Johnny looks up at the stars

The Hourglass Nebula (photo courtesy of

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of science fiction. Not the familiar trappings, though, not the rockets, rayguns and aliens, but the ideas. The ideas, and to a slightly lesser degree, the difficulty (I’ll get to that in a bit).


I’m as a much of a sucker for a good space opera as the next nerd, but once you start getting into the harder types of science fiction, to me the experience takes on the taint of horror. The highly coveted sense of wonder the genre is supposed to strive towards is for me indistinguishable from the liminality at the core of the most frightening horror fiction. This might sound hilarious to you, but just considering the unknowable vastness of space will more often than not fill me with the kind of existential dread one might expect to be overwhelmed by should you poke at the implications of your own mortality in a dark moment.

So you might have gleaned that I’m not that much of a horror guy either, though my aversion to that genre feels a bit more honest and garden-variety. “Oh, you’re squeamish about horror? So’s every other human being”. As I hinted at with the “hilarious” aside, being afraid of sf is less easy to admit, or even explain. Now, I’ll be heading into some self-analysis here, so be forewarned. But it’s my blog and I’ll navel-gaze if I wanna.

My fear of science fiction is a complex thing, inextricably linked with my shame of not being smart enough to understand the science part of it all. Not only am I frightened by the infinite, I’m also averse to reading this stuff because I’m afraid I won’t understand it, afraid of the frustration I know I’ll feel when I don’t understand. I realise everyone can feel existential anxiety, but this fear of knowing and testing my own limits seems to me a very personal one. Not easily admitted, but central to the depression and anxiety that’s made my adult life (16 years and counting) an exercise in hiding from people and pain .

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s not like I flinch away, incapacitated by the sight of the words “Stephen Baxter” on the cover of a book or anything like that. My fears just means that I’ve never read much science fiction, that’s all. Both because of fear, and because I haven’t developed an affinity for it. It’s one of the milder, consequence-light results of my avoidance.

– – – –

Thus, my opinions on the sf nominees in this competition won’t be the most well-informed. Even so, I enjoyed Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets quite a bit. It’s not the hardest of hard sf — meaning that at no point during reading it did I feel like a moron — but Reynolds still takes a few well-aimed prods at my preconceptions and prejudices. At one point, the story even veers into what I’d argue to be cosmic Lovecraftian horror, although it turns out to be a detour designed to bring a sense of scale, ineffability and, yes, abject horror to the rest of the tale.

Even so, I don’t feel worse off for this foray into the to-me horrible territory of harder sf. I wish I wasn’t as familiar… wait, strike that, I wish I was more familiar with this feeling of my fears and aversions being totally unfounded, but that’s depression and anxiety for you. With an outside perspective, its behaviours are the most petty, foolish things imaginable. But there, in the moment, so utterly resistant to reason.

I would apologise for oversharing, but if you’ve read this, I’d wager your interest for the inner workings of the minds of strangers is above average. You’re welcome.

I’ll write up an actual review of Slow Bullets for my Goodreads page, and post that as tomorrow’s entry.


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