Exclusive Interview: “The Scourge Between Stars” Author Ness Brown
Set a scary story on a space ship and I’m going to immediately think of Alien and Dead Space. And while I’m not always right in my assumptions, I was when it came to Ness Brown’s sci-fi horror novella The Scourge Between Stars (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Brown discusses what inspired and influenced this scary story…aside from the obvious.
To start, what is The Scourge Between Stars about, and when and where does it take place?
The Scourge Between Stars takes place several hundred years in the future on the derelict starship Calypso as it crawls tail-between-legs back to Earth from an unsuccessful colonization attempt on a nearby exoplanet. Acting captain Jacklyn Albright is holding the ship together with duct tape and prayers as she navigates internal crises (a missing captain, impending starvation, brewing mutiny) and external dangers (radio silence from the rest of the spaceship fleet, random attacks on the Calypso from an unseen interstellar force).
From the very first page, the crew are faced with failure: that of their ship’s systems, of their tenuous societal structure, of their forebears’ best attempts to escape the consequences of ruining their ancestral home planet. Jacklyn must juggle her own fresh grief, her insecurities about her inherited role, and her prejudice against the ship’s resident android to confront the various threats to the Calypso‘s existence. Naturally, the situation takes a turn for the worse when she discovers that she and her crew are not alone onboard…
The Scourge Between Stars is a little bit about the cost of the inherent arrogance of galactic expansion and a lot about humans fighting off some of the universe’s myriad horrors, from the cosmic to the alien to the very personal.
Where did you get the idea for the plot of The Scourge Between Stars? What inspired it?
I give most of the credit to the six years that I spent teaching astronomy and astrobiology at several colleges within the City University Of New York. I primarily taught a course entitled “Life In The Universe,” which covered topics such as the conditions necessary for the origin and evolution of life, prospects for interstellar travel, the likelihood of contacting alien civilizations, and so on. I repurposed a good chunk of my teaching material for this story, inspired by my lessons and conversations with students; I thank all of them for their enthusiasm and interest. As readers can no doubt tell, I was also heavily influenced by several sci-fi horror classics. I thank my parents for raising me on a steady diet of creepy sci-fi action and alien thrillers.
In this story, the ship is heading back to Earth, which is largely uninhabited, as is the colony they left. Is there a significance to most of humanity being on the ship, and did I just answer my own question?
In this story, as in many cautionary futuristic tales, human activity compromised the habitability of Earth a few hundred years ago, forcing a fleet of starships to flee to a planet around the star Proxima Centauri in hopes of establishing a new home for humanity. I wanted The Scourge Between Stars to show a little bit of the reality of space colonization: there are more inherent risks to interstellar travel than we like to acknowledge, and there are no currently known worlds even remotely as hospitable and nurturing as Earth. The status of the population left behind on Earth is unknown, the Proxima b colony has been completely abandoned, and the other ships of survivors are no longer in contact with the Calypso; the humans onboard are effectively all that remain. The intended message here is that not cherishing our home world can and will have lasting consequences for generations, and running away from them will only create more.
The Scourge Between Stars sounds like a sci-fi horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Sci-fi horror is right to me. I borrowed quite a bit from my professional experience to establish the setting, some of the characters, and much of the premise; I stuck as close to the presently understood science as the narrative allowed and relied on informed imagination where necessary. The horror elements — ambient unease, spooky dark corners, jump scares, and eventually a bloody, high-stakes chase — all escalate as the story progresses. Sci-fi horror is my favorite genre mashup; I hope I did it justice.
So, how scary does it get?
With the obligatory disclaimer that scariness is highly subjective, I would say The Scourge Between Stars is middling-to-fair scary. Readers who are more unsettled by the paranormal or the creepy crawly may find the novella more tense than frightening, while readers weak to gore with a healthy fear of the void may read it through their fingers. I wanted to pay homage to the movies and games that gave me my love for the genre, most of which have a strong action component as well, so The Scourge Between Stars is more fast-paced scares than slow-building terror. My goal was to incorporate a few kinds of horror: cosmic, xenobiological, interpersonal. The level of scary depends on which of these you fear the most.
Now, The Scourge Between Stars is your first novella. But I’m guessing it’s not the first work of fiction you’ve written. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Scourge but not anything else you’ve written?
Actually, the direct inspirations for The Scourge Between Stars are from other forms of media. There are absolutely writers and stories that have had a huge impact on my storytelling in general, but when it comes to this particular work the most notable and formative influences were the sci-fi and horror movies, television shows, and video games that I religiously watched and played growing up.
