Most Terrifying Sci-Fi Books
Sci-fi horror is a well-known film genre, but terrifying sci-fi books often go unappreciated.
Peanut butter and jelly. Hot rods and bikinis. Sci-fi and horror. Some things are meant to go together! Yet, while most of us are all too familiar with our two favorite genres mixing it up in motion pictures, it’s often under appreciated how well these types blend in book form. Together, we can correct that fault, by cherry-picking a few classics, blowing off the binary dust which has shamefully accumulated upon these wizened tomes, and gearing up to get our wits scared out of us!
Where better to begin than here? The title alone is enough to creep somebody out! Harlan Ellison’s Hugo Award-winning novel, published in 1967, features the precursor to many an evil artificially intelligent nemesis—the sublimely malicious supercomputer “AM,” in this instance. Life, if it may be called such, began for AM after the Cold War ended in the destruction of mankind. The three guilty superpowers each built their own “Allied Mastercomputer” to run what was left of their societies, but, as so often happens, one of the A.I.s became sentient and decided to combine with the other two. From there, the now unified AM took it upon itself to finish what the humans started, and wipe out the remains of humanity. Getting in touch with its inner cruelty-side, AM decides to keep a handful of persons alive, and to in fact make them immortal—just so it can torment them for eternity by messing with their minds in very sadistic ways. AM can, however, also alter their physical appearances, and turns one of the men into a grotesque ape… simply out of boredom! But AM saves the best for last, and from its coded depravity comes the title of this novel, the whole of which Ellison churned out in one fever-dreamed evening!
Let’s go crazy—because you’re going to need an altered state of mind to get through Peter Watts’ bizarrely populated world, an unrecognizable Earth in the not-too-far future. People aren’t what they used to be, literally. The protagonist, Daniel Brüks, is the last unaltered man, and he’s sick of his mutated fellow people. He’s also mired in a good deal of guilty conscience, since his work in biology has led to several deaths at the hands of terrorists who’ve exploited his research. But old Brüks can’t catch a break and soon finds himself embroiled in a battle between brain-tweaking, super-intelligent monks and remote-controlled zombies. One thing leads to another and Brüks lands onboard a spaceship (the Crown of Thorns) piloted by a voracious vampire named Valerie, who might only be keeping poor Brüks around for later sustenance. The flight is at least made endurable by the company of Lianna (a monks’ translator) and Jim Moore, a character from Wells’ other story, The Colonel. Their unfathomable destination, however, blows apart Brüks’ already dim view of existence and the meaning of life itself.
This one’s made it into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, a highly respected anthology series paneled by the Science Fiction Writers of America. At its core, the tale is a simple moral conundrum—a young girl, Marilyn, stows away on board a space vessel carrying medical supplies to another planet. She’s discovered by the startled pilot, who informs her, sorry, but she’ll have to be ejected into space. Naturally, Marilyn isn’t keen on such a prospect and complains the punishment is far too hash; all she wants is to visit her brother who is on the other planet, but she couldn’t afford a trip. Though Barton can sympathize, he explains there’s a very good reason why stowaways aren’t permitted, and that jettisoning her has nothing to do with punishment, but instead, with weight. The ship was designed to carry on the pilot, the fuel, and the medical supplies which the planet’s citizens—including Marilyn’s own brother—require to survive. The engineers allowed zero tolerance for error; no additional weight can be carried without utterly dooming the mission to failure. Though derided by some critics for this unscientific plot device, nonetheless The Cold Equations proves that, in the case of storytelling, good fiction takes precedence of science.
