A Review of Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond
July 10, 2015
by Loren Mayshark

Science fiction is defined by Isaac Asimov — the man with arguably the most nimble imagination and most prolific brain in the history of the genre — as a form that “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”   Science fiction is difficult to define because it can encompass so much and it is often confused with Fantasy.  According to Twilight Zone personality Rod Sterling, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.”  But devotees of the two respective genres understand that there are important differences that keep the genres distinct.

No matter which definition of sci-fi you choose, the uniting characteristic is that the genre expands the borders of what the reader ever thought possible.   Admittedly, I read little science fiction and I am not well-versed in the genre, but reading Startling Sci-Fi was an excellent exposure for a novice like me and I can imagine it would be delicious fodder for those who love the genre.  Startling Sci-Fi is the type of book that stretches boundaries.  The book is enriched by the art of Stefanie Masciandaro who works well with the themes and visions of the writers.  Her art adds the dimension of another medium that not only enhances the reading experience but provides additional clarification.  The result is a piece of art that is greater than the sum of its unique parts, each component distinct in its own way, yet more powerful as part of the whole.

There are many things that make this collection unique, including the treatment of popular topics related to the future of technological innovation.  Science fiction gives us a glimpse into a future populated with projections of technologies that are part of our everyday lives, often with horrifying implications.  In great science fiction there are almost always parallels that can be drawn with our present world.  These similarities help explore the depths of human nature and perhaps project where humanity is headed.  In several of the stories such as “Monkey Business,” and “Almost John” we see a future that is artificially enhanced by our rapidly developing technology.  They pose some important questions about where we are moving as a society.  “Almost John” captures the wariness of government run scientific experiments and offers some unique twists on traditional science fiction topics.  Similarly, in “Monkey Business” there are Artificial Intelligence (AI) experiments that are wantonly being performed on animals that run the gamut from cockroaches to chimpanzees.  As the story draws to its conclusion, it deftly hints at a future with AI deeply involved in medicine and as a competitor to pharmaceutical companies and their products.  The characters’ dialogue reveals some of the discussion about the crossing of boundaries between natural and artificial human intelligence.  Conversations about similar technologies are already being held over cocktails in swanky Silicon Valley haunts and in Ray Kurzweil interviews.  Kurzweil, one of the most prolific minds in technological innovation and prognostication, openly contemplates the future of nanobot medical technology and the profound possibilities for extending human life.

In fact, artificial intelligence is developing at a mind-blowing rate and only continues to defy the limits that were predicted only a short time ago.  The reader cannot help but wonder what this means for the future of humanity?  Many of the writers paint a gritty picture of the future where technology creates a living situation seemingly far less humane, where we must wrestle, individually and collectively, over moral questions that need deep insight and contemplation while technological innovations continue to race ahead at a pace that humanity cannot possibly control.

Not all of the stories take place in the future and it seems that many pieces challenge the traditional sci-fi classification.  “In The Japanese Rice Cooker,” a simple appliance is personified in amusing and somewhat terrifying ways.  In a novel approach, the reader must sift through old emails to piece together the gruesome acts of these machines which introduce a dimension of mystery to the story in a piece that challenges the genre in many ways. 

Speaking of challenging the definition of science fiction, in “New Year’s Eve: 65,000,000 B.C.” the reader is refreshingly transported to an earlier time when life was simpler.  The beauty of the tale is in its subtlety.  It is a tale with a refreshing simplicity that reminds one of a childhood bedtime story with the sagacious dimensions of popular Myth.  The story is one that the reader can tell the writer enjoyed creating and this makes for enjoyable reading.  This also reveals the deft selection by the editorial staff on what stories to include and how to arrange the book. 

The darker images of the future in these tales are well balanced by a wry sense of humor.  Adam Sass’s “98% Graves” is filled with bizarre twists that compel the reader forward with interest.  He paints the picture of a future that is in some ways terrifying but does so with wry humor that leaves the reader feeling amused.   Sass is one of several writers who are able to use the genre to look at the inane parts of our existence and see the comedy of where we are and where we are headed as a culture.

Although the genre by definition does not operate by our known reality and often much of it is projected far in the future, there are still underlying issues that plague humanity.  There is mention of the current wars that the U.S. is embroiled in and there is also treatment of ongoing subjects of human conflict such as religious zealotry which is addressed in “The Priestess of Light” by David W. Landrum.  The reader is oriented in a way that projects current moral dilemmas in a context that forces fresh perspective.  The story is action-packed, which allows the reader to flip the pages without realizing the depth contemplation that is occurring.

The book is recommended to sci-fi fans and readers of literary fiction alike.  There are many distinct literary voices in these pages that are fueled by profound imaginations.  We read for many reasons but two of the most burning are to escape and broaden our horizons; this book offers both, in spades.