My latest space opera novel, The Returning, follow up to last year’s The Worker Prince, wound up being modeled after thrillers like Robert Ludlam’s Bourne novels and got me thinking a lot about great science fiction and fantasy thrillers. Obviously science lends itself well to the thriller genre, and the thriller genre is one of the easiest and most fun to cross-mix with other genres. So based in part on Amazon listings and recommendations from friends and fellow writers, here’s list of 15 such thrillers SFSignal readers might enjoy.
One can’t talk about Science Fiction and Fantasy thrillers without first mentioning two very important classics which are precursors. Both were published at the end of the 19th Century and remain popular even today.
1. Dracula by Bram Stoker was chosen by International Thriller Writers as one of the Top 100 Thrillers of all time and it predates the genre divisions so common today. Generally considered horror, it’s definitely a thriller. But it’s also fantasy and far more gripping and horrifying than one might remember or expect due to its fame.
2. War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells suffers from overexposure and numerous imitations just like Dracula, but it was published only a year later, in 1898, and literally scared the hell out of people. Orson Welles did a radio broadcast of it on Halloween in 1938 that had people running for cover, calling for help and frightened, panicked and outraged. Wells’ influence on our genres cannot be overstated and he continues to be mentioned as influence by popular writers today. He certainly influenced me.
3. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson is another early novel, published in 1886. By Robert Louis Stephenson, this has become a classic thriller, still read and cited as an influence today. Violent and deformed, Hyde is a prototype early monster imprinted on many modern characters including Marvel’s The Hulk. Stephenson’s contributions to fantasy include the arguably more famous Treasure Island, published three years prior.
4. Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, published in 1969, was visionary and paradigm shifting, as Crichton pretty much created the modern science thriller and established himself as the master of the genre. He followed it with thrillers like Jurassic Park, Sphere, The Terminal Man and Prey.
5. Coma by Robin Cook is a seat-of-your-pants-can’t-put-it-down classic, still in print 35 years later. Published in 1977, the medical thriller is set in a university teaching hospital and portrays medical school life accurately, based on the author’s own experiences at Harvard Medical School. A third year student, Susan Wheeler, discovers a string of comatose patients with similar symptoms and begins to investigate. With lots of action and big reveals, the book’s central theme is as topical today as it was when it was published.
6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Although the science element is low, mostly forensics and psychology, the fantasy, thriller and horror elements are top notch. Basis of a famous film, the story of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his relationship with FBI agent Clarice Starling began here. Riveting read with fascinating characters and truly horrific explorations of the human mind.
7. The Stand by Stephen King. Admittedly, King is known as the King of Thrillers and Horror, and some titles like The Shining or It may stand out more as thrillers in readers’ minds, but his most popular book remains my favorite King thriller. The story unfolds with a man escaping from a biological testing facility, who sets in motion a deadly domino effect, spreading a mutated strain of the flu that will wipe out 99 percent of humanity within a few weeks. The survivors are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. A thick tome, it really is hard to put down and a thrill ride filled with great characters and moments.
8. The Deus Machine by Pierre Ouellette, published in 1993, was set in then-future 2005 and reads very much like a story that could actually happen today. Frighteningly so. A complex plot involving recognizable themes, including White House conspiracies, philosophical conflict, PTSD, international drug trade, economic crises, venture capital, high-tech computing, molecular biology, juvenile delinquency, martial law and much more. Includes a lot of science fictional/fantasy elements.
9. Instinct by Jeremy Robinson is about the Chess Team, the ultimate black ops/special forces unit, summoned to the jungles of a remote mountain range in Vietnam to discover a cure for an infectious disease which may kill every human male, starting with the U.S. President. Action-packed, the book has both scientific and historic subplots, great combat scenes and some nice underlying science which touches on Brugada syndrome; EKGs; Agent Orange; evolution; neanderthals; crystal molecular structures; STDs; and viral vectors in gene therapy, amongst others.
10. Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell is the Global Warming proponents dream or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. Buckell posits about a future where global warming has transformed the Earth, the Polar Ice Cap has all but melted, and there’s an international race at hand for the oil available underneath. Then the Gaia Corporation’s wealthy founders attempt their plan to roll back global warming using tiny mirrors floating in the air to redirecting heat and cooling the earth’s surface. The plan is to save the Earth from itself with terraforming, until airship pilot Anika Duncan stumbles onto it and the plot begins to unravel. Buckell raises interesting questions and his plot also involves cross cultural characters and a race for a thermo nuclear device captured by terrorists.
11. Thr3e by Ted Dekker tells the tale of a seminary student stalked by a killer. Dekker’s books are fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, and typical themes include the failure of organized religion, desperate struggles through hopeless situations, stark imagery of darkness and hopelessness contrasted with light and love, and the ideal that love and self-sacrifice are life’s greatest discovery and highest purpose. His other famous thrillers include Blink, Adam, and BoneMan’s Daughters. Dekker’s books have sold over five million copies worldwide.This novel was even made into a movie.
12. Spiral by Paul McEuen is a riveting debut thriller by one of the leading researchers in nanoscience about what happens when one of the leading nanotech scientists turns up dead, an apparent suicide, and his friends and family refuse to believe it. What they uncover turns out to be a deadly secret. With great plotting, pace and characterization, McEuen also uses little known Japanese history about biological weapons experiments in WWII, brief, lucid disquisitions on science and posits that synthetic biology will surpass silicon microelectronics as the next big technological wave, in hte process making these ideas accessible to typical thriller aficionados.
13. Petroplague by Amy Rogers asks “What if bacteria turned all the gasoline in Los Angeles into vinegar?” A UCLA graduate student who wants to use biotechnology to free America from its dependence on oil, instead unleashes her genetically-modified bacteria in Los Angeles and makes petroleum useless, paralyzing the city. As anarchy encroaches, she has to find a way to reign in a monster of her own creation, but not everyone supports that plan. Some want to spread it.
14. Boiling Point by Karen Dionne is an ecothriller in which a Nobel Prize–winning French scientist agrees to attend an environmental summit in Santiago, Chile. While Summit organizers are using him to increase publicity, the scientist, Dumas, goes out of deep concern for the Earth’s future. Then Chaitén, a Patagonian volcano dormant for 9,000 years, erupts just as Dumas predicted. Tightly paced with interweaving plot lines, the story explores environmental concerns, politics, science, conspiracies, press manipulation and much more.
15. Judas Strain by James Rollins, a Bestselling author known for his thrillers tells a terrifying story of an ancient menace reborn to plague the modern world and of an impossible hope that lies hidden within the language of angels. The title is a scientific term for an organism that drives an entire species to extinction. The story has SIGMA Force operatives aboard a cruise liner converted to a floating hospital searching for answers until terrorists hijack the vessel and turn it into their floating bio-weapons lab. When other SIGMA Force personnel launch a rescue, things get complicated.
I’m sure readers will think of a lot more and add them to the list in comments. The numbering and order is random and no indication of ranking.
My novel, The Returning, continues the story of Davi Rhii from The Worker Prince, which made Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases of 2011. In Book 2, Davi Rhii and his friends face off against assassins and political schemers intent on destroying the peace they fought so hard for in Book 1. With their lives and world on the line, it’s a race to find out who’s responsible and bring them to justice. Action-packed space opera with lots of twists and turns and crisscrossing story-lines described by author Paul S. Kemp as “a page-turning story that takes off like a rocket.” Mike Resnick adds: “romance, assassins, tension, both modern and classic science fiction notions, and very smooth writing. What more could you want?”
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.