by Casey Ellis

All of the stories in this book are unambiguously science fiction. When this project began, that was one of the few non-negotiable attributes that we demanded of submissions. It was vital because one of the goals of this anthology is to clear some of the air around the genre. There is a long-standing debate about the artistic merits of so called “genre” fiction. Like most discussions involving academics, it is largely irrelevant. Still, it can provide a great deal of amusement. Scroll through some of the thunderous praise that greeted Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006 and you will find a number of fidgety, sheepish assurances that the book is not really science fiction because…well…it’s good. Of course, any work of greatness will transcend its roots, but why are so many eager to pretend the roots don’t even exist?

Instead of dealing honestly with literary art that employs genre techniques, many critics prefer to be ruled by aesthetic dogmas that seem to smooth away the joyous mystery of art. This is often accompanied by rather unconvincing doublespeak that tends to go something like this: “Science fiction cannot be art. Art must do certain things science fiction cannot do. This novel with aliens does what art must do, so it is art. Therefore it cannot be science fiction.” Not to be rude, but to hell with all that. Everything you read in this book is, no shirking it, science fiction. Are they literature, in the highest sense of the word? Well, if you heard about a story where two very different people both struggle with social ostracism and try to find a bit of hope with each other, you would probably consider it potentially worthy of the term “literary.” Brian T. Hodges’ “A Song Unheard” does this. However, once you were told that one of those two lonely souls is a mutant and the other an alien, you might become skeptical. Why exactly? We don’t ask this in a hostile manner. We tend to have the same reaction ourselves. These stories challenge that knee-jerk skepticism. In Hodges’ piece, the tendency to deny others the humanity we take for granted for ourselves is universalized, removed from the politically loaded conflicts of today. Far from being damaged, such a noble literary goal is bolstered by the use of science fiction.

On another front, authors of literary fiction are often praised for ambiguity and experimentation. Jhon Sanchez experiments in “The Japanese Rice Cooker.” In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find another recent piece that toys so much with the foundations of the short story. Remarkably, Sanchez accomplishes some very modern goals by using not only genre, but an adapted version of a literary form (the epistolary) long thought by many to be moribund. That’s a great deal to pack into a story, not even mentioning that you’ll never eat a spoonful of rice in quite the same way after reading it. Would Sanchez have been able to achieve all this without using science fiction? Why precisely would anyone want that? As for ambiguity, Eve Fisher’s “Embraced” uses a tale of aliens to look into the heart of humanity. What she finds there is as unknowable as the creatures who have conquered (or are saving) the world. Fisher takes the dark, chilling elements of the alien invasion trope and finds it symbolic of our own inability to comprehend those we hate, those we love, and even ourselves.

All these examples aside, the question still stands: are the stories in this book literature, in the highest sense of the word? We say so! But try something those tiresome debates rarely recommend: read the stories, all of them, and make up your own mind.

Startling Sci-Fi is available to buy in Paperback and eBook editions. The companion book, Visions of the Beyond, is also available.