Space is terrifying. Outside the protective layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, you find yourself in an environment which has made exactly zero accommodations for human existence, where we must rely wholly on technology before we even begin to think about survival. Space is so absolutely petrifying, in fact, that it’s surprising that more sci-fi novels don’t dig deep into the possibilities it presents for a good horror yarn—but those that do exist are truly scary. Celebrate this chilly Friday the 13th in December with one of these seven books, which stand with the most terrifying sci-fi novels ever written.
The Last Astronaut, by David Wellington
Prolific author David Wellington’s turn to sci-fi is terrifying because the science depicted feels real enough to put you right into the thick of things. In 2034, a manned mission to Mars ends in a disaster so complete, NASA itself shuts down, and the lone survivor, Commander Sally Jansen, goes into retired exile. Two decades later, an object detected in the depths of space changes course and heads directly for Earth orbit, ignoring all attempts to make contact. The remnants of NASA are called back into service—including a reluctant, still-haunted Jansen, who agrees to take charge solely because she’s literally the only person qualified to do so. What Jansen and the crew she assembles discover when they head out to rendezvous with the object is terrifying—and changes the mission goal to simple survival.
Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace
The immense exploration ship House of Wisdom was abandoned by Earth years ago in the wake of the devastation wrought by a deadly virus that killed all but one of the crew on board. The ship sits dark and empty—but Zahra and her people intend to claim it and use it to go home, to their salvation. In order to access the ship, they’ll have to kidnap the lone survivor of the incident in order to use their DNA for access—but that’s the least of their problems. Because House of Wisdom contains something much worse than a virus—something that Zahra and the other are about to awaken. With a story that blends zombie tropes with the gothic scares of Event Horizon, this sci-fi horror thriller looks do outdo the scares of Alien, and comes damn close.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
Lafferty’s Hugo- and Nebula-nominated 2017 novel is a locked-room mystery nestled comfortably inside a big-idea sci-fi premise—putting an innovative twist on cloning tropes. Societal and climate collapse drives humanity to send 2,000 cryogenically frozen people to a distant, Earth-like planet on a ship crewed by six criminals who volunteer to be cloned again and again as they shepherd their precious cargo to its final destination. Every time the crew is cloned, they maintain are to retain their collective memories, allowing them continuity of existence across an immense voyage. The horror spikes as soon as they awaken the beginning of the novel and discover their former bodies are dead—brutally murdered in various ways—the ship is in shambles (the gravity is off, the controlling artificial intelligence is unresponsive, and they’re off-course), and their memories and all other records have been erased. The six have to clean up the mess—but they also have to figure out which of them is the killer and why. Surviving within the paranoid pressure-cooker of a ship becomes a nail-biting, page-turning trial.
Blindsight, by Peter Watts
The scariest thing about this novel is how smart it is, even as it manages to tell a terrifying sci-fi story of the first order. When 22nd century humanity becomes aware of a huge alien ship on the edge of the solar system, the ship Theseus is sent to investigate. The crew includes a sociopathic vampire and a linguist called the Gang of Four who has been surgically rendered a multiple personality—but it’s the creepy nature of the alien ship, identified as the Rorschach, that will terrify you. Initially, the ship seems to be a sentient AI, speaking English to the human crew, but slowly they realize it is simply a very good trick, and doesn’t seem to truly understand what it’s saying. When they capture some of the odd creatures living on board, they find them brainless—but capable of processing huge volumes of information. The question of what, exactly, consciousness is has never been so teeth-rattlingly frightening.
The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
Once again, you don’t have to literally set the story in space to get chills—just go where space can take you. Gyre Price is desperate. Abandoned and alone on a poverty-stricken mining planet, she wants nothing more than to learn of her mother’s fate. Seeking a big paycheck that will allow her to do just that, she fakes her credentials as a caver, assuming that the work, while dangerous, will be organized and supported by the usual safety measures. Her handler on the expedition, Em, turns out to be unpredictable, cruel, and filled with her own secrets—and Em knows that Gyre lied to get the job, and isn’t afraid to use that knowledge to force her into a dangerous, terrifying journey into the darkness. Underground, Gyre must face not only her own inner demons, but plenty of Em’s as well. By the time she begins to understand that the danger may not all be on the inside, however, it may already be too late. This is nail-biting, cinematic survival horror.
Nightflyers, by George R.R. Martin
Credited with resurrecting Martin’s moribund pre-A Game of Thrones writing career in the 1980s, this novella (recently turned into a TV series on Syfy) is enjoying a resurgence in the wake of his heightened profile. And good thing, because it’s awesome—a tense hybrid of sci-fi and horror. A team of nine academics are recruited for a mission to study a mysterious alien race and put on board the only ship available: the Nightflyer, an autonomous craft that requires just a single crewmember. The mysterious captain shuts himself off from the scientists, communicating exclusively through holograms and voice messages. Then someone—or something—begins murdering the crew, and the mission devolves into a gruesome fight for survival in the darkness of space.
Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell
For all his questionable politics, John W. Campbell was a major force during the Golden Age of sci-fi—and this short novel is an early example of just how frightening space can be, despite being set on good old Earth. Because space doesn’t need us to go into it, space can just send terrors down upon us. This story about a frozen alien discovered at a remote station in Antarctica, the basis for all three films called The Thing, is every bit as tense and frightening as the film adaptations, even though the original story actually ends on a slightly more triumphant note.
What’s your favorite sci-fi horror story?