canon. It isn’t the hardest of SF, but it won’t insult your intelligence. There’s some scenes involving a gravity weapon which seems a bit questionable, though. Mostly, I just wish Russo had done more with the exploration and alien threat, rather than spending so much time on the infighting onboard the humans’ ship.  7/10
  • MYSTERY/SATISFACTION: Are you hoping for answers? You won’t get many. There’s a very open ending, leaving the book feeling two-thirds finished. 5/10

MY REVIEW SCORE: 6.5/10

* * * * *

BLINDSIGHT

sh_blindBy Peter Watts, 2006

A small crew heads to the edge of our solar system to investigate a potential alien signal, and they find a gigantic shapeshifting alien artifact dubbed “Rorschach”, and some very nasty stuff indeed inside it. The weirdness of the human crew (including one not-so-human member) is just as fascinating as the alien menace, and we get to venture into each of their heads as the tale intensifies.

  • HORROR: Skin-crawling tension, with quite a few moments of pure terror. Scariest of all is the existential horror brought up towards the end of the book. 9/10
  • SCIENCE FICTION: Pretty much as hard as SF can get, with lots of biology, neurology and psychology forming the foundation of the story. There’s even a notes section at the end, with citations and so on. It’s an impressive story with exceptional ideas, a real standout in recent SF. 10/10
  • MYSTERY/SATISFACTION: Rorschach provides a great “Big Dumb Object” mystery, and while “BDO”s are overused in SF, this one is pretty unique. When the truth slots into place near the end, your head will be reeling. 9/10

MY REVIEW SCORE: 9.5/10

* * * * *

HULL ZERO THREE

sh_hullBy Greg Bear, 2010

Also a generation ship story. A man wakes up with no memory (as these stories often start) and has no choice but to explore and to try to stay alive, while the ship breaks down around him and gets overrun by nasty things. He will eventually discover the ship’s purpose, as well as his own. The description-heavy prose is rather overwrought, and for a good length of the book you’ll be frustrated by the almost incomprehensible plot and action. But then, it all finally clicks.

  • HORROR: A grim atmosphere, but nothing too outright horrific. There are some unsettling encounters near the end that definitely leave an impression in your mind, though. 6/10
  • SCIENCE FICTION: When it all comes together at the end and you realise the ship’s purpose and the reason for its monstrous population, you’ll realise an intriguing SF idea has snuck up on you. 7/10
  • MYSTERY/SATISFACTION: It takes ages for almost anything to make any sense, so when things do get explained it’s a great feeling, and it helps you forgive the flaws that had come before. 8/10

MY REVIEW SCORE: 7/10

* * * * *

THE BURNING DARK

sh_burnBy Adam Christopher, 2014

In a war-torn future galaxy, an officer is stationed in a remote research vessel which is in the process of being decommissioned. The ship orbits a strange star which causes interference in all bands of communication, and some spooky things are happening on board: visions, voices from nowhere, people going missing, and so on. This book worked so well until the devastatingly disappointing final act.

  • HORROR: It’s spooky, it’s scary, it’s got a killer atmosphere of constant dread and tension, until it all goes away thanks to a botched ending. 8/10
  • SCIENCE FICTION: The backstory about the human-Spider wars is the best SF element of this book; the rest is all much more supernatural. The tech, and concepts like “subspace”, exist only due to the demands of the plot. It’s a pretty standard-fare space opera, with ghosts. 6/10
  • MYSTERY/SATISFACTION: You’ll get swept away by the bizarre and spooky mystery, and you’ll think you want to know the answers, but when they come they’re like an insulting slap in the face. Adam blew it. 4/10

MY REVIEW SCORE: 6/10

* * * * *

REVELATION SPACE SERIES

sh_revBy Alastair Reynolds, 2000-2007

A series about humanity struggling to exist in a fundamentally unpleasant universe. There’s horror (particularly in the novella Diamond Dogs, some of the short stories in Galactic North, and the flashbacks in Chasm City), existential terror, and a gothic vibe that calls to mind the best space horror films. While there are a handful of inscrutable and malevolent alien forces, they stay mostly in the background while the series spotlights bad humans doing bad things. The major plot that carries through the main trilogy is about an inorganic threat to organic life within our galaxy, much like the Mass Effect games, but much darker.

The trilogy is Revelation SpaceRedemption Ark, and Absolution GapChasm City and The Prefect are prequels, and Galactic North and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days are two collections of related short work.

  • HORROR: It ranges. There are some overtly scary bits in some of the works (as I mentioned above), but more often the horror comes from the hostility of the universe and its natural laws. There are also moments where the worst in humanity is on full display. 8/10
  • SCIENCE FICTION: Reynolds is an astrophysicist, and he knows his stuff. The story is complex, rewarding, and almost completely grounded in real physics. For example, there’s no faster-than-light travel. 9/10
  • MYSTERY/SATISFACTION: Ask a lot of people and they’ll tell you that Absolution Gap ended the series poorly, but I disagree. If you check out the short story “Galactic North” you’ll find a bit more resolution. Plus, there’s always the chance that Reynolds will come back and write more in this series. Overall there are plenty of mysteries in each individual work, and Reynolds does a great job of metering out the reveals. Chasm City in particular has a brilliant and quite audacious twist. 9/10

MY REVIEW SCORE: 9/10

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If you have read any of these books and disagree with my assessment, or if you have any other suggestions for great space horror novels, by all means comment below!

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