Horror and science fiction often go hand in hand. Fear of the unknown, encounters with the alien, life in a world that can be tipped upside down in a single moment: the two genres are often entwined, gifting a dose of fear to sci-fi and a dash of wonder to unknown horror. Below are five books and series that are made more effective by their blurring of the lines between the scary and the speculative.
The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
Caitlin Starling’s debut novel is set on an alien world, but its core of psychological horror comes less from the fear of the extraterrestrial monsters lurking in the dark than the all-too-human ones we carry around in our own minds. Caver Gyre Price has been hired to descend into one of the most dangerous underground systems on her colony world, guided only by a single handler, Em, who treats her with little respect and is actively keeping secrets from her. Though she is supposedly the only one active down below, Gyre’s grip on reality begins to fray as her mind unravels from too many hours spent alone in the blackness. As she encounters alien lifeforms, uncovers information about Em’s true mission, and begins seeing things, the facts of what is real and what is not are called into question. Starling keeps the tension high and reality slippery enough that you’ll be as in the dark as Gyre, right up until the end.
Annihilation (The Southern Reach trilogy), by Jeff VanderMeer
While the whole Southern Reach trilogy belongs on this list, the first book in VanderMeer’s incredible series sets the tone for the two that follow. Four woman are sent into the mysterious Area X, a bubble of land that has been touched by something alien; the previous expeditions have either never returned, or they’ve come back changed. Together, these four women must do their best to understand what Area X is, what it wants, and how it’s changing them. VanderMeer’s work is delicate but unceasingly intense, only increasing the tension as we slowly learn what lies within Area X, and see the effects the place has on both the women exploring it and the land it encompasses. There is beauty in the horror, as we see first-hand the evolution of the familiar world into an alien landscape; by the end of the novel, your notions of what makes us human, who (or what) deserves dignity will be thoroughly tested.
The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
Nebula-winner Charlie Jane Anders’s latest novel is a stunning, cleverly constructed journey across a tidally locked world unfit for the survival of humans, who have nevertheless done just that by gritting their teeth, innovating systems to keep themselves ordered and alive, and carving out an existence on a sliver of land that barely tolerates life at all. Xiosphant, one of the main cities on the planet of January, has no night or day; its time is regimented to the second, and all of its citizens must live by that established clock. Likewise, they must always be on constant guard against any number of terrifying creatures that exist outside its boundaries, called by all-too-friendly names any human from Earth would know (bison, crocodile), but exceedingly alien, and often exceedingly deadly. Gods help you if you wander to either side of the twilight, where you’ll either freeze to death in minutes on the one side or burst into flames on the other. Anders’s world is a hard and terrifying one, but her novel champions our ability to adapt and survive, even as it questions whether the systems we build to do so are worth the horrors they may encompass.
Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar
Jakub Procházka is going to be the first Czech in space; not only that, but he’s going straight to Venus. Given the chance to escape the planet and possibly atone for the crimes of his father, Jakub leaps, and leaves behind his life on Earth—including Lenka, the woman of his dreams. However, on his solo mission, disasters crop up at every turn, starting with the massive alien spider named Hanus who stows away in his shuttle (the two soon become friends of a sort). Kalfar’s debut is a fascinating mixture of absurdism, humanity, and horror; soon after he sets off on his mission, Jakub grows increasingly unsure of whether he’s losing his mind or communicating with a higher or possibly extraterrestrial power. As the narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present, the horror—of isolation of being stuck in space, on a collision course with an uninhabitable planet, and partnered with a massive spider—only intensifies, and Kalfar milks it for all its worth. Jakub’s mission becomes one of survival, not just against the void of space, but his own mind.
The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older
Let’s round out of list with an unconventional choice: while not specifically a work of horror, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle trilogy does touch on chilling aspects of paranoia, fear, and the dangers of power being placed in the wrong hands. Across three books (Infomocracy, Null States, and State Tectonics), Older introduces us to a near future world order in which the majority of governments have splintered into smaller, manageable districts called centenals, whose citizens get to choose their governments exactly specified to their minutiae and preferences. All of this bureaucracy is overseen by Information, a worldwide data gathering service that not only monitors the massive communications server, but also helps facilitate the elections that determine which government will hold a Supermajority across all the centenals. While we’re firmly with the characters who could be considered the good guys throughout the books, Older doesn’t shy away from exploring the side effects of such an omnipresent, data-dense surveillance systems, forcing us to consider the terrifying implications of a quasi-utopian vision of the future.
What boundary pushing sci-fi/horror novels do you love?