23 August 2018

Eileen Gunn, Curator of Absurdities

I've been, frankly, chicken to write about Eileen Gunn's fiction, because she's done so much that is important, and her scope is much greater than the books I’ve read to compare to, but I want to say something, so here's my blurtings. I first fell in love with her stories from the collaborations with the equally intimidating to write about Rudy Rucker in Rucker's insanely smart, fun, crazy online magazine Flurb: A Webzine of Astonishing Tales.  (Gunn herself was the key miscreant responsible for an equally addictive but totally different webzine, Infinite Matrix.) But to get a proper dose of Gunn, there's nothing to equal a collection.

These two important collections are like Gunn herself--so supremely cool in their lack of pose yet so richly diverse and deep and generous that you end up learning stuff you didn’t mean to, laughing wryly and getting on top of stuff that was destroying you, getting moved to move the immovable, even feeling deeply about someone you don’t necessarily want to be. Quite Marvelessly, Gunn does this to you with not a superhero in sight. I wondered about her sense of humour and satire, which makes me think first, of Gogol; second, of Norbert Davis; but third, of Nabokov, so I wasn’t surprised to learn she’s fluent in Russian, has lived in many places, and done a great many things, including being a key worker in a corporate hive.

Unlike many writers, especially those who’ve been moulded by an MFA, she doesn’t try to create an absurdity or sprinkle odd things in, or twist the plot, to make some nothingstory quirky.

foreword by William Gibson
afterword by Howard Waldrop

Gunn’s a curator of absurdities--of the real life dimension. I can’t imagine her constructing a story out of the prescribed elements. Nor does she try for tricky interesting language effects. Her own voice when writing about organisations, for instance, seems to burst forth from a well of experience and fedupness (so the very funny and famous "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" told in a matter-of-fact tone, might have sprung from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, but gets far more mileage with readers because it does it with the engineered lightness of, say, David Langford’s The Leaky Establishment).

She is also a constantly curious delver into the generally unknown, so her stories are often like a Cracker Jack box would be, mid-last century, to a five-year old who's eating away till, !!!--for this kid must have lived in a cave far from Howdy Doody tunes and therefore never heard there’s a prize in every box. Awesome knowledge coming as a surprise gift--Jeffrey Ford does this too, and in the hands of writers as smooth and ego-invisible as these two, the stuff we learn is an intrinsic part of what makes the stories so memorable, be it snowflake collecting from Ford, or phantom-limb hauntings from Gunn.

If this were a different time, I wouldn’t compare Gunn to anyone, for I think her stories have their own voices, none of them being anyone but Gunn in service to them, or in her collaborations, a certain seamless synergy that works a treat. My favourite collabs are with Rudy Rucker. These two writers are intimidatingly smart but don’t act or write like that. Instead, this duo produces fun, smart stories that I’d call ‘screwball’ to their own design. And as is usual with their individual works, there’s serious stuff aplenty there--just not with any pretentious labels.

As Gunn has often been called a writer of science fiction, it is in this capacity that I am the most frightened to say anything, for my perception might be too screwy to expose without ridicule, but here goes.

Science fiction has often been burdened by having to be either Present / Future or P \ F. Rarely is it P?! > F?!, which I would define as seeing the future not with any foundation of optimism or pessimism, but with the realism of today’s absurdities continuing to their logical future. This is how I see Lem’s immortal works, and I think it was the ruse of science fiction, and satiric at that, that allowed him free rein to write about the future as fiercely as he regarded the present. I think Gunn does this too, making her science fiction all the more meaningful to this reader.

Mind you, this isn’t some Praise Be session. I don’t love everything she writes. My personal taste prejudices stuck to me like fleas when it came to “The Steampunk Quartet”, first published by Tor. It’s not so much that I’m not into steampunk. I’m not, but I can stomach it when it comes to the brilliant Gail Carriger, though I’m hanging out for her to outgrow steampunk and invent her own new genre. So it's not steampunk in the Quartet that gives me gas, but the towering genius of China Miéville: and since I’ve tied on my concrete boots, I may as well sink myself so deep, my bubbles won't reach the surface, by adding that celebrated “recluse”, Thomas Ligotti. But some of my best friends find much in these two, as they do, one of the most quoted of all authors, the man who penned “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Just kidding. I don’t know anyone but me who admits to a regard for Edward Bulwer-Lytton. No, some of my best friends are Lovecraftians; but we must all see the good in people and ignore the parts every right-minded cephalopod would want treated with extreme prejudice.

imo, Gunn’s best when she writes alone and in her own strong, service-to-her-story way. I think it is her humbleness in the presence of the story itself, that makes her a great writer and natural storyteller.

unquestionably excellent, and 
as with Stable Strategies,
unusually pleasurable 
book design
by John. D. Berry
who also designed the font as though 
he tailored it to fit Gunn.
Published by the excellent,
easy to buy from Small Beer Press

I’ve spoken of her finely honed sense of humour and satire, but she’s got such a broad range that satire is only one of her methods of getting into our heads and hearts. In her aptly titled Questionable Practices (she’s got a great feel for titles) one story above all shows this range. Heartbreaking tragedy is made all the more powerful by the way it is told, with shifting points of view and interjections of painless, succinct Dummies’ level information. In the hands of another writer, this could have turned into a mess, but Gunn’s depth of emotional involvement. knowledge and feel for what she is talking about, and control of her elements makes “Phantom Pain” a perfect story to end this collection--with a resounding whisper. 

EXTRA: The portions of both books that are not fiction are not decoder rings, but positively clutchably precious. There're prizes of info in both collections,
but few other authors will give you, for free, 
a tale of a delicious, successful, lie. 
And a bonus. A Secret that Really Works.