About Stable Strategies...

A Celebration, an Appreciation, a Meditation and Possibly Even a Shamelessly Blatant Promotion But by No Means a Review of Eileen Gunn's Stable Strategies and Others

This has got to be the coolest book of the year. To begin with, it's elegantly slim and beautifully designed. It has a foreword by William Gibson and an afterword by Howard Waldrop. It contains eleven absolutely essential stories - the entire oeuvre, in fact - written by one of the most important writers in our genre. It even includes a poem by me. ("A poem?" I said when Eileen asked my permission to include it. "Have I written a poem?" I would have sworn not. But as it turns out I had, and as the poem is not only light but occasional and a pastiche to boot, there's no harm done. It was a close thing, though.) To say nothing of the recipe for fruit crisp.

So you want this book, I want this book, and all rational people everywhere, whether they know it or not, want this book. But there's no way I can possibly review it. It's not just the poem or my inclusion among the eighty-some entities (the Fugs, Bill Gates, and the Holy Modal Rounders among them) in the acknowledgments or my blurb on the front cover or my twenty-five percent contribution to a collaborative story included herein or the story that the two of us are working on even as I type these words. Though taken together they do constitute a serious conflict of interest. No, I am disqualified simply because I so desperately love Eileen Gunn's fiction that I can make no pretense of objectivity.

I am a partisan. I refuse to pretend otherwise.

I am too much of a partisan, in fact, to keep silent. So, having made clear exactly where I stand, I beg your indulgence for the disorganized ruminations and digressions that follow. I hardly know where I'm going with this, but that's okay. Those who won't enjoy this rambling and discursive essay have, if they're sensible, bailed already. It's just us here. Let's have some fun.

"Stable Strategies for Middle Management"

"Stable Strategies for Middle Management" is on my short list, along with Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire," Lucius Shepard's "The Beast of the Heartland," and a select few others, of the best short stories of the late twentieth century.

I'm tempted to stop right there. I would, too, if I didn't know from experience how annoying such auctorial power-plays are to the reader. The plot, then, involves a woman who is injecting insect DNA into herself in hopes of evolving into something that will give her an edge in office politics. There's never any explanation of why she's willing to do this and it's likely not a question the protagonist has ever asked herself - it's just an accepted part of corporate culture. Everybody else shoots up and if she doesn't want to be stranded in a dead-end position, so must she. One morning she wakes up with a stiletto tongue and certain urges she cannot control.

What makes this story extraordinary, above and beyond its savage premise, is how, writing from the very heart-flames of a comic inferno par excellence, Gunn yet somehow manages to achieve fairness. My wife, recently promoted to Division Director of Laboratory Improvement at Pennsylvania's Bureau of Laboratories, says this work contains the clearest statement of why she wanted to be in management and what she hopes to accomplish of anything she's ever read. Which is a pretty good trick for something that also explains why I fled that world the first chance I got.

This is, by Eileen's own testimony, an autobiographical piece, prompted by her experiences working for Microsoft and her unhappy realization that those experiences were changing her into something she did not want to be. And yet, listening to her speak on a recent book tour, her account of those years held no bitterness and not a touch of vindictiveness. Speaking to audiences that would have happily received as much dirt as she cared to dish, she had not one unkind word to say about individuals whose names are today household words.

It's that kindness, that sense of fairness, I think that distinguishes Eileen Gunn's fiction. No matter how caustic her satire becomes - and the fumes from this story will flay the skin off your fingers - she never joins the ranks of the vengeful.

And "Stable Strategies" ends happily. Even Franz Kafka, who wrote a rather different story about a human being turning into a bug, couldn't manage that.

"Fellow Americans"

Once upon a time, alternate histories were rare, scholarly enterprises requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the workings of history to show how a single change in recorded fact might have cascaded toward the present with enormous consequence. Then it was demonstrated that the alterations could be arbitrary (what if Dwight Eisenhower had become a jazz musician instead of a general?) and even absurd (what if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?) and still produce a viable story. The sluice gates opened, and things have never been the same since.

