Eileen Gunn, Stable Strategies and Others

Eileen Gunn is a writers’ writer; highly esteemed in the science fiction community, but not as well-known as she ought to be outside it. Hopefully the publication of her first-ever book, a collection of her short stories, Stable Strategies and Others will change that.
Gunn’s stories are witty, oblique, subtly uncanny, and surprising in the ways that they continually shift perspectives and perceptions. Aside from that it’s difficult to characterize them, as they are all quite different from one another.
As a longtime Nixonologist, my favorite story here is “Fellow Americans.” This story slyly imagines an alternative history in which Richard Nixon quits politics after his losses for the Presidency in 1960, and for Governor of California in 1962, and instead finds inner peace and fulfillment in the New Hollywood as a TV game show host. The image of the “greening” of Nixon is hilarious — he even takes LSD! — but behind this the story says a lot about the 1960s, and the hidden links between America’s official culture, its so-called counterculture, and the way the media embrace everything: so that we are not so much a “society of the spectacle” as one in which spectacle is tamed and cut down to size: events are captured, homogenized, and shrunk down to fit the small screen.
Every American fiction writer ought to write about Nixon: his story is as basic for our culture as the Oedipus myth and the Trojan War were for the culture of ancient Greece. But thus far, not enough writers have done so. Gunn joins a small select group whose members also include Philip Roth (Our Gang) , Robert Coover (The Public Burning) and Mark Maxwell (Nixoncarver).
Elsewhere in the volume, “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” is a radical postmodern reworking of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” When the narrator is bioengineered into an insect, she doesn’t spend all her time in bed, filled with impotent self-loathing, like Gregor Samsa; rather, she thinks positive and seizes the opportunity — as business gurus like Tom Peters are always exhorting us to do — using her new bodily endowment to work her way up the corporate ladder.
“Nirvana High” (co-written with Leslie What) takes an opposite, but strangely complementary tack, as it imagines how the “loser” culture of Seattle grunge is equally a constituent part of America’s strangely self-deluding image of itself. In a world where Microsoft owns everything, Cobain High is a special high school for paranormals, juvenile delinquents, and other deviant teen sensibilities. Even youthful disaffection and dysfunction has its proper place in the entertainment complex.
My favorite passage in the entire book comes from “Nirvana High”; it’s a gloss on the phrase “Entertain us” (originally from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” of course):

It meant one thing to the teachers, another to the students. To the teachers it meant “pay attention.” To the students it meant “stop whatever you’re doing that’s interesting and do what we want you to do.” To Kurt Cobain, of course, it had meant “stick a shotgun in your mouth.”

All the stories in Stable Strategies and Others are rewarding. Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, their subjects range from alien contact (an old SF staple, dealt with movingly in “Contact”, and with hilarious sleaziness in “What Are Friends For?”) to self-reflexive revisionism (as in the collectively authored “Green Fire,” where a young Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein find themselves drawn into a real-life Golden Age SF adventure).
Like all the best SF, Gunn’s stories don’t so much predict the future as they make visible the otherwise hidden deep currents of our present.

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