Quick: what was the first Science Fiction novel? I, Robot by Issac Asimov (1950)? The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)? Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)?
The answer is “none of the above”– what is commonly agreed as the first Science Fiction novel was Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, written by Mary Shelly. Not quite what you’d think. Frankenstein, or, rather, Frankenstein’s monster, is a common figure around Halloween as the star of one of Universal’s classic monster movies. Frankenstein (1931) is a horror classic, and one of the first movies to be almost lying when it says “based on the novel by”. The novel is actually a lot darker, and more people die, but it also has a wildly different plot, so there’s that.
But still, since its inception, Science Fiction has been tied to horror and Gothic fiction. And historically, that makes sense– Science Fiction couldn’t really happen until science happened, and it also couldn’t really happen until the invention of the novel. Both of these things converged in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, during the Enlightenment. When you start learning the history of genres of literature, a lot of things begin to make sense.
Science Fiction is a very malleable genre. It goes with everything, like a good pair of jeans. Pair it with fantasy, and you have Star Wars. Pair it with historical fiction, and you have steampunk. Pair it with political thriller, and you have 1984, The Hunger Games, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451— basically any dystopian fiction. Pair it with horror..?
Much like a good pair of jeans, when paired, Science Fiction is more of a secondary genre. It lends its aesthetics and settings, sometimes a plot device or two, in order to service the main genre. Superhero fiction, for example, uses element of Science Fiction, but is mainly Action-Adventure. When Science Fiction takes the lead, however, that’s when things get interesting– especially when it comes to horror.
“But it’s not for the timid.”
Just as an example, let’s take one of the most recognized Science Fiction franchises and see how it does horror. Star Trek: The Next Generation had a bit of a rough start, but in its second season made one of the greatest episodes not just of the season or series, but of the franchise– “Q-Who?”
In this episode, the Enterprise-D is thrown across the galaxy by Q (played by John de Lancie) to challenge Picard’s statement that the Federation is ready for anything. Picard is quickly proven wrong as they encounter the Borg Collective. The Borg are unlike any other alien in Star Trek– not the profit-chasing Ferengi, not the prideful Klingons, not the bloodthirsty Romulans. They learn to adapt to weapons, making themselves immune to attack. They have no centralization, no specifications– one Borg can do any task any other Borg can. And even though they are born organic and humanoid, they immediately integrate themselves with technology and seem to have no interest in the Enterprise beyond its technology. At least at first.
This was the ending of “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1”– the season finale for Season 3. Every episode featuring the Borg has underpinnings of horror; they’re almost like space zombies, a mass of beings that seem to work in unison without a central leader that can turn you into one of them. Except your classic George Romero-style zombie isn’t as intelligent as a Borg unit. And just because I said they’re nothing like what Star Trek has offered before, doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear inspiration.
Before the Borg, there was Doctor Who‘s Cybermen; a race of cyborgs that replaced almost all of their organic material with cybernetic implants, and drained all of their emotion. They also have the ability to assimilate people into their ranks, to varying effectiveness. While they’re not quite the genocidal Daleks, the Cybermen (and the Borg) are terrifying in their capacity to remove humanity– the same reason we fear zombies. What heightens the Borg and the Cybermen, however, is the fact that they are robotic, and that was not lost on earlier Science Fiction writers. Metropolis, the classic German Sci-Fi film, features a robot heavily in its story, and it premiered in 1927. And was made in Weimar Germany. Only cost 5 mil marks. The robot is made to look like the female lead, and the antagonist uses that to try and get the working class to destroy themselves. The movie is a bit weird in that regard. . With the increasing role of computers in our everyday lives, the 20th century saw reason to fear not only being replaced by computers, but being turned into one.
“It’s the only way to be sure.”
Going off of that, there are some more organic monsters that view humans in a similar light to the Borg and the Cybermen. While there are some other assimilators, some Science Fiction monsters simply view humans as meat to be used for their own purposes. Not even always as simple as food. The biggest contenders for this are the Thing from The Thing (1982) and the aliens from the Alien franchise (such creative naming). The Thing and it’s source material Who Goes There?, a 1934 novella by John W. Campbell, Jr., is closer to the idea of the Cybermen. However, unlike the cyborgs of the previous section, the Thing doesn’t assimilate so much as replace a person– to the point where it doesn’t even seem to know what it is. The audience certainly doesn’t. The aliens from Alien use humans as incubators– or whatever is in nearest reach of their facehuggers. The embryo is implanted and then bursts out of the chest of whatever was hosting it.
And in some respects that might even be more frightening? I’m not really one for body horror, and both The Thing and Alien have that in spades. But aliens as a parasite show up all over Science Fiction. Star Trek and Doctor Who, of course have several species. Even Steven Universe has an element of this when it’s revealed that fusing with a corrupted gem will corrupt even the most flawless gem. (Not that she didn’t have faults, but in terms of quality of the stone, Peridot confirmed that it was “flawless”.) However, my first thought when trying to connect parasites to Science Fiction is this scene:
Yes, Agent Smith is the villain. But as a Science Fiction film based in the science of philosophy, we should focus on the argument itself not its interlocutor. The AI behind the Matrix put humans into this program in order to placate them as they fed off the humans’ energy. Agent Smith hypothesizes that human beings are like a virus or parasitic species, infecting the area where they inhabit until it dies and they move on to a new “host”. Of course, this comes off as hypocritical as this is exactly what Agent Smith and his colleagues must do in order to keep a physical form within the Matrix.
“We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey.”
Reports of Orson Welles causing a national panic have been greatly exaggerated. Mostly by newspapers attempting to kill the radio star (which was also the Buggles’ failed follow-up single). But The War of the Worlds is still a significant piece of Science Fiction history, as it codified the invasion story.
The alien invasion is by far the most iconic story of Science Fiction. The War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, they all deal with aliens coming and destroying the planet, or at least a part of it. While disaster films overall have become less popular over the past, erm, 15 years and one month this Tuesday, alien invasions stuck around in popular films like The Avengers and Pacific Rim, because aliens make fantastic cannon fodder. A great explaination of why aliens work in this fashion comes from Cracked’s “Four Creepy Hidden Truths Behind Popular Scary Stories”.
Now, do I think that, say, Roland Emmerich was thinking on that level? No. But H.G. Wells? Who figured that if Mars was older (which became the literary standard for Martian fiction), any people from it would be more advanced than humans; and who was writing in the Late Victorian Era, at the height of the British Empire? The thought might have crossed his mind.
“Did you not call this a glorious expedition?”
And then, of course, we return to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. One of the greatest questions of Frankenstein, and of Science Fiction in general, is whether or not science is something to be pursued or feared. Frankenstein stories are the most distilled form of Sci-Fi Horror there is– scientist creates something, only to be destroyed by the thing they created. You see it all the time in AI stories (The Matrix, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, to some extent Wall-E) as well as in some zombie stories (scientists create super bug, super bug turns everyone into zombies). But should that, or any of the things that scare us in Science Fiction, stop us?
Of course not. I mean, come on, Star Trek is one of the most pro-science shows out there. Anyone involved with Doctor Who would love to know that people want to go into science because of there show. I didn’t even talk about The X-Files, but the Scully Effect is something very real and that show isn’t exactly The Magic School Bus. Every genre has its interactions with horror, but it is the often philosophical nature of Science Fiction that makes the pairing so resonant almost 200 years after its invention. So this Halloween, no matter what your taste in horror, there’s probably a Science Fiction movie that will fit with everyone you’re watching with.