"Fellow Americans" is a particularly interesting work because it's a hybrid of the old and new forms. It has a gonzo premise, that if Barry Goldwater had won the Republican nomination in 1968 and gone on to win the presidency, Richard Nixon would have changed careers and become a beloved television celebrity. But the reasoning behind this absurdity and its consequences, has been rigorously worked out. The Nixons did have show-biz friends, and Dick himself made several forays into entertainment, most notably his surreal appearance on "Laugh-In." Goldwater was leaning toward the use of low-yield nukes in Viet Nam.

Eileen read thirty-five books for this story, including all three of Goldwater's autobiographies, a fact which both astonishes and commands admiration. More importantly, she scraped off all the acquired erudition before presenting her meditation on what would have been changed and what would have remained the same.

Change and constancy come together in the person of Barry Goldwater, whose term in office was exactly the disaster - politically, ecologically, and morally - that his worst enemies said it would be, but who was a decent man and deserved better than the sad ending his life comes to in "Fellow Americans," and came to in real life. His tale is genuinely moving.

I came perilously close to feeling a glimmer of sympathy for Richard Nixon here. Close enough to comprehend how his supporters felt about him. He really could have become a television celebrity - though certainly in less antic form than presented here - if he'd been forced out of politics. But, as with Goldwater, character doesn't change simply because history has. The man was a Dick and reshaping all the world wouldn't have altered that one iota.

"Computer Friendly"

So there's this little girl named Elizabeth whose dad is taking her to be tested. He's nervous, though he tries not to show it, and he urges her to do her best and to behave herself perfectly. She makes new friends and one drops a remark the reader knows, even though she doesn't, means the loser kids will euthanized. This being a science fiction story, we know where this is going, don't we?

Only, actually, no, we don't. For the world of "Computer Friendly" doesn't just weed out the troublemakers and underachievers, it prepares the survivors for a fate that's not a whole lot better. Elizabeth's dad takes hours after work to become fully himself, and when she asks what her mother does, he explains, "She's a processing center, sweetheart, that talks directly to the CPU. She uses her brain to control important information and tell the rest of the computer what to do. And she give the whole system common sense." Everyone is hooked into the system, and the system so diminishes them that they can't see what it's made of them.

Until Elizabeth goes trolling for a way to save her friends from a fate that nobody will explain to her.

This is either awfully optimistic for such a dark work, or awfully dark for such an optimistic story. The forays into the immersive worlds of childhood and of computers are a great deal of fun, and the menace therein (particularly a glimpse of her dehumanized older brother) genuinely scary. So I have to wonder if the ending is the result of an innate quirk in Gunn's makeup that refuses to admit to despair, or a more practical working writer's knowledge that the one sin the reader will not forgive is the death of a child. In either case, it works.

"Computer Friendly" was nominated for a Hugo in 1990, which in computer-and-or-dog years is several lifetimes ago, and I've read reviews that suggest the technology is outdated. But as a story, it's still as fresh and convincing as it was the day it was taken out of the oven.

"The Sock Story"

Sometimes the words tell you what to say. Here's an excellent example of that phenomenon. "The Sock Story" begins: "This is the story of a woman who lost her sock at the laundromat and discovered it contained a part of her soul."

So, okay, we're talking hard-core whimsy here. But go with it. The story's short. It was also, miraculous to relate, written in a single day. You have to respect an accomplishment like that.

Here's how I reconstruct it:

Gunn wrote the story, she tells us, "after an emotional experience with some wet socks." But isn't it more likely that she wrote the first line after that experience? Yes. Then, recognizing that it was good, that it addressed something we all take far more seriously than we should, she wrote the rest of the paragraph: "This is the way the story is always told. It was told to me this way and I will tell it to you this way. There is no other way to tell this story."

The influence of Gary Snyder is strong here (I know because she tells us so), and through him the influence of native storytellers. Once you let those oral rhythms flow from your mind through your body and out your fingers, you've magnetized your entire somatic and nervous systems. Try humming all but the last note of a famous musical phrase (the leitmotif to Beethoven's Fifth, for example) to a musician and see how frantically your victim completes it. Something similar happens to writers.

