Allow me to gently plead for more space horror

Sometimes, for no particular reason, I think about that chair.

I’m talking about the chair in Ian M. Banks’ The Use of Arms. The story is reverse narrated throughout, ultimately revealing in frightening ways the main character, the personal demons he’s been avoiding, and the lengths people will go to inflict pain on others.

This is far from the scariest thing in cultural fiction; it’s the scariest. And that’s not even the scariest thing in cultural fiction (Isn’t that the one from Cannibal Cult Island?) But I really like this very personal, small-scale horror.

Space is an excellent backdrop for a horror story, as Emily Hughes recently wrote about. I don’t agree that all space stories are necessarily horror stories, but I definitely agree that all space stories have the huge potential to be horror stories.

Horror can do a lot in storytelling, beyond the obvious fun of scaring us out of our pants. It is also a way to explore fears and anxieties, critique tradition and society, and examine prejudices and assumptions. But there’s one thing that makes horror especially powerful in space science fiction: it’s one of the best ways we can make things personal, intimate, and immediate that might otherwise feel too big, too weird, or too far away to have an intense emotional impact.

Space is infinite, but fear is small enough to fit in your stomach.

To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything inherently scary about space. Space is very dangerous, but many places are very dangerous for soft-bodied humans. Even if some aspects of the universe are completely unknowable, I am not afraid because there are many things I don’t know and never will know, and that’s fine. I may not be a scientist anymore, but I think I’m still good enough to be one, and the great unknown mostly makes me think, “Fuck yes! Weird shit!” instead of, “Oh no. Weird dog shit.”

But, there’s always a but, it’s entirely possible to make the immensity and strangeness of space not just frightening to me, but downright frightening, and that’s to use it the same way you would use a horror scene from Earth, like a spooky forest or a haunted house. There’s nothing inherently scary about forests or houses; they’re just kind of scary. It’s what you put in these places that makes them scary. Threats lurking just out of sight, monsters lurking in the shadows, events that cannot be explained by the normal rules of how the scene works, these are the things that turn a perfectly ordinary place into a horror scene.

The same goes for space. Maybe we don’t know what’s in space, but making it a good backdrop for a horror scene assumes we know enough to know what’s out there, and that something is disturbing, unexpected, or weird. Think Michael Myers lurking behind a hedge. The weird, dog-like creature running across the Antarctic ice. Characters you see in the forest. That face you saw in the window. Space is big and dark and eerie, but the feeling when you first sense something is wrong, that tiny, visceral feeling that keeps your instincts on alert, it’s very intimate and personal, regardless of circumstances.

That’s what happens in Ida Hoffman’s creepy “Outside,” in which a physicist on the verge of a life-changing scientific breakthrough knows something is wrong with her work but can’t pinpoint where the problem lies. She was quickly proven right, but alas, the disaster of her initial doubts was only the beginning of a mistake much larger than herself and her work – a mistake on a massive scale, affecting the real essential, in the best cosmic horror tradition. It’s also an element of Peter F. Hamilton’s sprawling Dawn of Night trilogy, where a whole bunch of characters come to realize that while they may be living in a space opera world, they’re about to get sucked into a ghost story and, oh my god, the ghost is very angry.

A sense of wrongness is inherent in horror, and I love how it intrudes into sci-fi stories, maybe on a subtle, maybe small scale at first, just a little disturbing at first, so slight you might not even notice it’s building up fear, and finally fear, until it’s too late.

The universe doesn’t care about you — but you desperately want it to.

I’m neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but I’ve read enough science fiction to know that science fiction writers like to explore the same ideas that fascinate philosophers and theologians, and science fiction as a genre is a better fit for it. One aspect that I find particularly fascinating is the way science fiction deals with humans’ seemingly never-ending quest for meaning, for importance, to prove we matter, for our reason for being.

I personally don’t really understand the longing, as an atheist who tends to believe petting cats rather than assholes is reason enough to exist, so I’m grateful when science fiction provides the answer no one wants to hear: wedon’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Space is a great setting for this existential horror because it emphasizes our smallness and insignificance. In Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, for example, humans have spread out across the galaxy but still feel tiny and unimportant in the face of the vastness of space and the ancient, godlike civilizations they encounter. In the movie Sunshine, a crew of astronauts on a mission to save the dying sun are reminded of their smallness and mortality as they face one disaster after another.

But even as science fiction reminds us of our insignificance, it can also provide a sense of hope. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, the discovery of an alien artifact suggests that there may be other intelligences out there in the universe, and that humans may not be alone in their quest for meaning. And in Carl Sagan’s Contact, a scientist’s encounter with an alien intelligence leads her to question her own beliefs and find a new sense of wonder and purpose.

In the end, I think that’s why space horror can be so effective. It reminds us of our vulnerability and insignificance, but it also suggests that there may be something out there that can give our lives meaning and purpose, whether it’s a new scientific discovery, an encounter with an alien intelligence, or simply the realization that we are not alone in our fears and anxieties.

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