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.

28 February 2018

Nature's post-production techniques

Nature is extravagant. But you, too, can afford what is used here, for it is all open-source.

Natural light, shade, and colours; dissolution, drying, soaking, and a certain amount of rot. Additional lens is 10-60mm thick seawater.

09 January 2018

on The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit by Garry Kilworth

"If I am to be kept in the dark, I have no idea what can be said and what can't. You cannot withhold information from me, simply giving me hints that a crisis is about to occur, then expect me to say the right things."

No, this isn’t Rex Tillerson or anyone in what’s left of the US State Department. It’s James Ovit, truth-telling in the self-deprecatedly titled The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit--dubbed by the publisher all too skeptically “a science fiction novel in three parts”.
A science fiction novel in three parts

This so-called novel is really a journal by one who, wherever he goes, whenever, seems to prove that the more things change...
"I was sleeping with an extra-terrestrial, a creature from outer space, one of those beings that were inscrutable to Homo Sapiens and had to be watched in case they had malevolent designs on my home planet, a world which was by definition better than any other."
though, like the Brexiteers pointed out to their dishonest benefit, experts don’t necessarily know all.
 "One does not have to travel naked through time."
Actually, I copied so many parts of this journal that I found wry truth in, that I should stop here, because you should be the one to get the same thrill that I have. As with all the best kind of fiction (to my taste) the thrill is based on the state of the real world, producing that complexity of reactions--wry, tragic, infuriating, funny, horrific, teetering, touching--all that, and this novel which reeks of integrity and knowledge, manages to be a page turner of the first order.

Although almost no one has heard of The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit, it should be as known as the fiercely funny Glenfiddich Award-winning Something Quite Big about NATO by Alan Davidson, a self-deprecating hard-bitten idealist who'd had to live in a pragmatist's armour till he threw it off, spectacularly with this book of his that had the good fortune to be banned.

But it lacks that thrilling page-turningness and weird disparity mixing that one can rely on in a Garry Kilworth tale. And it also lacks the insane brilliance of tossing three books into the air together to make such a class, fearlessly symmetrical, synergistic act.

As a political satire and intrigue, The Sometimes Spurious Travels Through Time and Space of James Ovit has the quality and timelessness, and often, humour, of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s immortal Yes Minister (Yes, there's a Brexit Special); the added bile of that interstellar traveller Ijon Tichy’s diaries that spanned 30 years of the mortal Stanislaw Lem's life to put to our primitive paper; the added touches of whimsy that remind me of another favourite out-of-this-world diplomat, Henghis Hapthorn, captured in tales by Matthew Hughes

But Garry Kilworth’s creation is entirely his own, with his own style and such an idiosyncratic and rich well of knowledge, life experience and skills he draws on that often, passages aren’t just fascinating, but rather breathtakingly beautiful, like the rainbows on rotted meat.
"When I was a child there was no need to roam far away from one's home because the world came to your kitchen door...the rag 'n' bone man who would give me a goldfish in a jam jar in exchange for any unwanted items (even jam jars from the kitchen waste)...Until I was ten years old, I had not even visited the next village, two miles away. Then my father died of gangrene of the leg when his scythe sliced away part of his calf. He was drunk at the time, having been drawn into the pub on his way back to the hay cutting after dinner one Saturday. He patched himself up, without washing the wound, and finished his day's work. On finding it did not get better, he again treated himself. We could not afford a visit to the doctor believing it would eventually get better on its own. He didn't want to worry his family over a 'scratch'."
And in all this, there are nuggets throughout of matter-of-fact asides, coming out of the blue like elbow jabs from a spirit.
"If we had time travel in the 1950s, it would be passé by now, wouldn't it?"
Oh, and it's a love story, too, cardboard-character free. Outrageous cheek in a political satire, let alone a science fiction whatever.

The worst thing about this unique book is that Garry Kilworth is one of the finest short story writers today, who hasn’t burnt out but should have. He shouldn’t have been able to bring off this ambitious novel, too. But he has. He brings out expectations that he should damn well fulfill. 

So, Garry Kilworth, if you can't, supposedly because you slime out by calling yourself just a writer or something equally weasily, get James Ovit to do it: Change the course of history to make the current history we’re all swimming in, fake.