03 October 2004

Stable Strategies 2

And now to the substance of Stable Strategies and Others, the stories themselves. I've decided to read them in the order they are included in the book, rather than, as I was first tempted, chronologically. I'm curious to see Gunn's development, but I'm just as curious to see how the order she (presumably) has laid them out in affects the reading.

I have now read the first two stories, "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" and "Fellow Americans". The former I read in the late 1980s, when it was first published in Asimov's and then reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Best of the Year anthology. I remember thinking it was funny and perplexing. Now I find it odd that I was able to get any meaning out of the story at all, because I was too young then to know anything about what the story was satirizing.

If I were trying to sell a script of this story to Hollywood, I'd pitch it as "Kafka meets 'The Office'", but it's only Kafkaesque if every story wherein people turn into insects deserves that label, and none of the insects are quite as repulsive as some of the characters in the British TV series.

There is much to praise in the story, from its wit to its length (it does not overstay its welcome or wear its jokes thin), but what I like most is the first paragraph -- or, rather, I love how the first paragraph echoes the epigraph:
Our cousin the insect has an external skeleton made of shiny brown chitin, a material that is particularly responsive to the demands of evolution. Just as bioengineering has sculpted our bodies into new forms, so evolution has changed the early insect's chewing mouthparts into her descendant's chisels, siphons, and stilettos, and has molded from the chitin special tools -- pockets to carry pollen, combs to clean her compound eyes, notches on which she can fiddle a song.
--From the popular science program Insect People!

I awoke this morning to discover that bioengineering had made demands upon me during the night. My tongue had turned into a stiletto, and my left hand now contained a small chitinous comb, as if for cleaning a compound eye. Since I didn't have compound eyes, I thought that perhaps this presaged some change to come.
It's a light and vicious story in which the Social Darwinism of office politics gets literalized by entomology. A good choice to begin the book, because it's not only the most famous story here -- if you know Gunn's writing, it's likely you know it because of "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" -- but it also lets us begin with a chuckle or two.

"Fellow Americans" is funny, too, but it's a darker story. It is alternate history -- in this world, Goldwater became president, Robert Kennedy lived, Vietnam was nuked, and Nixon got famous as the host of a TV show where contestants won by figuring out when he was lying and not. It is a skillful story, building a world from hints and suggestions, though at times it gives in to the unfortunate tendency of many such stories to keep the reader guessing who is who and how they got cast in their cameo role. Gunn's story rises above the trickery of most alternate history tales by constantly being inventive -- Nixon's story of tripping on acid while his wife, Pat, lies under a piano, crying for all the music locked inside it, is phenomenal, as is the scene of Nixon and Pat naked in a hot-tub with Dan and Marilyn Quayle. There is also an undercurrent of sadness running through the story; the sadness of a Goldwater who unleashed horrors on the world and still thinks it was justified, the sadness of knowing we live in a world where Nixon, who in this story is at the very least likeable, had a far worse fate. The various strands aren't quite substantial enough to overcome my prejudices against most alternate history stories, but the character of Nixon is vividly drawn.

Both stories are a pleasure to read, though both also lack a difficult-to-pinpoint weightiness that I associate with stories that are both entertaining and profound -- the kind of weightiness George Saunders accomplishes at his best, where a story can move from being laugh-out-loud funny at one moment to deeply moving at the next. I'm not sure such an effect is Gunn's goal, and so I don't want to fault her for not achieving it, but I have the sense that if it were one of her goals, she would be the kind of author ideally suited to achieving it.