Do I even need to say it? Best known for his Game of Thrones series (there, I said it), GRRM began his career writing some pretty disturbing stuff. One need look no further than the 1979 novelette, Sandkings, for a prime (and horrifying) example. Bored and rich, Simon Kress is a collector of rare species, but has a tendency to neglect them, causing their loss by starvation. Looking for something more robust to collect, he stumbles upon the store Wo & Shade, wherein he purchases several insectoid “sandkings” from the owner. Coming in various colors, the creatures are controlled by an unmoving queen which directs them to build castle-like colonies. Kress is impressed by his new pets, but wants to make them more aggressive… so he starts starving them on purpose, causing battles to break out. Inviting guests over to be entertained by these insect wars, his obsession with the sandkings grows as his treatment of them worsens. Soon he’s feeding them small animals. But after a time, he becomes angry with the queen and injures her… probably a mistake, as he’ll later learn. The store owner, Wo, informs Kress that the queen is likely growing smarter and therefore more dangerous. But don’t worry, Kress is going to find that out on his own…
Unlike The Cold Equations, Revelation Space suffers from no critical qualms over the validity of its science. That’s because author Alastair Reynolds isn’t only an author; he happens to hold a PhD in astronomy. The tri-narrative is the story of a space archeologist named Dan Sylveste, an assassin hired to kill him, and a dying captain in need of his medical services. Sylveste’s main goal is to find the cause behind the destruction of a 900,000 year old civilization, known as the Amarantins, but fears he’ll not be able to achieve this goal once taken by the crew of the dying captain, boarding their lighthugger ship, the Nostalgia for Infinity. Meanwhile, the mercenary Ana Khouri has finagled her way into the crew, there to carry out her mission on behalf of her villainous client, the Mademoiselle (those wily French maidens!). As all parties grapple to meet their own ends by any means necessary, Sylveste inadvertently does learn the bleak cause of the Amarantins' demise, as well as the true reason why there are so few other space-faring civilizations out there.
Sigler’s been plowing his own unique path in the literary world for a few years now, releasing many of his works for free online and via downloadable podcasts. Infected stars a very anger-prone (and quite large) ex-linebacker named Perry Dawsey, who becomes mysteriously infected by tiny triangular parasites of the alien variety. These nasty extraterrestrial buggers begin to reshape his already disgruntled disposition, ripping at his self-control and threatening to loosen the cognitive straps that tenuously reign in his murderous personality. Quixotically praised as “pulp” and lauded as a “thinking-person’s thriller,” if nothing else, Infected leaves the reader with a boost of adrenaline and a slightly nauseous feeling in the belly from all the gore and goo. Opted for film and comic adaptations, Infected is the first in a terrifying trilogy.
Taking its title from an allegory in Plato’s Republic, Ship of Fools is in fact a “generation ship” named the Argonos, which has been floating around the galaxy for thousands of years. Filled with a population of thousands, the ship’s society has turned into a caste system akin to medieval times. There’s a growing lack of confidence, however, in the ship’s captain, Nikos. Nikos confides in Bartolomeo, the book’s narrator, that a habitable planet has been found, and a landing will be attempted. Finding the world barren, a portion of the ship, nonetheless, strongly desires to move in, so weary are they of their aimless space wanderings. Reminiscent of all those suspenseful Star Trek away team missions gone wrong (and more than a little similar to Battlestar Galactica’s mission to find a planetary home), Ship of Fools shifts its tone from intriguing to ominous and unsettling once the crew begin poking around the new world, which they’ve labelled Antioch (Russo has a knack for picking foreshadowing names, as the actual historical town of Antioch, once a Christian stronghold, was sieged and all its citizens murdered or enslaved). Mayhem ensues as another stellar vessel appears, as dead and silent as Antioch itself.
