Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: No One Can Hear You Scream – Science fiction horror with women going places where something bad has happened.
Since the moon where the crew from Alien encountered the titular creature was designated LV-426, April 26th was chosen as a date to give fans an excuse to celebrate the movies (and you can probably guess I’m one of them after I used part of Alien’s tagline as my column title). Now while there arguably hasn’t been a great Alien movie since 1986, there’s no denying the impact those movies have had on pop culture and science fiction horror. The problem is that Alien was so groundbreaking that unless one figures out a fresh take on it (see: Aliens), any story treading the same ground comes off as a pale copy…which is why the stories in this month’s column are so exceptional. They manage to evoke the atmosphere of Alien, without coming off as derivative. So if you’re up for some futuristic horror and suspense, take a look at any of the following books.
So if you like
Caves with a sci-fi twist
Strong female protagonists
The movie The Descent
Alistair Reynolds’ short story Diamond Dogs
You might like
The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
Overview: A cave explorer on an alien planet begins to realize there’s a bit more to her mission than she thought.
That didn’t make sense. Nothing about this mission made sense. Gyre shook her head. “Maybe you made a mistake. Forgot to leave something here. Sent me down the wrong tunnel.”
“No. The last caver in before you, Eli, he stocked this. Just like you, he hauled gear, he filled it. And even if he hadn’t, I’ve had caches in there last years.”
Gyre sank down to her knees with a strangled curse. She pressed her hands to her helmet, wishing she could rip the thing off and dig her fingers into her hair, could massage at her skin, could press against her eyes until her bone-deep exhaustion and anger and fear melted out of her.
“Press forward, Gyre,” Em said, her voice softening. “I know you’re tired. I know you’re hungry. But your suit can only run on the batteries you’re carrying for another six days, and the next cache is two, maybe three away. If there’s another sump, or a tunnel collapse, we’ll need that three-day buffer.”
“And I suppose going back is out of the question? Going to Camp Three, or—or a cache we bypassed?”
“We didn’t bypass any caches.”
“I don’t believe you,” she snapped. “I’ve known you for over a week now, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you’re a control freak. You may not have any human backup up there with you, but you can lock this suit up with a button, you use adrenaline injections to wake people up, you modify my sight readout—you have other caches for when things go wrong.”
It takes a good writer to create a book with only two characters and keep it interesting the whole way through. Here we’ve got the explorer and her handler on the other end of a radio link…and Starling manages to create an outstanding tale of suspense and survival here. The concept, of caving on an alien planet in a cybernetic survival suit, is an original one. The characters are well thought out, and the plot serves them, not the other way around. It’s pretty clear why they’re making the decisions they are, even if they might not be the best ones. And as for the cave, well, it has some unique dangers, in addition to the ones our explorers have brought with them.
Or if you like
The first two Alien movies
Hints of Firefly in your science fiction
You might like
Dead Silence, by S. A. Barnes
A utility crew finds a long-lost luxury liner in space, where something bad has clearly happened.
It can’t be.
I squeeze my eyes shut for a second, waiting for the click, the recognition that this is a dream. But I can feel the ridged wallpaper pressing into my back through my jumpsuit. The glossy finish of the headboard is slick beneath my sweaty palms clutching at it for balance.
We searched these rooms. We checked under every bed.
Did we? Or did we miss one?
Nothing is alive on this ship. Nothing could have survived. It’s not possible. So, it shouldn’t matter.
Except it seems to.
The ghost spaceship trope is one where I always hope it’ll be really excellent while simultaneously expecting it not to be, given the number of times I’ve seen it executed badly. I was pleasantly surprised when Dead Silence turned out to be really well written, thought out and tightly plotted, which is not something a reader expects out of an author’s first novel. The characters note their valid reservations about investigating the wreck, but have their particular motivations for pressing ahead. When things go bad, Barnes has her characters trying to play it smart, rather than taking random actions to advance the plot, which is what puts this book a level above others in its genre – there are real reasons why things are the way they are. Despite the story starting with the sole survivor recounting what happened (a sure fire suspense killer as you know she’s not going to die) it unexpectedly (though logically) catches up to the present, adding a new level of tension and picking up the pace to the point where I just decided I wasn’t getting to bed on time because I had to know what happened next. If you’d rather read than sleep, then this book is definitely for you.
Or if you like:
Spaceship salvage with a bit more depth
Weird ancient technology
Stories that start a series
You might like
Diving into the Wreck, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A salvage crew finds an ancient spaceship that has no business being where it is, raising the obvious question: “what happened here?”
The wreck looms ahead of us—a megaship, from the days when size equaled power. Still, it seems small in the vastness, barely a blip on the front of my sensors.
Turtle bounces past. She’s fighting the grav that I left on for me—that landlocked thing again—and she’s so nervous, someone who doesn’t know her would think she’s on something.
“What the hell is it?” she asks. “Old Empire?”
“Older.” Karl is bent at the waist, looking courtly as he studies the instruments. He prefers readouts to eyeballing things; he trusts equipment more than he trusts himself.
“There can’t be anything older out here,” Turtle says.
“As old as that thing is,” Karl says, “it’s probably been plundered and replundered.”
“We’re not here for the loot.” I speak softly, reminding them it’s a historical mission.
Karl turns his angular face toward me. In the dim light of the instrument panel, his gray eyes look silver. “You know what this is?”
I don’t answer. I’m not going to lie about something as important as this, so I can’t make a denial. But I’m not going to confirm either. Confirming will only lead to more questions, which is something I don’t want just yet. I need them to make their own minds up about this find.
“Huge, old.” Turtle shakes her head. “Dangerous. You know what’s inside?”
“Nothing, for all I know.”
“Didn’t check it out first?”
Some dive team leaders head into a wreck the moment they find one. Anyone working salvage knows it’s not worth your time to come back to a place that’s been plundered before.
“There’s a reason you brought us here.” She sounds annoyed. “You gonna share it?”
I shake my head. “Not yet. I just want to see what you find.”
She glares, but the look has no teeth. She knows my methods and even approves of them sometimes. And she should know that I’m not good enough to dive alone.
There’s only so much that can be said without getting in to spoiler territory, as the things that the crew finds have unexpected connections to their present, which adds another layer of depth beyond uncovering the mystery of the ship, and the goal of just getting out alive. This provides the opportunity for a few neat twists and a setup for further adventures in the same universe, making this more than the whole story being over with “and I alone survived.” Indeed, Rusch’s Diving universe consists of fifteen books at the moment so interested readers will have plenty to choose from.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for my next column.