09 October 2004

Stable Strategies 3

[Part 1, Part 2]

Today I read the next four stories in Stable Strategies and Others, "Computer Friendly", "The Sock Story", "Coming to Terms", and "Lichen and Rock".

"Computer Friendly" was written in the late 1980s, and it garnered a Hugo Award nomination, probably because its plot revolves around a girl in a super-cyber future where everyone is part of a network and children are euthanized if their personalities are out of line -- an idea still capable of being fresh then (although Isaac Asimov did a better job with elements of the story in 1951's "The Fun They Had"). It's the sort of thing that gets labeled a "cautionary tale", but it's also an example of the danger of writing SF solely about ideas: if the ideas become quaint, the story needs to be able to survive on something else. Unfortunately, time has not dealt kindly with "Computer Friendly", and now it simply seems to take too many pages to accomplish too little. The main character is a cartoon, her situation doesn't make much sense (she overcomes obstacles so easily that it's unclear why she is the first and only person to accomplish what she does), and the attempts at satire are broad and cliched.

"The Sock Story", which follows, is good fun, mostly because it's only three pages long and the narrative voice is strong to the point of arrogance. It's a simple and trivial story, but I love the attitude in the last sentence: "That's all there is to this story, and there's no use in complaining if you don't like it, because this is the way it's got to be told." So there, all you crritics!

The next story, "Coming to Terms", is new and first published in this collection. It's essentially a mainstream story, one with some moments of excellence, but the last paragraphs are so determined to make sure the hapless reader Gets It that the tone is grating, the story undermined by its own weighty seriousness. Had Gunn cut the final three paragraphs, the ending would have had far more resonance. It is the story of a daughter cleaning out her father's apartment after his death, wondering why he wrote in all his books and why he left little notes everywhere, as if scribbling in the margins of his life, a life lived more fully with books than with people. This idea is a beautiful, sad, and complex one; indeed, it is based on reality: Gunn tells us in the note after the story that she was inspired to write it after helping to clean out the apartment of the late Avram Davison, who, she discovered, wrote in all his books and left notes around. The story ends with the appearance and disappearance of a ghost or a memory or a dream, one that nearly kills the narrator. The image itself is not inappropriate to the story, but the explanation of it is, leaving us with a good story that was, apparently, sent to Hallmark for final approval.

Gunn did not send "Lichen and Rock" off to the Hallmark Factory, and, consequently, it is the best story in the book so far. Earlier, I said I looked forward to reading this story, because I had fond memories of reading it when it was first published thirteen years ago. I was also scared, because my tastes have matured (or at least changed) in that time, and I had not yet read a story in the book that truly excited me. All so far have been competent, some have been more compelling than others, and I've only regretted spending time on one ("Computer Friendly"), but none of the first five stories really seemed to justify the collection -- never mind justify the ridiculous hyperbole of the blurbs, introductions, and afterword.

"Lichen and Rock" justifies everything. I read it with a skeptical eye, and it won me over, it sucker-punched my imagination, and moments after finishing it I read it again. It's both science fiction and fantasy, it's a fairy tale, a tall tale, a legend and a myth of a future. It's funny and sad, it's sentimental and hard-edged, it's beguiling and enthralling. It's dense and yet easy to read, and each paragraph is perfect, each sentence exact. It tells the story of a girl named Lichen who is sent away to a school run by carp-eyed creatures with circuits inside. She loses paradise, enters servitude, escapes, ascends to heaven, reconnects with her family, laughs, and discovers the whale-shaped rock she once played on as a child has been released into the sea. The story is sui generis, it playfully scuttles all genre distinctions, it is a joy and a revelation.

Though the stories in Stable Strategies and Others are not arranged chronologically, they feel that way, because "Lichen and Rock" is the culmination of all that is good about the previous stories, without any of the bad. Here is dark humor supported by a vivid imagination, here is a child viewpoint character in a story with a strong and versatile narrative voice, here is a moral vision that doesn't preach.

Now all I can do is hope the rest of the book is not just a long denoument from the climax that is "Lichen and Rock". We shall see.

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