So, the story begun with a traditional formula, the narration had to drop back to the beginning - the laundromat - and what the woman was doing at the time of her loss - the laundry. Word by word, the logic of what came before dragged Gunn deeper and deeper into the dark woods of Story. She had little or no say in the matter. She could go along cheerfully, or she could go along kicking and screaming and digging in her heels. In the long run, what difference would it have made? None.

You might object that she could always turn around and run. But having gotten so far, no writer worth her salt could have resisted telling what comes next: How the woman's foot first rebels against her and then leads her to the missing sock. How the regaining of the sock proves more difficult than expected and how then she manages to win it back anyway. (True to the folkways of the author's tribe, money is involved.) Finally, having reached a resolution, the words demanded that the story have a formulaic close, one that echoed the opening without repeating it, that extended the original conceit that crucial inch onward.

It isn't quite that easy, of course. There's a Freudian slip in the middle of the story that no traditional storyteller would have employed. But Gunn isn't a traditional storyteller, not yet, and among her people the Freudian slip is a perfectly acceptable literary device. The voice has three strands, one colloquial, one storyteller-formal, and the third print-formal, and each one wraps around and supports the others, and this too is an artifact of a written-word culture.

But in a crucial sense, all Eileen had to do was follow the words.

That's my story, and if it isn't true, there's nothing you can do about it. This is not the way the author tells it, but how do you know she isn't lying too? Writers do that, you know. It's our profession. So you're just going to have to take my word for it.

"Coming to Terms"

Serious readers of the ephemera and marginalia of genre already know that this story, in which a woman returns to her dead father's house to sort through and clear away his possessions, was inspired by Gunn's experience helping to sort through and clear away Avram Davidson's possessions after he died. Those same people may well be aware that Gunn has been working on a biography of Davidson since shortly after that apartment-scouring. So it would be easy for them to conclude that this work is about the relationship between the two writers.

Easy, but wrong. "I didn't have a relationship with Avram," Eileen told me, and that's exactly why "Coming to Terms" took her years to write. She needed that long to figure it out.

I watched this story being made, read a prior draft or two, cheered it on, made suggestions, offered insights, and lived to see it come to fruition in the same form it would have eventually reached without any of my meddling. Nor, I am sure, am I the only one to have done so. The experience has left me feeling a warm camaraderie with Howard Waldrop who in his "Afterwards" exults in having finally found a serious author who writes even slower than he does. What a delight it is to discover at last someone whose writing process is even more convoluted and painful than my own! There are times when getting a story to make sense is a lot like being a one-armed man trying to smash his own elbow with a hammer. Why would anyone put himself through so much agony? I forget.

Anyway, the protagonist is going through her estranged father's things, and finds notes. Brilliant notes. The sort of notes that make you want to see them gathered up and preserved in a book, were it not for the fact that no editor would buy such a book, no publisher print it, and only a handful of Avramophiles read it. Here's one, found stuck on an herb-jar: The odor of wild thyme, Pliny tells us, drives away snakes. Dionysus of Syracuse, on the other hand, thinks it an aphrodisiac. The Egyptians, I am told, used the herb for embalming, so I may yet require the whole of this rather large packet. Magisterial pronouncements such as this one give no hint whatsoever as to exactly what went wrong in the relationship between father and daughter (we never do find out) but they neatly suggest the magnitude of the loss.

Enter an intruder, a feral child. He brings violence into the hushed, book-filled sanctuary of the protagonist's mournful coming-to-terms. He cannot be reasoned with. He cannot be gentled or tamed. Yet, somehow, he must be dealt with. And here Gunn came to that moment that comes to all writers (some, God bless them, come to it and zip right past so swiftly they never even notice the problem they have just surmounted; but these are not many) when the story must be understood in order for it to progress to its natural and inevitable conclusion. Hence those years of hesitation.

The problem is neatly summed up shortly before the conclusion: "But is it possible to know and understand anything? Is the past always gone? Is it possible to make peace with the dead?"

And the answer? Yes and no, I'd say. Go read the story.

