Stephen King is undoubtedly the most famous horror author alive, but he does occasionally stray into other genres, such as fantasy with The Eyes of the Dragon and The Gunslinger. He has also tried his hand at science fiction. As a science fiction fan who has recently rekindled a reading relationship with Stephen King, I couldn't resist checking out some of King's science fiction.
I’ll concentrate on three books that I argue have strong science fictional elements, but which in my estimation fail to live up to their SF potential: IT, The Tommyknockers, and Under the Dome. (I’m not dealing with The Stand, because, while it has SF elements, it’s fundamentally more fantastic. I also haven’t read it in over 20 years. I’m not dealing with 11/22/63, The Running Man, or many others simply because I haven’t read them. Please recommend other books in the comments!)
My favorite definition of science fiction comes from literary theorist Darko Suvin, who says that science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement.” That is, SF stories happen in a world that is not our own (the “estrangement”), but they could happen without violating too many known scientific laws (the “cognitive” part). In other words: no magic or supernatural stuff allowed! Although Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining could be taken as either supernatural or psychological, King’s novel is pretty obviously a supernatural tale. The three books I’m discussing here, however, proceed with little, if any, supernatural aspects. Like Alien, they seek to mix the genres of horror and science fiction.
Spoilers ahead. If you really don’t like spoilers, skip to the last two sections.
IT is a mammoth tome for having such a short title. The novel, which is one of King's most well known, is often taken to be a supernatural story of a creepy clown that terrorizes children. For my full opinion on the book, which I did actually like despite my criticisms here, see my Goodreads review. IT certainly seems supernatural through much of the book, although we do get some indication later in the book – SPOILER ALERT – that IT (the creature) is actually an extraterrestrial or extradimensional being.
This explanation is quite Lovecraftian. I consider Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos to be science fiction, since Cthulhu and friends are creatures beyond our human understanding, but not strictly speaking supernatural. They follow natural laws, although we humans simply fail to understand these laws.
My problem is that we aren’t really told that much about what IT is. Chalk it up to my science fiction fan’s love of detailed info dumping, but I really wanted to know more about IT. Where exactly does IT come from? How is it related to that other being that helps the kids? Why does IT hate children so much? How did IT get to Earth?
The Tommyknockers is one of King’s most obviously science fictional works, because the readers know from the beginning that the creatures are probably extraterrestrials. And – SPOILER ALERT - they are. They also have some really creepy mind control techniques that make people build crazy stuff. (See my Goodreads review).
But the ultimate explanation for the aliens’ crash landing is kind of lame. Did they really just strangle each other? They can cross interstellar space but they can’t get along? Who are they? How does their ship work? What were they doing on Earth, anyway? My inner SF geek wants to know!
Under the Dome
Another massive tome, Under the Dome, has been made into a TV series currently in its third season (the series has almost nothing to do with the book; I gave up on it midway through season two). The book begins with an interesting, if mildly silly, premise that a whole town is under a dome.
Okay, it’s not actually a dome in the book, but the mystery is interesting: What is it? Who put it there? How can they get rid of it? There are Stephen King staples. Small town in Maine? Check. Large cast of interesting characters, most of whom have a malevolent side? Check. Murder and mayhem? Check.
And what do we find out? SPOILER ALERT: Well, it’s kind of lame. It turns out the Dome is part of some extraterrestrial kid’s play time. Who are these aliens? How do they exert power over us on Earth? Did the kid get punished? (See my Goodreads review).
King: Not the King of SF
As science fiction, these three books leave a lot to be desired. Maybe King’s horror sensibilities require him to leave us enough in the dark to be scared. Maybe it’s not fair to hold him to these standards since these books are really horror with a few SF elements. Maybe he just felt like he had to wrap it up with these three almost obnoxiously long books.
In any case, while I enjoy Stephen King as a horror writer (IT, in particular, is a great book on its own terms), as a science fiction fan his attempts at science fiction leave me wanting something more.
But maybe you’ve been wondering: where do we draw the line between natural and supernatural? Especially when discussing eldritch beings from beyond our human ken, what’s the difference between IT or the antagonists of Under the Dome or The Tommyknockers and the gods, angels, demons, avatars, ghosts, pixies, leprechauns, etc. of traditional religion and mythology? Is there any principled way to draw this distinction? Do we need such a distinction to make sense of definitions of words like "religion," "secular," "naturalism," "mythology," "science," and so forth?
If there’s any good that comes out of King’s attempts at science fiction, perhaps it’s that he gives us a few new ways to think about these questions!
Let me end by pointing out one of the primary values of horror fiction, whether it's science fictional or not; as King himself says...