Featuring a (seemingly) sole survivor against a race of blood drinkers, I Am Legend is one of the most influential genre novels ever written. It’s the woeful tale of Robert Neville, the doomed last man on Earth, who lives in his barricaded home as an understandably paranoid alcoholic, spending his evenings in fear for his life (since the rest of the population has been turned into murderous vampires). In the day, he’s able to venture out, but must be careful not to wander too far, lest he become trapped away from his secure home when the sun goes down and the monsters come out. Neville does eventually discover that a new society has cropped up, filled with people who were somehow able to ward off their bodies’ entire transformation into vampires, leaving them as sort of half breeds—neither human nor vampire. Considering Neville to be an outcast, this new species imprisons him with the intention of executing him. The dire situation is ironic, for, after years of believing himself to be the only living being on Earth, when Neville finally learns of the existence of others, they chose to exterminate him. To them, he is the monster which must be destroyed…
There’s nothing like a multi-tentacled, grand conspiracy theory to get a sci-fi fan’s engines revved, and Carrion Comfort offers a doozy! We find ill-fated Saul Laski trapped in a Nazi prison camp, used as a living chess piece in a deadly game amongst the camp’s loathsome wardens. Laski knows he is waiting to meet his maker, but something astonishing happens, and he survives, as the story hops ahead to the 1980s. Laski’s now a psychologist, deeply suspicious that there are supernatural forces at work in the world. And of course, he’s correct. There exists those with an ability to psychically control others, to manipulate them to fight or even commit murder. When such an event occurs, the controllers—a type of “mind vampires,” as Laski later dubs them—gain energy and vitality. Powerful from both wealth and their paranormal abilities, these figures group into clusters, one being known as The Island Club (likely an unsubtle nod to the real life, male-only Bohemian Club, which meets annually in the wooded groves of Monte Rio, California), and the other called The Trio. Both enjoy making good sport out of human affairs, manipulating historical events in order to engineer catastrophe and war. Responsible for everything from the Holocaust to the murder of John Lennon, this secret cabal has been playing its games for centuries, unchallenged and unsympathetic to the chaos they leave behind.
A wide-ranging novel of no-small amount of complexity and detail, The Descent surprises the reader will its level of insight in everything from spelunking to religious apocrypha. Beginning as a horror tale of cave explorers in Nepal being chased by subterranean forces, the novel shifts into the future, where a huge Bosnian gravesite is being excavated (to determine what the heck has been moving around within it). Talk of demons and madness follow, and again the novel takes an unexpected leap, this time into the Kalahari Desert of Africa. An aid worker (and nun—in keeping with the religious undertow) in a leper colony learns that the residents have sacrificed one of their own to a monstrous god-thing (a la Lovecraft). Again the book jumps forward, now seeing the preparations of a massive scale assault against the underground forces of the “hadals,” revealed to be a once semi-civilized species of sentient life. However, the demonic hadals are hellbent on protecting their dark domain against the encroachment of human invader armies, and a gruesome all-out war becomes inevitable. Not for the squeamish!
Ancient, unstoppable evil always has a way of showing up to spoil the party. Robert Friedrich’s novel begins with a not-so novel concept—a team on Mars discovers an artifact and, upon examination, unleash an unspeakable power that slays them all. A team of elite troops is sent to find out what happened, this team is slowly murdered, one by one... you see where we’re going with this. Nonetheless, Seed of Evil overcomes its somewhat stereotyped premise to deliver solid, fast-paced action sequences and empathetic characters, in particular the Marine Cory, who takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’. It’s Cory’s ride; we’re just tagging along, trying not to get too blood-spattered. Overall, Friedrich takes an interesting indie approach to synthesize several disparate elements from the genres of horror and military sci-fi, and blend them into something raw and fresh. This is one power smoothie of a book that may not appeal to all taste buds, but it packs enough of a punch to keep nearly anybody entertained!
Another gem by Peter Watts, this is the (sort of) prequel to Echopraxia, at least in the sense it shares the same universe (and Blindsight also features vampires!). Detailing the first contact of humans with an alien intelligence, the citizens of Earth are alarmed when no further communication seems forthcoming, so they send out a mission (commandeered by one of those dratted Artificial Intelligences) on the vessel, Theseus. Theseus finally discovers a gargantuan hidden object in space which seems to be housing the alien life forms. A signal arrives from the object, and the speaker identifies itself as Rorschach (not the Watchmen character, though they may both be psychotic!). Attempts to carry on any meaningful dialogue fail, and the crew decides that Rorschach is intelligent but somehow unable to actually comprehend them. Risking entry into the object, the crew members find nine-legged “scramblers,” aliens which compare more to large, gross blood cells than actual thinking creatures. Heavy on the philosophy, and deep-exploring concepts of transhumanism, morality, and consciousness, Blindsight is far more profound than your average summer beach read, but then again, good sci-fi should be challenging. And great sci-fi should be able to creep you out AND challenge you at the same time! Such are Peter Watts’ gifts…