Sunday Shorts – Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond

If you remember from the last two Sundays, I’ve been running through New Lit Salon Press‘s wonderful science fiction anthology Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak of it, and I loved it, and I’ve already posted some chats with five of the authors. That link is where you can pre-order the book, by the way, which is something I hope you’ll do if you’re at all a lover of quality short science fiction.

With no further ado, onward to some AI’s learning to face self-determination, a creepy lab, and what could be immortality, if you think you’re still the same person you were a while ago…

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J.P. Lorence

J.P. Lorence is a resident of Vancouver, Canada, who pursues graphite art, spoken word, and occasionally fiction writing. J.P.’s story is called “The Doorway,” and deals with a virtual reality world, and artificial intelligence.

NB: Your story in Startling Sci-Fi was a fresh take on the idea of emergent intelligence, and it made me if you have a background in programming or software design or tech on some level. If you do, did it inform the framework of the story? If you don’t, how did you go for that verisimilitude?

JL: No, I have no background in AI. I’ve researched this matter along with many others via audiobook resources, but I’ve really only gotten the broad concepts by that means. The idea of self emergent intelligence was just one I chose to address for its own sake.

NB: The story deals with an A.I. reaching a tipping point, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek bit near the end that’s cleverly done that draws an interesting parallel – how purposeful was that?

JL: I took one more step at the end, comparing V24 to a yuppie stuck in traffic. Well, that was a political point, one I stretched to make.

NB: I liked it – I think it added a kind of sardonic humour to the piece. Where did the greater story idea come from?

JL: It actually came out of a scene in the Sci-fi series, ‘Caprica.’ Perhaps 3 episodes in, a character is lost inside a simulation looking for his daughter. I just caught a few minutes of it at the time. It spawned the thought, however, and the story was written within a few days. I’ve since watched the entire series and can only speak well of Caprica as pro sci-fi writing.

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M.P. Diederich

M.P. Diederich was born somewhere in New England in 1985. Despite his interest in dangerous subjects, he is not currently under FBI surveillance. He studied English and Creative Writing at Fordham University in New York City while seriously considering joining the French Foreign Legion. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where he’s trying to introduce more green vegetables into his diet and maybe go for a run every once in a while. Diederich’s story, “Monkey Business” is a creepy and darkly funny story that had me chuckling and cringing in turn.

NB: “Monkey Business” is a really rich story – where did the idea come from?

MD: This story is actually an excerpt of a much longer work-in-progress, but I felt it stood on its own as a quick glimpse into a very weird little world. The idea for the scene depicted in “Monkey Business” comes from a random conversation I had with a woman at an Irish pub in Philadelphia. There was a troupe of Gaelic musicians playing, which added to the random quality of the evening. Anyway, the woman was a lab assistant at a medical research facility, where she was mostly in charge of gassing lab mice to death. I found this quite disturbing, but she explained that the mice she was gassing were bred for susceptibility to various genetic defects and diseases. Once used in the lab’s experiments, they had essentially no chance of survival, and were summarily put to death in a quick, relatively painless manner. The lab assistant told me she felt like she was doing the mice a favour.

NB: “Monkey Business” is more than a little bit creepy as well as good. The nonchalance of the scientists in the face of some pretty awful procedures was cringeworthy, and yet I chuckled quite a bit, too. Did you set out to write something that walked that line?

MD: I would have to blame my exposure to Monty Python at a young age. But there’s also a bit of gallows humour in all of us, especially when surrounded by the disturbing facets of life. I think Mark Twain once said something along the lines of humour being the child of human suffering. When our backs are against the wall from an ethical or moral standpoint, we have to find some semblance of humour in order to maintain our sanity – and humanity. I think it’s that balance between the horrific and the humorous that I love in most of my favourite authors’ work, like David Foster Wallace, Bret Easton Ellis, and William Gaddis. They present dark, miserable situations, but in such a way that you can’t help but laugh.

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Rob Hartzell

Rob Hartzell is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program. He is currently at work on a story cycle, titled “Pictures of the Floating-Point World,” from which “The Dead and Eternal” is taken. Other stories from the cycle have appeared at Eunoia Review and Flyover Country Review. His story in this collection, “The Dead and Eternal,” hints at a kind of possible immortality – though, perhaps, not quite.

NB: Your story in Startling Sci-Fi had one of the more unique ideas about AI/transferred consciousnesses I’ve encountered – it really took a different angle, the notion of earlier ‘backups’ and the resultant missing time and what that might mean. Where did that notion come from?

RH: I can’t quite claim to be the originator of that idea — Cory Doctrow deals with human full-body backups quite a bit in “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”. That said, it struck me while reading that book that his narrator accepts the concept of being restored from a backup without much struggle, particularly since it essentially results in the death of the current “instance”. (I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it, but Doctrow does address this problem somewhat therein.)
I wondered what it would be like for someone on the other side of the equation to deal with a backup — particularly a backup that was problematic, as backups (including Doctrow’s narrator) can be — and the story was born.

NB: If you could have a “backup” done, would you?

RH: I would — but I have no illusions that, once restored, it would be the same me that is typing these words right now. My digital doppelgänger might get the gift of immortality, but, barring the development of some process I can’t foresee, I probably won’t.

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Next week I’ll be wrapping up my trip through Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond with the last of the authors I’m chatting with, but also the illustrator and the editor himself. Until then, keep it short…

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