Which was going to be my next question: Was The Scourge Between Stars influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because scary stories on space ships always make me think of Aliens and Dead Space and a bunch of other things.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. Dead Space was a huge influence; the biggest element I wanted to borrow there was the uneasy feeling of moving through dark, claustrophobic corridors, though nothing comes close to the brilliant gameplay. I also drew from films like Doom and Pitch Black, which both have intense, bloody sequences of very fun sci-fi action and gore. There are clear callbacks to Alien and Event Horizon, and (even though these are not horror) small nods to Contact and not a few themes and character templates taken from various Star Trek series.
And how about Mephi and Faust, your cats? How did they influence The Scourge Between Stars? Because despite the stereotype, some cats love scary stories.
Faust and Mephi kept me company during the late nights I spent writing The Scourge Between Stars. They also scared the pants off me on more than one midnight trip to my kitchen for more tea; they are masters of zooming out of the darkness and between your feet when you least expect it. They are the jump scare inspirations for this novella.
You kind of touched on this earlier, but when not writing, you’re an astrophysicist. How do you think having that level of knowledge about space influenced The Scourge Between Stars?
I had a lot of fun trying to incorporate my education and expertise wherever I could. I wove in things like schematics from old space mission ideas, back-of-the-envelope calculations on flight times, some basic exoplanetary data and hypotheses about real conditions on Proxima b. There were times when the science had to bow to the narrative, but I did my best to make the circumstances of the Calypso‘s journey as believable as possible.
So were there any times, while writing The Scourge Between Stars, when scientific facts ran counter to telling a good story?
I think the greater challenge at points might have been a dearth of scientific facts. For example, we don’t yet have concrete designs for fusion-powered vehicles or any confirmed detections or specimens of extraterrestrial life. I had to write in the space between what is ruled out by what we as a species currently know and what is allowed by all that we don’t. This was nerve-wracking as I study and work in a field comprising many of the people best suited to judge what is plausible in this context and what is very silly. I hope that I struck the balance between credible and entertaining.
Now, it sounds like The Scourge Between Stars is a stand-alone story. But then, Ripley probably thought the same about Alien. So, I’ll ask: Is The Scourge Between Stars a stand-alone story or the first book in a series?
I like The Scourge Between Stars as a stand-alone story. I would love to wax on about what happened to the settlers on Proxima b, or about what happened to the Earthlings left behind by the Fleet, or about the origin of the so-called “scourge.” But I think the room left for conjecture by the novella’s ending is nicer in many ways than an over-explanation of some elements that not even the characters received clarity on. I’ll leave the fate of Jacklyn, Watson, and the crew of the Calypso up for personal interpretation (for now…?).
You forgot to say “dun dun dun.” Anyway, we talked earlier about the influence of movies and video games on The Scourge Between Stars. But to flip things around, do you think Scourge would work as a movie, game, or maybe a TV show?
Tough question. While it would be endless fun to hunt the halls of the Calypso for intruders as Jacklyn in something like a survival-shooter game, I think that might be retreading ground already expertly traversed by games like the previously mentioned Dead Space. My final answer must be movie. I think the creepy corridors of the Calypso would look great on the big screen, and I would be satisfied for life if someone made The Scourge Between Stars a super creepy score.
And if someone wanted to adapt The Scourge Between Stars into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Jacklyn?
Nafessa Williams [Black Lightning]. She popped into my head pretty early in the process of writing the novella. It would be amazing to see her manifest Jacklyn onscreen.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Scourge Between Stars?
The Scourge Between Stars will hopefully appeal to anyone who enjoys tense, unsettling stories in space: scary enough for people who want a creep factor but not too scary for those who want to follow Jacklyn and the Calypso‘s fraught journey. It also has family drama, space girlfriends, and lots of laser guns to sweeten the pot.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Scourge Between Stars, what sci-fi horror novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
I’d like to shout out two sci-fi horror novels that I very much enjoyed recently: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling [which you can read more about here] and Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes [which you can read more about here]. The Luminous Dead follows a caver on an exoplanet who agrees to a sketchy expedition funded by a mysterious backer and soon finds herself fighting for survival and the truth about her mission. I was very stressed while reading this; to me, space horror pales before cave horror. Dead Silence is about a repair crew discovering the wreckage of a luxury space cruise ship, whose salvage claim attempt turns into a gruesome nightmare soon after they board. If you want haunted Titanic in space, look no further. Sci-fi horror lovers will want these two books on their shelves.