“Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication.” - Roland Barthes
EILEEN GUNN is far from prolific. Her first short story appeared as long ago as 1978, but her first collection, Stable Strategies and Others, came out only in 2004. Ten years on, and consisting entirely of stories written in the interim, Questionable Practices is her second book. As in the first collection, there are collaborations; in this case, four stories are co-written with Michael Swanwick and one with Rudy Rucker. In each instance, there are traces of the co-author apparent in the work, though the tone seems to be largely Gunn’s; but you get the impression that she is more comfortable when there is someone else in the mix.
There are other continuities between the two collections, of course. There is a fascination with science fiction authors: “Green Fire” in Stable Strategies features Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp as characters; in the new collection several stories refer back to science fiction in different ways, most notably in “Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005.” There is also a consistent use of jarring narrative shifts, stories that suddenly change pace or focus part way through. “Up the Fire Road”, for instance, is for much of its length a peculiarly tender story of a mismatched couple who encounter a sasquatch and each find themselves sexually attracted to a creature who proves to be far more sophisticated than either of them; but, two thirds of the way through, the story suddenly lurches into a satire of the sort of confessional television show represented by Jerry Springer. Such jaggedness may, of course, be a consequence of the uneven process of collaboration. “Zeppelin City”, co-written with Michael Swanwick, is a curiously steampunkish tale of air duels and limited technologies in which the viewpoint mostly switches between two central characters, until one long section in the middle in which a very minor character suddenly becomes our viewpoint, while the drama is moved along by an irregular series of unforeshadowed revelations. But this uneven narrative structure is as much a characteristic of the solo stories as it is of the collaborations, it is clearly an intentional if at times disconcerting part of the way Gunn constructs her fiction.
But it is the discontinuities between the two collections that is of interest. Her best known story to date, and the one that gave its name to the first collection, is “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” which has at its heart that most common but unappreciated aspect of modern urban life, the office job. There was a sense in those earlier stories that however weird they got, and some of them got very weird indeed, that they all sprang off from the familiar and everyday. Even “Green Fire”, written with Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy and Michael Swanwick, in which Asimov, Heinlein and de Camp find themselves battling Lovecraftian beings from another dimension, begins with the reality that the three authors worked together at the Philadelphia Naval Yard during World War Two. In the new collection, however, the starting point is more commonly other stories, or perhaps more pertinently other myths. They are what John Clute would term told tales, stories that distort, undermine or otherwise play with our expectations of familiar stories, yet whose effect ultimately relies upon that very familiarity it is supposedly overthrowing. As Barthes would have it, they are dependent upon the fact that the material that constitutes the story is already worked.
One of the best stories in the collection, for instance, is “Chop Wood, Carry Water”, which is a recapitulation of the familiar legend of the golem of Prague. Here the novelty is introduced by having the story told in the first person by the golem himself, who proves to be a gentle figure who craves nothing more than to return to the oblivion of clay. It is a beautifully told fable in which he loses his strength when he accepts money, and regains it only after an act of charity that seems pregnant with consequence though what that consequence might be we are never told. But it works so well only because it is a variant on a story we know already, for all the novelty of the point of view, it actually takes us nowhere new.
And that sense of familiarity is a consistent, and in some cases a fundamental component of most of these stories. “The Steampunk Quartet”, for example, is a set of four very brief pastiches of, in turn, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “The Night of the Cooters” by Howard Waldrop, Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, and Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter. The fact that each of the four features, as a character, a real person who is introduced in a brief afterword suggests that they were written as part of some specific project, though what that might have been is nowhere explained. Another separate pastiche of science fiction comes in “No Place to Raise Kids”, in which Kirk and Spock flee the sexual constraints of Star Trek amid a landscape of plastic trees and styrofoam rocks. However, the way that these pieces subtly undermine of invert the original is apparent only because we are already familiar with the tale being told. In the case of the Star Trek parody, in fact, it is a familiarity with Kirk-Spock slash fiction that is demanded.
Indeed, so implicit is this sense of twice-told tales in the collection that there are even two stories that deliberately echo each other. The echo is made explicit in the opening sentences of the two stories, both of which are written in collaboration with Michael Swanwick. “The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree”, a charming if somewhat incoherent story that takes its protagonist into the fairyland reached at the top of the Christmas Tree, begins: “It was the middle of the night when the elves came out of the mirrors”. “The Armies of Elfland”, a less charming if more coherent story in which our world is invaded by the forces of faerie, begins: “It was the middle of the night when the mirrors came out of the elves.” The reference to mirrors is a fairly obvious signal that the two stories are meant to reflect each other, particularly as they play no further part in either narrative. In both stories, an elder brother is held captive by enchantment, and an independent-minded sister must use resources that represent her move into adulthood in order to rescue him. In both stories, the sister is aided by a smart if perhaps unreliable companion who must be abandoned along the way; in “The Armies of Elfland” it is her younger brother, in “The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree” it is a talking dog which instantly makes one think of Swanwick’s Darger and Surplus stories.
Where Roland Barthes said “Everything can be a myth”, Eileen Gunn seems to suggest that everything can be made into myth, or at least that the purpose of fiction is to mythologize. When she is not employing familiar mythic figures, the sasquatch, the golem and elves, she is mythologizing science fiction, picking up on our familiarity with authors and tropes to act as the basis of her own fiction. Thus “Thought Experiment” works because we know of the paradoxes that have underlain so many time travel stories. And in “Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!”, an exchange of letters between an author, Eileen Gunn, who spends more time goofing off than actually working, and Michael Swanwick, Chief Creative Officer of a curious outfit that will relieve her guilt and help her write, we recognize a variant of the old story about the shop where writers get their ideas. Indeed, even the structure of the story is one we have encountered many times before. The thing about the mythologizing impulse behind these stories is not that they aren’t new, but rather that we are meant to recognize and appreciate that they aren’t new, it is their very familiarity that is their chief attraction. Howard Waldrop, who contributed an afterword to Stable Strategies, does something similar, and there seems to be an affinity between the two writers. But Waldrop’s work is more evenly plotted and has a lighter touch.
Which may be why the two best stories in this collection, are the two that go against the prevailing trend, that avoid the self-referential mythologizing and the often rather awkward humour. “Hive Mind Man”, written with Rudy Rucker, starts out as a rather jolly satire on our on-line culture. Diane starts a relationship with a slacker, Jeff, who has no obvious means of support and whose one talent seems to be to read the trends of digital fashion, which leads to some rather silly money-making schemes. But then his talent starts to pay off, and the mood darkens, building towards the tragedy of someone overwhelmed by the culture he surfs. There’s a twist at the end, but overall this is still a delicately nuanced tragic tale, with, unusually for this collection, nothing thrown into the mix that isn’t implicit in the situation from the very beginning.
Good as this story is, though, it pales beside the very best piece here. “Phantom Pain” is short and terrible and breathtaking in its ambition and its achievement. It takes the idea of a phantom limb, the way the nerves continue to sense an arm or leg that has been amputated, and expands the notion just a little bit. It tells of a man wounded in war who continues to relive the pain of that vivid moment throughout the rest of his life, so that the jungle track where he was shot and the library where he works or the marital home or the hospital where he ends up become indistinguishable. Pain and memory take away the shape of a life. It is a story that owes nothing to anyone else, it opens up entirely new perspectives for the reader, and if an entire collection made up of such stories might be unendurable, still it shows how much Eileen Gunn can achieve when she lets herself go in new directions.