"Lichen and Rock"

"How on earth did you ever manage to write this?" I asked Eileen at one of her appearances on the book tour for Stable Strategies and Others. She spoke then of a moving story she'd heard a Native American woman tell of being sent away to school as a child and, since she never saw her parents again, not knowing why it was done. Then, because Gunn (quite properly) felt she had no right to tell that woman's story and had to write her own, she put in a whale-shaped rock she used to play on in her childhood, converted the story to science fiction, and struggled for years to find the language in which to tell it.

But that evades the question. It tells us the "how," but not the "how on earth." Because the narrative she found for the story is fluid and changing, that of a tale being told so long after the fact that even the narrator doesn't trust its truth, one moreover in which crucial elements can be introduced or dismissed without warning by a few offhand words, one in which all the world is in a constant state of flux and transformation.

It is very hard to retain the reader's trust under such conditions.

Yet Gunn does. In part it's her calm, authoritative voice. "A very long time ago," she writes, "when the world was young and whales swam in the ocean, the rock had been a real whale. But because it splashed the Changer, it had been turned into a rock, good only for children to play on. This is why you should be careful when you are swimming and not splash other people." You can get a lot of mileage out of the most outrageous statements when you don't waste time trying to explain or convince.

In part it's her balance. The story never goes over the edge, though once or twice it comes close.

But mostly it's something I can't explain. The story is building toward a sensible conclusion when Lichen escapes her school and, coming home, finds everything changed. Her beloved stone is gone and the people are different. "They had been retooled, and parts of their bodies seemed to be attached in the wrong places - heads at the ends of their arms, hands where their heads should be. Instead of feet, they had hearts or livers." So Lichen has to find closure somewhere else, because her story has become irrelevant in her absence. Nor is this the last time that the protagonist falls out of one universe of discourse into another. The world of "Lichen and Rock" has no solid ground underfoot (literally so, sometimes) and is in constant danger of dissolution.

Now, I understand what Eileen has done here. She's written a story about change which, appropriately enough, itself changes several times within the narration. She's made the theme the story and the story the embodiment of the theme. She's tied it all up very neatly and satisfactorily.

But how on earth did she ever manage to write it?


"Contact" originally appeared in Proteus: New Voices for the Eighties, which was an anthology of stories that the publisher regretted having bought for an sf anthology series called Destinies. For decades I've told people that not my first published story but my first story sold appeared in an anthology in which the only thing worth reading was by Eileen Gunn.

Re-reading it today, "Contact" seems an even more interesting work than it did then. It reads very much like a James Tiptree Jr. story, but without Tiptree's tragic world-view. It braids two narratives, that of an intelligent alien on her final, ecstatic death-flight and that of a human scientist trying to make contact with the alien's extremely aloof race, into something both moving and uplifting.

Alex Zamyatin, the scientist, manages to capture Girat, the alien, before her final flight is complete, leaving her with only a short span of life before her inevitable death and a great need to explain why she should be freed in order to die properly. The Size Seven off-the-rack plot for this setup goes as follows: The well-meaning scientist tries to save the alien, the alien can't understand his motives, and in her agonized death the human's criminal culpability is made clear to him. Only it doesn't. Mutual understanding is achieved, a brief friendship is established, and Girat dies fulfilled. The story ends with a quiet moment of apotheosis whose ultimate meaning is left open.

When I first read "Contact," admire it though I did, I wasn't sure how I felt about that ending. I appreciated the originality, but I wondered if predictable, conventional ending wouldn't have been stronger. Now, though, I'm sure that Eileen chose wisely.

Stronger isn't always better.

Proteus being, as I said before, an afterthought, by the time it came out, the first North American serial rights in my (and presumably everybody else's) contract had reverted. I wrote to the publisher pointing this out and was told that nevertheless the contract gave them the right to reprint the story. I was free to re-sell first rights, provided I found a market that could bring it to print within two months. Fine, I said. If this is a reprint, then you owe me money for it. So they sent me a check for $15.31.

