Eileen Gunn, Stable Strategies and Others. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Publications, Sept. 2004. Trade paperback, 224 pages, $14.95. ISBN I-892391-18-X.
Like a good many other readers, my introduction to the work of Eileen Gunn came with the appearance of her story "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" in The Norton Book of Science Fiction. I was promptly bowled over, and also chagrined that such a marvelous writer had somehow evaded my radar until that moment. That her work is not more widely known, however, may be partially attributed to the volume of her literary production both before "Stable Strategies" and since. She has been, shall we say, the antithesis of prolific.
But here at last is the collection we've been waiting for, and the result is a doozy. Stable Strategies and Others contains nearly the whole of Gunn's output, collecting ten stories she has published over the last twenty-five years, plus two works appearing for the first time. It's handsomely packaged, too, with a sharp cover design (by Gunn's partner, John D. Berry). In addition to the stories themselves, the volume includes a gnomically charming introduction by William Gibson, an antic afterword by Howard Waldrop, a poem ("Hooray for Eileen!") by Michael Swanwick, and notes on each story by Gunn herself.
The collection leads from strength with the title story: a biting satire on corporate infighting, with a wicked nod to Kafka's Metamorphosis. "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" is uncommonly witty and ferociously accurate about the cubicle world in which so many of us live and work. In much the same way that William Gibson is the poet laureate of cyberspace, Gunn is surely one of our great poets of the contemporary workplace.
Satire has been the backbone of Gunn's career, beginning with her first professional sale (to Amazing Stories, in 1978), which is reprinted in this collection. "What Are Friends For?" is a slight, gentle send-up of anthropologists and the porn industry, but already alive with the barbed humor, and the delight in linguistic mimicry, which she will bring to perfection in her later fiction. Another of Gunn's targets takes a direct hit in "Computer Friendly," a skewed look at a humanity in thrall to its own computer technology (featuring a "Norton Utility" punningly derived from The Honeymooners). In "The Sock Story," Gunn again plumbs our relationship with inanimate objects, though this time the plot line is furnished, not by a piece of electronic technology, but by (of course) a missing sock. One of the best of the collection's satires, rivaled only by the title story, is "Fellow Americans." An alternate history featuring Richard Nixon hosting a TV game show called Tricky Dick, the story offers dead-on impersonations of Dick and Pat, Geraldo Rivera, Dan Quayle, and others.
Given her well-deserved reputation as a satirist, it may come as a surprise to some readers that Gunn is an equally adept writer of straight-ahead, character-centered stories. In "Coming to Terms," for example, Gunn presents a quietly moving account of what the dead leave behind. Written in memory of the late Avram Davidson, the story effectively demonstrates how "the mind and the heart, curiously, transcend time" (74). Another such gem is "Contact," about the encounter, on a distant planet, between a lone Russian cosmonaut and a huge, alien bird. It is an ambitious, psychologically acute story that transforms its familiar first contact materials into a fresh, insightful exploration of thoughts and feelings. Uninflected by Gunn's more characteristic ironies, "Contact" is a poignant meditation on the possibilities (and impossibilities) of authentic understanding.
Other stories in the collection suggest an even wider reach to Gunn's versatility. "Spring Conditions," for instance, is a pitch-perfect horror story. "Lichen and Rock" is a fairy tale from the future about, well, change—and about truth and lies, and education, and happiness, and ethics, and much else besides. And for pure gonzo invention, it's hard to imagine anything the equal of "Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp"—an actual recipe that "can be adapted to please most castes, creeds, pocketbooks, and political persuasions" (113), accompanied by a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek explication de texte.
Further testimony to Gunn's versatility comes in the collection's pair of non-solo stories. As Gibson admiringly points out in his introduction, she is "that rarest of critters, the nerd with gloriously ample social skills" (xiii), and both of her collaborations in this collection show just how well she plays with others. In "Nirvana High," co-written with Nebula Award winner Leslie What, we are treated to a cheeky and amusing tour of Cobain High, with its student body of telepaths, levitators, precogs, and genial losers. The final story in the volume is "Green Fire," a round-robin composition teaming Gunn with Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick. The four of them take as their starting point the fact that Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Base in 1943. Throw in an appearance by Grace Hopper (an early computer engineer, and the programmer who gave us the term "bug"), add a cameo by L. Sprague de Camp, garnish with some bare-breasted girl pirates and a ship that phase-shifts through different dimensions, and you've got the perfect wild tale with which to end this collection of wild tales.
The book has been a long time in coming, but the results are well worth the wait. On the evidence of Stable Strategies and Others, one devoutly wishes that there not be another quarter-century hiatus before Gunn's next book-length appearance in print.