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My Science Fiction Life

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What we've learnt about...

Terror in science fiction

The Day of the Triffids

Science fiction's scary Ė it's a literature of the unknown. Itís full of strong images and striking concepts, and is both challenging and enormous fun.

Popular works often sit on the borderline between exploration and exploitation - Alien may well be a grim corporate satire, but itís mostly remembered for John Hurtís exploding chest and a scantily-clad Sigourney Weaver hunting monsters.

Users' fears fell into three groups: frightening things happening in familiar settings; unsettling ideas; and the pure, thrilling terror of the unknown.

"Itís the end of world as we know it!"

A lot of people responded most strongly to science fiction that placed a disturbing twist on the everyday and familiar. The clear leader was The Changes, an apocalyptic story about evil electricity. The wealth of memories can be summed up with one word: "Pylons":

"[Survivors] scared the hell out of a young lad from the 70s. Terry Nationís idea is simple - what would happen if most of the UK was wiped out by a disease with no cure. I can get a feeling of what it would be like to live in the aftermath... Had a profound effect on my life." hammernerdneil, who now lives on a remote Scottish island."It has left me with a lasting 'fear' of electricity pylons." Skakidd said. "Nearly always think of The Changes when I see one," echoed Michael-k1. "All those wires," shudders midwichcuckoo. "I remember being the only one in the room left watching" akaSoylentGreen66 told us, rather proudly.

Unsurprisingly, there was a similar response to Terry Nationís post-apocalyptic series Survivors, about the fate of the few humans who escape a near 100% fatal epidemic.
Nuclear holocaust drama Threads still haunts viewers too. "I was horrified by the vision of incompetence, futility and misery," said paulvonscott. "I canít bear to watch it again," agreed paulg1974.

"I was thoroughly engaged and at one point it even made me jump! 1984 is an incredible book, a visionary book and inevitably a warning. The idea of revisionist history I still find terrifying and am not convinced it doesnít already go on. Big Brother is the ultimate all-pervading evil." AllDeadDave"The clocks were striking thirteen"

Related to this were peopleís strong reactions to disturbing ideas. Reading George Orwellís 1984 affected many - "I was moved by its emotional power and disturbed by the nature of Big Brother," blackalys confessed. "It scared the heck out of me," said astroSketti, "It completely changed the way I perceive the world around me."

"I was entirely unaware of how powerful and frightening it was. I read it so many times I could close my eyes and return to that world. It was so real and so possible. Science fiction - but only one step removed from reality. This is what makes it so disturbing." blackalysStaying with dystopias, the forced breeding in Margaret Attwoodís The Handmaidís Tale haunted several, "Possibly one of the scariest books I have ever read, especially now the Christian Fundamentalists in the US have so much influence," said GlasgowGooner.

"We are the Martians!"

Thereís a different kind of terror that science fiction offers - Fun fear. Itís a genre thatís just as inventive in the ways it sets out to shock its audience. After all, there are only so many things a serial killer can get up to - but thereís no limit to the threats from beyond the stars or behind the sofa."With Doctor Who, I would hide under the table because I was scared. With Quatermass, I couldnít even move to hide; I was that petrified. Even as an adult watching the series on DVD, I still forget to breathe. This is classic nightmare fuel." jacuidarkflower

Dramas like Nigel Knealeís seminal Quatermass serials were almost the first to deliberately target this thrill. Quatermass and the Pit naturally scores highly.

Knight-gkla had vivid memories of watching the original 1953 Quatermass Experiment. "We had a TV instead of a holiday [so we could] watch the Coronation. It [Quatermass] was one of those programmes I watched from behind the sofa, made worse because Wimbledon Common was our Sunday trip. We had no landing light upstairs, so my older brother used to push me up first to put on the bedroom light."

"Half the sixth form skived off one afternoon to see the film... And it was almost better watching the people than the film. One of the toughest lads hid his face, whilst the girls seemed to lap it up." LostinthoughtAuthor Dan O'Bannon, long a fan of Knealeís, would be pleased to find his gut-busting Alien receiving a lot of mentions. Digideus praises the creature design "Unlike ANYTHING anyone had ever seen... still scares the bejesus out of me!", whereas universalmachine singles out the conept, "based on a very simple, very old idea, the haunted house."

"My main memory was of being so scared that I experienced a physical reaction. I ended up watching the rest of the film peeping out from behind the sofa.... Something which I never did, even when I watched Doctor Who as a three year old child. For weeks afterwards I was afraid to turn out the light in my bedroom." Jenny DayJenny Day echoed the sheer pleasure of being frightened, recalling her first viewing of Event Horizon.

Although nearly everyone mentioned it as a yardstick of fear, only two people had anything to say about Doctor Who directly. LimeyOReilly reported actual psychological scarring from seeing a particularly frighetning monster and felt that "I must follow the rules precisely or else... it is only in recent years I have recovered from this." Eken95 has only slightly fonder memories - "It is the first time I remember being actually terrified by a TV programme. In countless childhood nightmares Iíve been chased by and finally exterminated by Daleks."

"This place is nowhere, and itís forever."

It seems that the best-remembered science fiction is the scariest. Big ideas are welded into peopleís memories by accompanying horrors, whether itís as simple as pylons, or as complicated as Room 101. Maybe itís because we enjoy a challenge to normality - or maybe itís just because we enjoy cowering behind a cushion. Itís a complicated response, perhaps best summed up by the following reaction to Sapphire and Steel:

"Itís mesmerising, dark, cold, full of fear and unfathomable things. A cryptic crossword of a show. Absolutely glorious horror. Partly comforting, partly terrifying. Iím grown up now, and the show still scares me." paulvonscott


Highly recommended

We asked some of our top contributors to suggest their favourite tales on the site. Here's a few of the ones they picked:

paulvonscott likes this memory of Day of the Triffids
"It's great to be a thicky!"

Lostinthought recommends this writer on Ringworld
"Excellent piece on the book and author."

Eloise_R likes a contribution about The Chrysalids
"Couldn't have said it better myself, and didn't!"

Paulg1974 likes this wry take on Crime Traveller
"Things like this can only be made due to the unique way the BBC is funded..."

darrenhf liked this personal account of Red Dwarf
"Red Dwarf is part of a marriage now."

Sourdust appreciated an analysis of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
"Exposes the shallowness of the lazy critical orthodoxy."

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