There are writers who have produced a small number of stories which nevertheless outshine the massive output of others. Has Daniel Keyes ever equaled "Flowers for Algernon"? Has Jerome Bixby equaled "It's a Good Life"? Eileen Gunn is another such author; a writer of incredibly wry and imaginative stories but hardly one of SF's most prolific. But she is by no means a one-brilliant-story writer. "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," for instance, is possibly her best-known story: it must come high in any list of best SF short stories, although it missed out on the Hugo. "Coming to Terms," however, won a Nebula in 2004. Questionable Practices, Gunn's first collection in ten years (although the four stories making up "The Steampunk Quartet" have been published separately), is made up of sixteen stories and a poem. Two stories, "Chop Wood, Carry Water" and "Phantom Pain," are original and certainly justify the price of admission even for those who have read the rest elsewhere.
"Up the Fire Road" is narrated by Andrea and Christy, a somewhat mismatched couple who come across a sasquatch while on a hiking trip. They are naked in a hot spring at the time. Unsurprisingly, sex ensues, though the experience as described by Christy and Andrea in turn has major contradictions that leave us in doubt about "Mickey." The result is an appearance on one of those daytime TV shows devoted to finding entertainment in the dysfunctional. It's a strange collision of the numinous and slapstick comedy which sets the tone for the collection and reminds us that Gunn's short fiction is often designed to hit the sweet spot on several levels at once. "Chop Wood, Carry Water" is a more poignant tale, narrated by a golem who, in the course of the story, loses his strength and suffers an existential crisis. While he regains his strength through an act of charity, there is a much bleaker parable at the heart of the golem's tale. The golem, of course, was created to do more than the menial tasks of the title. The famous sixteenth-century legend tells how the golem of Prague was stored in the synagogue's attic, ready to be recalled to life if needed. Narrating his story, the golem is aware of how he failed to protect his people.
"No Place to Raise Kids" is K/S fan-fiction raised to its ultimate level: a short shocker of a squib with a kick in its tail. In contrast, "The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree" and "The Armies of Elfland," two of the four stories written in collaboration with Michael Swanwick, have the kick and the shock and the meta-fantasy elements of "No Place," but with greater reward. Are they two stories or (given that the opening line of the first is mirrored in the second, and that Swanwick's account of the collaboration seems to suggest that the stories were composed concurrently) one story told two different ways? The first takes the dark anxiety of children's fiction in its story of a Winter intrusion by elves. Neil Gaiman's Coraline is possibly echoed, though "Trains" and Coraline may possibly be reacting to common sources: one character is named Chesterton and I feel echoes of Madeleine L'Engle, C. S. Lewis, and Lewis Carroll. The second is a more adult tale (though the human protagonists are children and the senseless cruelty of the elves here may reflect the child's view of the adult world), more epic in its scope and more closely plotted as an intrusion/invasion story. Read together, they linger unsettlingly in the mind, leaving you wishing for expansion into novel-length. As does the wonderfully sardonic poem "To the Moon Alice," in which a bullied housewife escapes by means of one of those backyard spaceships SF characters built in the 1950s. But it's the charge of the shorter length which gives each work its impact, of course. I suspect that if either or both of the elves stories had been expanded, this charge would have been lost.
"Speak, Geek" has a canine narrator who is a computer coder being tempted to work on a project which will call into question his species-driven loyalty to humans—although the finest part of the joke is the way Gunn is able to use the real meaning of the word "geek" in such an almost offhand but entirely appropriate way. "Hive Mind Man" is a collaboration with Rudy Rucker, bringing the dreams of a rather unpleasant web-worker, Jeff ("I surf the trends" [p. 113]), and his even more unpleasant employers to fruition in an orgasmic pantheistic one-with-nature meta-communication. "Thought Experiment" is Gunn's take on the time-travel story; like many of the stories here an extended joke which moves into paradox: Drumm, the time-traveler, manages to achieve the technology of time-travel without understanding the nature of time, with unfortunate results.
