The beauty of fiction is that it does not limit itself to our preconceived notions of "genre." A single story can have elements from many genres. (See previous articles on mashups.) And so it is with science fiction, a genre which can easily incorporate elements from other genres. It seems fitting that in this month of Halloween, we look at the spooky intersection of science fiction and horror.
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"Give My Genre Life!"
Believe it or not, the origins of science fiction are closely tied to horror. The book that is considered by many to be the first true science fiction book is one that is simultaneously claimed as a classic novel of horror. That novel is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
It's easy to see how this classic can be considered both a science fiction and a horror novel when you consider it's about a mad scientist who creates a monstrous creature comprised of dead body parts. The various film incarnations (perhaps with the exception of one of my favorite comedies, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein) emphasizes the gothic horror elements of the story, compete with torch-wielding villagers. But the novel itself has within it a reasonable treatment of the relationship between man and science. It shows how the application of science can alter the human condition. These are some of the major tenets of science fiction, and that's why many consider it to be the first true science fiction novel.
The Book That Will Make You Rethink Vampires
Frankenstein's monster isn't the only classic creature that gets the science fiction treatment. While several novels attempt to lay scientific groundwork for the legendary notion of vampires—Peter Watts' Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight is one example—one book stands out in my mind as a must-read "scientific" vampire novel: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Although this too is often considered a horror novel, it squarely deals with the societal impact of a pandemic whose symptoms resemble vampirism. Robert Neville, the apparent sole survivor of the pandemic, a man who attempts to find a cure for the condition, learns this firsthand. It's a terrific novel that woks both a science fiction and horror.
The Cthulhu Mythos
H.P. Lovecraft, a notable name in horror fiction, wrote a short story in 1928 called "The Call of Cthulhu" which involves an unspeakable, supernatural horror: the great Cthulhu, a malevolent entity who poses a threat to mankind. Cthulhu is just one of The Great Old Ones, a group of powerful and ancient extraterrestrial beings currently imprisoned on Earth and on other planets though not powerless) and who are worshipped by evil cults awaiting their inevitable return.
While Lovecraft's story is considered a classic, even more impressive is what followed it. Lovecraft worked Cthulhu into subsequent stories and it eventually spawned what came to be known a The Cthulhu Mythos, a still-thriving shared universe in which many writers would extend Lovecraft's original premise. Cthulhu stories are still being published today. For example, Charles Stross has some great fun by combining Cthulhu with in his "Bob Howard" series of novels (The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum). Cthulhu is alive in short fiction as well; two recent Cthulhu anthologies are New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird edited by Paula Guran and The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E. Lockhart.
Who Goes There? Many Others!
This is but a small sample of science fiction horror stories...and I'm only scratching the surface. For more, seek out Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, Jeffrey Thomas' Punktown novels or David Moody's Hater series. If you're into short fiction (and who isn't?) you would do well to find copies of A.E. van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" (the basis for the film Alien) and "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell (the basis for the film The Thing). There are plenty of sf horror stories to get your scare on—not to mention the whole genre of zombie fiction—so dig in!
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.