I hope Eileen got her check too, but I suspect you had to kick up a storm to get anything at all from that crew. No matter, though. Neither of us ever sold Destinies anything else, or tried to in my case, the money is spent or else it never was decades ago, and all that remains is Eileen's story, gentle and wise, shining in the palm of your hand like a precious stone you lost long years ago and only found just now.

Of my own story, the less said the better.

"What Are Friends For?"

Eileen's first published story is told in an invented urban street-kid slang (exactly how old these guys are is unclear - old enough to enjoy sex shows, young enough to lob a cherry bomb as a prank) in a world which has, for its own good, been taken over by "snakeheads," aliens who look pretty much as the name implies. By chance the young hoodlums discover the snakeheads' intentions: To move the ablest and most adaptable (that includes Our Heroes of course) to fresh new planets, while scrapping the old, depleted Earth and its unfit members (the rich, mostly). Of course, in order to keep from overpopulating these new worlds, the survivors will have to be neutered first...

But the kids like the world the way it is, battered and filthy and comfortable. So they trick the adults - er, aliens - into preserving it by displaying the eminently studyable cultural richness of our sexual mores. Water sports, rubber fetishes, and all.

What Gunn did here was to flip over the rock of a cherished fantasy to reveal the creepy-crawly stuff going on underneath it. A brand-new unspoiled world! Only for us and our friends, not the fat bastards who run things now! So what if we have no experience with farming, governance, or any other useful skill? This time, we'll do it right!

Well, hooey.

The victory is awfully glibly achieved, but that seems to me an integral part of the story's critique of genre's embrace of comforting fantasies and easy solutions. The problem falls into your hands, somebody with the power to set things straight happens to be right there, and a moment's thought and a couple of back-of-the-counter magazines later, you've (ta-daaa!) saved the world. If only things were that simple in real life.

"Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp"

This is a recipe for fruit crisp.

"Spring Conditions"

"Spring Conditions" was composed early in Gunn's career for a newspaper horror short-story competition in which it failed to make the top five hundred stories. Yet it is beautifully written. Could there have possibly been so many stories submitted that were better? It seems unlikely.

So what went wrong?

Maybe the fact that it was inspired by a dream. Dream-logic is compelling in dream but in the waking state... not. I didn't understand the compulsion that overcomes Mia at the end and causes her to surrender to her fate, nor the calmness with which she taps the toe clamps with her pole before stepping out of her skis in order to do so. Though that is a terrific bit of writing.

Maybe the form was simply wrong for Gunn's talents. An acknowledged master of the form like Stephen King will take something simple - a crate with a hole in it, say, and in the darkness within a beast with very sharp teeth - and work it for all it's worth. Slowly, laboriously, the unlucky protagonist figures out what must be within the crate. Then he assures himself this can't possible be so. He decides to stick his hand in. He hesitates. He scolds himself for doing so. A second attempt to insert his hand is thwarted by a sudden noise from within the crate. Again he hesitates. But the reader knows that sooner or later the poor schmuck will stick his hand in the crate and that the rest of the story - and that story will go on for a long time indeed - will be a graphic description of how he is slowly eaten and pulled through that little hole, until there is nothing left of him.

Give the man his due. King really knows how to milk the moose.

For the early parts of the story, Gunn stays with the formula. But the pace quickens after Mia's boyfriend Zed is finally pulled under the ice by what might be animated corpses and drowns. Her flight back to the lodge is only half the length of what came before, and the final resolution transpires with the speed of a swoon. So maybe Gunn simply couldn't stand the tedium of repetition that writing horror entails.

Or maybe, and this is as likely as either of the other theories offered, I got it wrong. I don't particularly like horror fiction and I have no special feel for its virtues. It's possible I'm just the wrong audience for this.

Could be. Don't know. Your call.

"Nirvana High"

Leslie What co-wrote "Nirvana High" with Eileen Gunn and for the life of me I can't tell who wrote what. Let that stand as a compliment to them both.

The story itself is a satiric take on what is almost unsatirizable - life in a contemporary American high school. It's liberally salted with such Seattle localisms as Kurt Cobain, Boeing, and Microsoft, and it tells us what we already know, that high school is something to be survived, that you do so by playing dumb, and that, above all, in such a setting there's nothing you can do about anything.

