Plenty of science fiction and fantasy authors do "thought experiments" — but few of them disregard experimental safety protocols with quite as much gleeful abandon as Eileen Gunn. And now, at long last, Gunn is publishing a second book of demented tales.
Gunn's new book Questionable Practices comes out in March from Small Beer Press, but we got hold of an early copy and were excited to delve into the strange imagination of Gunn. For those who've missed out on her writing, this former Microsoft exec published a book of jarring stories, Stable Strategies and Others, ten years ago, and also published the webzine Infinite Matrix.
True to form, Gunn's new book, Questionable Practices, contains a number of sardonically weird looks at the future and the strangeness of corporate culture. But her insatiable eye for weirdness branches out this time around, featuring a number of different takes on the fantastical.
There is also a good deal of silliness in Questionable Practices, which should be welcomed by anyone who's gotten tired of the pervasive stiff upper lip in SF and fantasy of late. From outright spoofs to metafictional pranks to sarcastic mischief, Gunn is constantly winking at the reader, while also packing tons of clever ideas. And just when you least expect it, she drops a serious truth bomb.
In terms of theme and subject matter, the stories in this book are all over the map. You can read her four-part steampunk pastiche online,and her bizarre metafictional piece of Kirk/Spock slash fiction is also online. But you can also read her strange Christmas fairytale, a collaboration with Michael Swanwick, which starts out goofy and slowly becomes sadder and sadder. Also online: "Zeppelin City," another collaboration with Swanwick that includes both derring-do and abundant strangeness.
My favorite pieces in this book, in fact, are generally the ones in which there's a surprising weight behind Gunn's flights of fancy. Including the Christmas story, "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree," which turns into a coming-of-age tale with kind of a heavy message. Similarly, another collaboration with Swanwick, "The Armies of Elfland," involves a young girl learning some harsh lessons and facing some serious heartbreak in the midst of all the weirdness. Both of these stories feel like the kind of dark fables that a lot of young-adult book authors have aimed for of late, but Gunn (and Swanwick) take themto darker places and bring an amazing inventiveness to them that add to the feeling of going on a real journey.
And on the "dark fabulist" tip, probably my favorite story in the book is the previously unpublished "Chop Wood, Carry Water," which is told from the point of view of a Golem who is mystified by his own soulless existence and just wants to return to being inanimate clay. The Golem tries to understand what it is to be alive, and the meaning of Jewishness, even as terrible things are threatened for the small Jewish settlement he lives in.
But Gunn also turns her satirical eye on several characters whose self-delusions get them into trouble. In "Up the Fire Road," she tells the story from both the contradictory POVs of a man and a woman, who are both kind of awful people, and both of whom end up having a romantic/sexual relationship with a sasquatch that winds up turning them into television stars. In "Hive Mind Man," a collaboration with Rudy Rucker, she follows another dreadful romance, involving a man who takes our obsession with smart gadgets and social media to a horrendous extreme.
In between these strange satires and the bizarre fairy tales, there are also straight-up spoofs, such as the Star Trek and steampunk things linked above, plus a metafictional tale about Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany eating hamburgers.
The overwhelming feeling you get after you finish reading Questionable Practices is one of oppression — Gunn is not using fanciful writing and silly spoofs to liberate you, as a lot of other writers would, but to show how you're being crushed by systems that make no sense. There are a lot of stories about enslavement and imprisonment here, and in none of them does liberation turn out to be as simple as people imagine.
Her first book was described as "Kafkaesque," but here she's moved beyond the Kafka riff into something harder to pin down — there are plenty of surreal touches, but also a lot of hints that our own subjectivity, our ways of constructing ourselves, are at the root of how we become enslaved.
If you've been wishing your science fiction and fantasy short stories had a bit more mischief lately, then Eileen Gunn's Questionable Practices is guaranteed to shake things up.