Science Fiction Thrillers
From Dissolving Genres by GARY WOLFE
A genre that science fiction writers have been attempting to colonize with some regularity is that of the suspense thriller. Here the dissolution of genre boundaries is more subtle, since the imaginative material and narrative conventions of science fiction may be retained, while the plot, structure, and tone are borrowed from a mode of paranoid pursuit melodrama pioneered in espionage novels from John Buchan to Robert Ludlum. Initially, those novelists who seemed most successful—at least commercially—in effecting this merger were novelists whose starting point was the thriller rather than the science fiction tale: Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, and Peter Benchley are among the most prominent examples, with Crichton having based nearly his entire career on science fiction conceits. Occasionally, professional science fiction writers have ventured with some success into this arena (Frank Robinson’s The Power, 1956; D. F. Jones’ Colossus, 1966), but for the most part the very intellectual challenges that traditionally define an effective technological science fiction story seem to mitigate against the largely anti-intellectual (or at least anti-scientist), technologically ambivalent tone of the paranoid thriller.
This may be a rare case where the most visible barriers separating two related genres lie in ideologies of power rather than in narrative mechanisms. Nevertheless, science fiction writers fairly consistently try to bridge the gap, sometimes very successfully (as with Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, which freely uses the multiple viewpoints and globe-hopping locations of thriller fiction, but offers a solidly imagined evolutionary speculation as its thematic center; or Ken MacLeod’s 2007 The Execution Channel, which treats themes of terrorism and environmental catastrophe with an unusual degree of political sophistication), more often with mixed results (such as Ben Bova’s Death Dream  or Wil McCarthy’s Murder in the Solid State , novels you have most likely never heard of for this very reason).
One science fiction writer who consistently tried to expand into the thriller market is Gregory Benford, one of the premiere hard SF writers of the last three decades; his most famous novel, Timescape (1980), was praised for its mainstream virtues, particularly its depiction of academic scientists at work in the 1960s, as well as its ingenious plot involving cross-time communication. In 1985, Benford published Artifact, a near-future archeological thriller involving the discovery of an ancient Minoan artifact that seems to contain some sort of alien singularity that, if released, could have catastrophic effects.
Despite the sophisticated physics that goes into the explanation of the artifact (some of which is relegated to an appendix at the back of the novel), this central science-fictional device is for the most part reduced to the role of a MacGuffin (to use Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an object whose sole purpose is to motivate characters) in what is primarily a novel of international political intrigue and adventure. Later, recognizing that novels like this were on the far edge of the genre in which he already had built a substantial reputation, Benford adopted the pseudonym Sterling Blake for his thriller Chiller (1993), a Robin Cook–style suspense novel involving cryonics.
In 1997, Benford returned again to this field under his own name with Cosm, which—despite another ingenious device at its center, again drawn solidly from theoretical physics (a chrome-like sphere accidentally created in a uranium nuclei experiment turns out to be a window into a newly created micro-universe—the “Cosm” of the title)—was sufficiently driven by a simple chase-and-pursuit plot that it briefly attracted the attention of Hollywood. But the novel is the result of two genres virtually laid one on top of the other, with the Cosm itself serving, on the one hand, as an inventive and evocative novum in the most traditional science fiction sense, and on the other as a thriller-MacGuffin like the artifact in Artifact. When the heroine, a Black physicist named Alicia Butterworth, removes the object from the laboratory at Brookhaven where it was created, she finds herself in the midst of an adventure tale involving fundamentalists, federal marshals, bureaucrats, and academic politics, while the provocative notion of a mini-universe evolving at a rate millions of time faster than our own takes a back seat to the cat-and-mouse pursuit plot. As in Artifact, Benford offers an afterword arguing for the plausibility of the physics involved, but for the purposes of the thriller aspect of the novel, the Cosm is for the most part simply a very strange object that might explode, like a smuggled atom bomb or a vial of deadly viruses.
Benford’s most successful foray in transforming science-fictional materials into the materials of the commercial thriller is the novel Eater, published in early 2000. Eater seems almost a deliberate exercise in genre dissolution. It begins as an astronomical puzzle, and in rapid succession turns into a first-contact tale, a world-threatening disaster epic, a tragic romance, a space adventure, and an ontological fable that returns to one of Benford’s favorite science fiction themes: the relation of organic to artificial intelligences in the universe. Benjamin Knowlton is a distinguished astrophysicist at the Mauna Kea observatory. His wife, an ex-astronaut, is suffering from late-stage terminal cancer as the novel opens. When a young colleague presents Knowlton with evidence of what appears to be a highly anomalous astronomical artifact—a repeating gamma ray burster—he is initially skeptical, but hesitant to discourage the enthusiasm of a younger, more idealistic scientist. One of the most impressive aspects of these early chapters is the manner in which Benford convincingly describes the real-life problems of science and science management; the varying styles of intellectual problem solving and reacting to new phenomena are an important part of the characterization of his major figures, and coping with scientific and political bureaucracies becomes an important survival skill as the plot unfolds.
The young scientist’s measurements hold up, however, and the mysterious object—which has many of the characteristics of a black hole—is not only real, but is headed toward Earth at a startling rate. The object, which comes to be known as “Eater of All Things” because of its tendency, like a black hole, to consume objects in its path, proves to be intelligent—apparently the remnant of an ancient civilization that, when faced with doom at the hands of the black hole, downloaded itself into the singularity’s magnetic fields and has been cruising the universe ever since, collecting samples from various civilizations. Now it demands the uploaded minds of several hundred humans—whom it identifies by name—to add to the collection. To underline the seriousness of its demands, it burns a huge swath across eastern North America, including the Washington, D.C. area. The scientists—who by now must contend with paranoid government bureaucracies as well as the all-powerful and possibly deranged alien—face the Abraham-like dilemma of whether to offer up the sacrifices. As a kind of supreme sacrifice, the dying astronaut volunteers to have her consciousness uploaded into a space vehicle, in the hopes that she can at least do some damage to the seemingly invincible alien. As do all seemingly invincible aliens, these have an Achilles heel waiting to be discovered, and while Benford’s version of it is more sophisticated and intelligent than most, the final chapters of the novel veer toward crowd-pleasing escapades and uncomfortable echoes of far less sophisticated works, including such pop films as Independence Day, Contact, and Armageddon.
Eater works well enough as a science fiction novel, in terms of its scientist characters, the depiction of alien intelligence, and the nature of the central problem and solution, that it might seem perverse to cite it in the context of novels that test the boundaries of genre, or that contribute to the dissolution of their source genre. But the solid science fiction narrative at its core is repeatedly diluted by echoes of other genres—not only the thriller, but the epic disaster novel (which Benford had visited before with his 1980 Shiva Descending, co-authored with William Rotsler), the academic novel, and the mainstream novel of science, which Benford had blended effectively with a science-fictional conceit in his classic Timescape.
Still, the novel must be counted as a more successful hybrid of science fiction and the thriller than some prominent examples of the reverse—novels by thriller writers seeking to exploit science-fictional plots—such as James Patterson’s Where the Wind Blows (1998) or Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), both of which cavalierly violate the terms of their science fiction rationales in order to expediently deliver the next chapter-ending cliffhanger.