The twist here is that the protagonist, Barbara, and her classmates are all special-ed because they have psychic powers. Some can teleport, others are precogs, and far too many can push their way into your brain and root out your private thoughts so they can be made fun of.

That children with special talents should be treated as troublemakers and put into the same school as active criminals is hardly satire at all. I think here of a boy in my son's eighth grade class who terrorized the school by physically assaulting other students and even teachers but could not be expelled because he was identified as being MG - Mentally Gifted - and MG students were classified as special-ed and thus extended the special protections given the retarded.

But the satiric elements can still serve as comic color to alleviate the grimness of the setting. So students float to the ceiling, telepaths pluck test answers out of the air, and the chemistry teacher channels a maniac version of Linus Pauling. So what if he almost kills them all? At least it isn't boring.

In the afterword, Gunn writes that the story was shelved for some years after Columbine and that in the interim such wildly satiric elements as metal detectors, suicide counselors, and corporate sponsorship had made their way into real high school life. Let this stand as a salutary reminder that artists should never allow good taste to taint their work.

"Green Fire"

Gunn's afterword (her afterwords to the stories in this book are invariably graceful and interesting) to "Green Fire" comes very close to telling the truth about how the story came to be. It was written for Ellen Datlow's Event Horizon website; the bit of whimsy upon which the tale is built was originally mine, though I never had any plans to turn it into a story; Susan Casper's suggestion that the four authors conspire beforehand in violation of the rules that Ellen laid out was crucial; and the arrangement we came up with was such that Pat Murphy, Andy Duncan, and Eileen herself had to do furious amounts of research while I got to simply make things up.

I'm craftier than I look.

What Eileen doesn't mention - and I think that Pat and Andy will back me up here - is that all the very best stuff in the story was written by Ms Gunn herself. While Andy and Pat were conscientiously crafting serious portraits of Robert Heinlein and Grace Hopper respectively, and I was gleefully throwing any damn-fool thing I could think of (topless female pirates! plesiosaurs! Quetzlcoatl!) into the mix, it was Eileen who shaped the story and discovered its meaning.

Oh, and the plot. Well, it's simple enough. Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, both employed at the Philadelphia Naval Yards during World War II, get involved with the so-called Philadelphia Experiment - teleporting battleships. The computer pioneer Grace Hopper, she who first named computer glitches "bugs," is their commanding officer. Stuff happens. They swear eternal secrecy. The end.

It's a good story, if I do say so myself, but if you're expecting nothing more than a first-rate entertainment, then the greater part of it contains no surprises. Hopper puts her foot down, Heinlein gets his back up, and the topless female pirates jump up and down. There are unforeseen plot twists and sudden revelations. All ends well. Given the premise, and the caliber of participants, you'd expect nothing less.

Ah, but then we come to Isaac. Asimov - gentle, geekily brilliant, and only half a step away from being a draft dodger - is the heart and soul of "Green Fire." Eileen's is surely not the most flattering portrayal Asimov has ever received. But it's easily the most convincing. The comic persona he created for himself is stripped away. The shtick remains, but it's just the mouthings of a nervy Jewish kid from Brooklyn. His weaknesses are on open display, particularly his chronic inability to assert an equal status with Heinlein, but so are his virtues, including his refusal to knuckle under to the man anyway. It's a full and rounded portrait that turns Asimov into the protagonist, the bleeding and blushing individual whose fate we care about. He walks away with the show.

As did Eileen Gunn.

I only collaborate with people I think I might learn something from, and it's been a long time since I was impressed by mere craft. Morever, as an American male born at the midpoint of the Twentieth Century, I was raised to be insanely competitive. So I was watching my compeers' every move like a hawk. Nevertheless, and with competition from three sides, Eileen walked away with the show. I can think of no higher praise for a writer than that.

It was a privilege working with her.

I liked the recipe too.

© 2005 by Michael Swanwick who lives in a state of constant disorganization.

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