I was recently pondering why certain works of science fiction horror, whether employing the written word or the moving picture, appeal to me, and others do not. This is slightly different than asking what makes a good or bad book, because horror works more on the emotions. Either it succeeds in forming a memorable, strong emotion, or it doesn’t. And neither rich, flowery prose nor perfect cinemaphotography are as valuable here as they are, for instance, in a drama. Ultimately, I came up with two central elements that unsuccessful works invariably fail to fulfill. The effective written stories pass both and the good cinematic works satisfy one, being an intrinsically more shallow medium.
At first, this might seem painfully obvious or unhelpful. However, there is more nuance here than meets the eye. Notice I wrote logical for point 1, not plausible. Science fiction horror can be completely unhinged from our reality, but it has to make sense within its world and rules. And consider how many movies and even books can be wonderful fun and very good works without requiring point 2. They simply do an excellent job of executing a standard, even hackneyed concept. But with science fiction horror, it’s vital to the story’s success.
Now, I will consider two stories (one a book, one a movie) which I didn’t care for and two I like very much.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream– This story made very little impression upon me and I have been scratching my head at its popularity ever since. Even among Ellison’s own science fiction horror works, this is weak. The story he co-authored with Robert Sheckley, I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair Is Biting His Leg, is many times better, and a genuinely excellent tale.
One problem I have is that I never found the sequence of events logical. Why would the supercomputer decide to kill all but five humans? Why not leave fifty? Why would it develop the very human emotion of a sadistic streak? Why would such a powerful being, with reactions measured in nanoseconds, fall asleep on its lone, simple job, allowing humans to successfully commit suicide?
Thus, I’m already skeptical, which is a bad emotion for fully engaging with a work’s horror themes. And then, the story also fails the second criteria, that of offering an interesting idea. A supercomputer torturing humans? That’s something a ten year-old can come up with. And the tortures themselves aren’t even especially interesting. They’re quite mundane and not particularly horrific. Also, couldn’t a supercomputer hook up its censors to the brains of its subjects and cause unbearable agony and pain through the parts it touches, and the visions it creates? Why go through all the trouble of changing the weather? Far from feeling dread, this story, while well-told, and competent enough, inspired confusion and a degree of derision.
Event Horizon– Another work that had limited effect on me, although its appeal is more understandable. It stars good actors and features several horrifying visual images. Unfortunately, neither the acting nor the sight scares make up for how poor the story is. There is no logic to any of the proceedings, which are mere plot contrivances stacked on top of one another. And original ideas? Forget it. If the science fiction is all bunk, then the horror is hokey.
Memoirs of a Space Traveler (Ijon Tichy #2)– This collection of short stories by Stanislaw Lem is superb, and also features the best science fiction horror I’ve come across. Among it’s classics is Professor’s Corcoran’s creation of a universe experienced by iron boxes attached to wires and stimuli. The “humans” are in reality nodes on the iron box, nothing more. This passes the logic test, as artificial reality becomes more and more immersive. Why can’t sight, sound, touch, and all the other senses be evoked in such a manner? Who is to say this doesn’t describe our own universe?
For 1982, well before The Matrix, this is also quite creative. But there are further details that push the story beyond that benchmark and give it a particularly eerie, haunting quality. It’s mentioned that there are occasional aberrations or clues in this iron box universe, and a few of the “people” pick up on it. They reveal these views, and are punished by their societies as dangerous lunatics, dying in torment. Professor Corcoran could validate or help them, but in so doing, would usurp his own power as a silent deity. It’s a science fiction short story that few will forget.
Another excellent work of science fiction horror from the same collection is Professor Decantor’s creation of the soul. It seems like a very simple, silly idea, which is how Tichy first treats it as well. But then, when one grasps the full significance and consequences of the actions, it’s more shocking and terrible than any torture that a supercomputer can come up with in thousands of years. While the idea of constructing a soul seems implausible, everything that follows from that initial step is cause-and-effect, giving it a chilling logic. And the idea itself, while simple, is a novel one I haven’t encountered anywhere else.
Blinky (Bad Robot)– Watch the short film here. At first, this seems like just another killer robot story. Hell, it’s mentioned in the title! But beyond Ruairí Robinson’s fine direction and presentation, it’s a logical story. A seemingly kind robot doesn’t suddenly turn deranged and murderous out of nowhere. Here, the progression is accomplished through a series of events experienced by the robot, all reasonably leading towards the murderous AI finale. No, it’s not a particularly unique idea. But as mentioned previously, movies are an intrinsically shallower medium that doesn’t require as much intellectual depth. (And I write this as an enormous movie lover my whole life) The logic is strong enough that I’m fully engaged with the horrific scenes I watch instead of questioning it.
Anywho, what other elements do the readers consider vital to a successful work of science fiction horror?