Scifi-horror mash-up? Check. Badass female protagonist? Check. Black, queer protagonist? Check. What else could you possibly want?!
We spoke to Ness Brown about her novella The Scourge Between Stars, why science fiction and horror work so well together, using a claustrophobic setting to create tension, and more.
The Scourge Between Stars is out now from Tor Nightfire.
Science fiction and horror have always been a great genre pairing. Why do these two go so well together? And tell us about some of your favourite scifi/horror stories!
I couldn’t agree more! Most of the movies that I could recite by heart as a child were sci-fi/horror: Pitch Black, Doom, Signs, and so on. As readers can tell within The Scourge Between Stars’ first few pages, I was absolutely influenced by goldies like Alien, Event Horizon, and The Thing. Sci-fi and horror are my peanut butter and jelly.
I believe these genres mesh so well because they share a similar concern: what lies beyond humanity’s current understanding or capabilities? Science fiction answers to this question range from morbid (imminent climate or technological apocalypses, extraterrestrial invasions, etc.) to optimistic (galactic expansion, leaps in scientific achievement, and so on). Horror sometimes answers this question supernaturally—spirits, demons, inexorable forces beyond our ken—or psychologically. When the two combine, the stakes of this shared question are raised even higher.
I am still surprised on the odd occasion I hear someone question whether sci-fi and horror belong together. Stories around the world have been marrying the two for centuries at least. What is scarier than having to face what you don’t yet understand in an unfamiliar space and/or time?
Both genres explore the unknown, which can be titillating or frightening, possibly at the same time. I personally can’t get enough!
Do you see anything in classic horror/scifi genre mash-ups you feel doesn’t work? Was there anything you wanted to avoid in your book? How did this shape your approach to the book?
I am very open-minded when it comes to sci-fi/horror stories; I don’t think there’s much that I would shy away from on principle. I can’t immediately think of a mashup with an element that I consider an irredeemable failure, though I have encountered some stories that didn’t manage to bring me all the way into their worlds. My main concern as both a consumer and creator of sci-fi/horror is whether the story supports a suspension of disbelief.
When I was writing The Scourge Between Stars, I exploited my astronomy/astrobiology background and did what math and research I could to make the journey of the doomed Calypso crew and the conditions of the exoplanet they were fleeing as believable as possible. Though the story must necessarily float on imagination at certain points, I tried to keep readers from being jarred out of the dark corridors and perpetual unease of the Calypso by too much unbelievability. I love it when a piece of sci-fi/horror can fully immerse me, and I wanted my novella to do so to others.
Your book features a female protagonist leading a team against a deadly foe, bringing to mind another classic horror-scifi mash-up, Alien. Why do you think this genre mash-up more easily allows for women in roles of responsibility, where in more traditional action/adventure style science fiction, they would traditionally be relegated to secondary roles, if present at all?
It seems that many sci-fi/horror settings and narratives involve a major breakdown of society: the total civilization reset of a zombie apocalypse, or the global panic of a hostile alien invasion, or the chaos of a spaceship overrun by body-stealing parasites, or what have you. I feel this breakdown allows for the reshuffle of roles that would ordinarily be delegated according to the usual gender (or race, sexuality, ability, etc.) biases.
There is rarely established protocol for the kind of catastrophes that characters in sci-fi/horror encounter. This leaves room for the protagonist most suited to respond to the given crisis to take the helm, which may not be the archetypical hero—it’s even odds that a woman would fit the bill. That’s my take anyway!
Although black female protagonists are hardly new even in sci-fi/horror, I absolutely wanted to contribute to the (specifically queer!) black women representation in the genres. Jacklyn is the kind of character I would have loved to read more of growing up; I’m so thrilled that readers who might also be searching for characters like her can now find her on shelves.
Smaller, enclosed settings work great for novellas. If you had written The Scourge Between Stars as a novel, how do you think the claustrophobic, closed-in element of the novel would have translated?
Such an interesting question! With the space afforded by a novel I would have loved to elaborate on the circumstances that contribute to the claustrophobic feeling of the story. Jacklyn faces many simultaneous problems: decaying conditions onboard, unrest among the crew, her own personal grief, and a deadly intruder. I like to think that delving a little more into each of these issues would have made the sense of urgency and danger winch even tighter as the story progressed.
On the other hand, there’s a difficult balance to be struck between word count and pacing, especially in a story with one cramped setting! As a novella The Scourge Between Stars keeps a tight focus on Jacklyn and doesn’t really allow room to breathe—I hope readers enjoy the breakneck speed.
Why should we read The Scourge Between Stars? Pitch us your book!
The Scourge Between Stars follows the acting captain of a decaying generation starship as she tries to keep her vessel from falling to pieces while dealing with every possible interstellar threat: dwindling resources and starvation, structural failure, imminent mutiny, a mysterious minefield blocking their path home—and now a danger lurking in the ship walls, picking off crew members at random.
Do you like stories of space colonization gone wrong? Sci-fi jump-scares and blood and gore? A terrifying, claustrophobic monster hunt through dark corridors? A stressed starship captain doing her best?
The Scourge Between Stars might be just the spooky, action-packed quick read for you!
Ness Brown is a speculative fiction author by day and astrophysicist by night. They are a proud New Mexican living in New York City (and missing green chile) with their husband and two cats, Faust and Mephi. They are currently studying graduate astrophysics after several years of teaching astronomy and encouraging students to wonder about worlds beyond our own. The Scourge Between Stars is their debut.