THE BLOG
04/15/2014 11:16 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

9 Novels Where Science Goes Horribly Wrong

It's always so easy to blame ourselves. Maybe that's a sad reflection of humanity's opinion of itself, but it's the truth. An apocalyptic novel where it's all our fault--whether through nuclear war, meddling with bacteria or viruses, dipping our toes into nano-engineering, or making a little mistake whilst trying to modify crops which grow perfectly well on their own--is usually far more believable than one where aliens or the supernatural are to blame. Maybe we just don't really trust ourselves all that much, or perhaps the realization that we really are affecting the delicate balance of nature is finally hitting home. Either way, humanity screwing up and reaping what it has sown is a familiar background to many disaster and apocalyptic novels.

Admittedly my novel Coldbrook is a little different, because zombies are supernatural. But from the moment I conceived the novel, I knew that the cause of the zombie plague had to be human.

You might not believe it, but I'm quite an optimist at heart. And to begin with, Coldbrook is a tale of human triumph. One of the most amazing discoveries in our history of scientific exploration, the doorway created in the depths of the Coldbrook facility in the Appalachian mountains--a doorway that spans realities and opens into another world, an alternate Earth--seems to be the highlight of millennia of human exploration.

It's what comes through the doorway that causes problems, and from the first bite our world is doomed...

I'm a big fan of novels where fiddling with science causes a little bit of upset. Or, indeed, a lot of upset. And here, not necessarily in order, are nine of my favorites.

The Mist by Stephen King: Perhaps my favorite Stephen King story, The Mist tells of a leak from a military research facility, a mist that slowly drifts across the landscape. Within that deadly cloud are not only strange, ravenous creatures, but a whole new dimension of terror and death. As ever with King, the book's about the people more than the monsters. But as science-goes-wrong novels goes, this is one of the best.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: Are we ready for alien contact? The people in this book think so. So when they intercept signals from a distant world--signals that can only be singing--they launch a mission to find the singer. It doesn't go according to plan. Perhaps it's not as strictly science-goes-wrong as others on this list, but ever since I read The Sparrow over 10 years ago it's stuck with me. I think one of the messages of the book is, Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton: Dinosaur DNA. Scientists A rich bloke wanting to change the world. What could possibly go wrong? How could it not end well? Actually, it ended very well, with one of the most awe-inspiring movies I can remember seeing. It's been a while since I read this, and from memory Crichton isn't as kind to some of his characters as Spielberg was in the movie. Most of them ended up as dino-food.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Perhaps the first "mess with science at your peril" novel? It's surprisingly grim and downbeat, and frankly (see what I did there?) much more relevant today than it was back then. All those rich dead people with their heads frozen, just waiting for a time when their illnesses can be cured and they'll receive a body transplant... well, no, I don't think it'll happen either. But there's a good story there somewhere.
Nature's End by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka: Perhaps one of my favorite environmental disaster novels, this poses a drastic solution to overpopulation and our rape of the planet--one day, everyone on the planet takes a pill. And a third of them will die. A shocking idea, a shocking novel, and perhaps a warning from the past to the present.
The Stand by Stephen King: And can I include another Stephen King? It's my list, right? This is apocalypse by accidental germ warfare. We've created one of the most deadly viruses known to man and... whoops, we've released it! On a large scale it's a novel of good versus evil, but it's the smaller scale stuff I like. The way people fight to survive, how far they'll go to save themselves or their loved ones. It's a shattering, challenging book, and one in which the cause of the plague is all too believable.
Virus by Sarah Langan: Not sure if this really qualifies, but it is partly about the accidental release of chemical waste. So I'm including it because I love it. Langan's writing is assured and confident, her stories never less than compelling, and the growing dread and horror is all consuming. I had a take a break reading this novel because it was just so intense. Great, horrific stuff.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick: There's so much science gone wrong in this book that it's difficult to know where to start. Nuclear war, radiation poisoning, defective (or are they?) androids. Like most of Dick's novels there's a lot more going on, depths upon depths, but the novel is set against the background of a planet that we've pretty much destroyed.
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard: Written at a time before climate change was the hot topic (no pun intended) that it is today, this was one of several novels the brilliant Ballard wrote about planetary disaster due to climate change. Others included The Wind From Nowhere and The Burning World. They're all united by the theme of humankind polluting the world to such an extent that the balance shifts, and we're left struggling against drastic climate and geographical changes. And perhaps in a small way, some of what he wrote is coming true. Scary stuff.