A while ago there was that obviously bad take that “horror cannot be set in space,” which, if nothing else, gave folks an excuse to revisit the space-horror splendors of films like Alien and Event Horizon. Space is a great setting for written horror, as well—the brutally unforgiving vacuum, the possibility of alien monsters, and the reliance on both inhuman technology and cabin-crazed crewmates. Lena Nguyen’s We Have Always Been Here is solidly in this tradition, using a mix of fears—callous corporate overlords, inexplicable anomalies, and threatening human characters—to craft a kind of multi-layered ghost story in space.
Set on the Deucalion, an interstellar ship sent to explore a new planet for human settlement, the novel follows Grace Park, one of the ship’s psychologists. When crewmembers start falling mysteriously ill and strange, possibly supernatural events begin haunting the ship, Park finds herself navigating an increasingly horrific labyrinth, aided only by the ship’s loyal androids, while vivid dreams fill in her backstory on an ecologically-ravaged Earth.
In its later sections, the novel goes full haunted house (in space!), but the horror leading up to that is mostly of the social and psychological variety. Park is stuck in a remarkably toxic workplace, and although the extent of it sometimes strains belief—a cast of scientists and explorers who are astonishingly joyless, incurious, and hostile—Nguyen captures Park’s stress very effectively: the strain of micro (and macro) aggressions, the pervasive effects of gaslighting. Park’s later attempts to find her way through the literally shifting maze of the ship, and to see through layers of deception among her fellow crew, are an all-too-natural progression of the sense of paranoia and displacement that mark the earlier chapters.
Robots and androids are We Have Always Been Here’s strongest suit: it’s most striking in the sections where it considers anti-automation sentiments, or examines Park’s preference for androids over human company. It feels like Nguyen is using her robots to grapple with metaphors of class and racial oppression, and is clearly paying homage to classic robot stories like those of Isaac Asimov (the positronic brains for sure; Park’s character also feels like a nod to Asimov’s robopsychologist Susan Calvin). There’s a hint of a really interesting horror element in Park’s possibly-misguided emotional attachment to the androids, the idea that she’s spent her life caring about empty simulacra; the novel doesn’t do more than flirt with this potentially devastating idea, however, and its increasingly magical treatment of consciousness reduces the impact of its musings on artificial intelligence.
The story is hampered by plot holes and some distractingly bad science. There’s an obviously artificial nature to many key plot elements, from the fact that Park—misanthropic, untrained in therapy—winds up as ship’s counselor, to the Deucalion having only a single engineer capable of fixing anything (leaving the door open for their convenient removal). And while the hostility of Park’s team draws connections between workplace toxicity and outright horror, the extent of that hostility and the fact that no one notes it as abnormal strains belief, even if we later get some reasons for the crew’s actions.
If you tend to jump over scientific jargon in your fiction, that’s perfectly valid, and We Have Always Been Here might go down easier for it. Cosmetic technological terms feel rather pulled at random from a bag (a handheld “railgun” that seems to work like a normal gun, for instance), and some big issues in basic science are quite distracting at points. Repeated references are made to the air on the Deucalion being dry because of the dryness of space, for instance (if humans were actually exposed to vacuum, finding a good moisturizer would be the least of their worries), and at one point Park complains that “they sent me here without telling me it was a planet with a fucking gravity well!” (All planets have gravity wells.)
Far more upsetting, however, is the full-throated endorsement of quantum quackery in the novel’s denouement, where a laundry list of debunked pseudoscientific ideas, redolent of Rupert Sheldrake or What the Bleep Do We Know, are put forth to explain the events plaguing the expedition. I don’t expect science fiction to provide science education, but the genre does have the power to make things more plausible in the reader’s imagination—it’s disturbing to see that power used to lend credence to frankly anti-scientific ideas.
Something that science-fictional horror can excel at, potentially, is the ability to take the same set of factors that make space and science so interesting and wonderful—the vastness, the complexity—and push them until they become terrifying. That’s part of the classic formula for cosmic horror, from Lovecraft down to VanderMeer. And it’s also something that more rigorously scientific stories can accomplish, like Peter Watts’ Blindsight (a novel that We Have Always Been Here strikingly parallels in some ways). But either approach relies on maintaining that scientific approach, or on at least refusing to contain and quantify the weirdness of the unknown. Tossing aside any issues it might have explored more deeply, and explaining away its horrors with disappointingly rosy and complete narrative solutions, We Have Always Been Here winds up adrift, not particularly horrifying, and not particularly science-fictional.
We Have Always Been Here
By Lena Nguyen
Published July 6, 2021
Specialty coffee slinger, science fiction scholar.