"Shed That Guilt!", a third Swanwick collaboration, is presented as a series of letters between Gunn (as unproductive writer) and Swanwick (as CEO of a firm whose product is guaranteed to turn nobodies into best-selling writing machines) which apparently did begin as letters between Gunn and Swanwick on the Clarion West website, with Gunn gloriously picking up on Swanwick's joke, and, as he puts it, being fooled into writing a story. Swanwick also appears as a character in "Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005" and as co-writer of a fourth story, "Zeppelin City," of which more later.
The "Steampunk Quartet," parodying Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters," China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and K. W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, is perhaps the most problematic read: sharp amusing parodies of the original but rather puzzling to me until I learned (from the collection's website) that they use winners of a charity auction as characters. "Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005" is second only to this in strangeness, a weird mélange of fiction and nonfiction that originally appeared in Foundation 101 (2007) and is described in the subtitle as "output from a nostalgic, if somewhat misinformed, guydavenport storybot, in the year 2115." I have never read the fiction of Guy Davenport, who played similar games with fictionalized-historical stories, but this seems much more successful than the Steampunk Quartet, with the two titular authors conversing about the status of writers in the United States in a dislocated, dreamlike service station and departing to (perhaps) change the course of history. (Very) loosely based upon Swanwick's account to Gunn of an actual journey with Delany—Gunn in a reply to Swanwick's blog post says that one exchange quotes actually what was said, but "[f]rankly, I don't actually remember anything else you may have said about that trip"—this is Gunn at her most playful; a story written for a "small and rarified audience" made up of the person who told her about that trip, but well worth sharing with the rest of us.
"Zeppelin City," the fourth collaboration with Swanwick, is a baroque mash-up featuring airships, a Hall of Naked Brains who seem to hold totalitarian power over humanity, an aviatrix named Amelia Spindizzy (think Earhart), a kid-genius called Radio Jones and a whole host of pop-cultural references to Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, Frank Lloyd Wright, and no doubt a host of others I've failed to pick up on. On first reading, it seems like a retro throw-everything-into-the-mix celebration of science fiction as it used to be (except that in the Good Old Days neither Amelia nor Radio Jones would be female, and the new order to be built after the liberation would not be so obviously communist). On second reading, it suggests more strongly that those "exceptions" are the point. Is it more, though, than a lovely pastiche? On third reading, I found that its greatest effect was the visual impact and the evocative re-creation of the romance of air-combat (the "Red Baron," von Richthofen, is quoted at the end) which was a feature of so much popular fiction after World War One. This "romance" is rather dangerous to be caught up in—the whole "knights of the air" thing of World War One air aces is, after all, the glorification of brutal warfare rather than something chivalric and utopian—and there is, I think, a careful undercutting of the story's gung-ho action at the end. The pictures in the prose throughout are wonderful: the story cries out to be turned into a comic book.
The final story, "Phantom Pain," has all of Gunn's originality but not so much of her quirky humor, which in this case makes it more moving and thought-provoking. We are in the mind of a marine, shot in jungle warfare, or an old man, being eased out of his life by his doctor and family. Just as the phenomenon of a phantom limb gives pain where there is no physical limb to be painful, so Ed's memories are triggered by his forthcoming death. Apart from the explanation of phantom pain, and the time-jumping, there is no real science-fictional content, and the placing of these last two stories are a touch of genius, as a successful piece of genre-celebration is succeeded by an equally successful touch of empathy and the collection is brought to a close by focusing upon a moment of universal humanity. I loved this story.
Every comment I read about Eileen Gunn's writing centers around an almost legendary lack of productivity. Nagging writers to keep up with the consuming potential of their readers seems to be a popular pastime (see George R. R. Martin fandom). It is also (though often done with the best of intentions) somewhat mean-spirited. It is best to celebrate Questionable Practices because one of our finest short story writers has a book out. Both on her own, and in collaboration with Swanwick (whose contributions to this volume shouldn't be underestimated), Gunn's is a voice we are privileged to hear.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham, and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "Teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.