03 October 2004

Stable Strategies 1 (Ancillary Material)

Stable Strategies and Others is Eileen Gunn's first collection of stories, though she has been publishing fiction professionally since 1978. She is not a particularly prolific writer.

I once thought she was, however. It was after I read what I have for a long time mistakenly thought was her first-published story, "Stable Strategies for Middle Management", which appeared in Asimov's in 1988. Between 1988 and 1991, Gunn published five stories in Asimov's, the only SF magazine I read regularly at that time, and so I thought she was a new, young writer "bursting onto the scene" as they say (who's they?). Either because I didn't bother to read the biographical notes appended to the stories in the magazine or to their appearances in Gardner Dozois's Best of the Year anthologies, I didn't know Gunn had been writing for quite some time and that the spurt of stories was an anomaly in her career. Thus, I was puzzled when she seemed to disappear.

She didn't disappear, though. I did not know it, but she was teaching at Clarion West, attending conventions, and, eventually, founding Infinite Matrix, which she continues to edit. Now and then, she even managed to write a story.

I bought Stable Strategies almost within seconds of its publication, primarily because I had happy memories of laughing my way through the title story, and a memory of the story "Lichen and Rock" being one of the richest and most interesting I'd ever read in Asimov's. I had not read the stories since their first publication, though, and was curious what I would make of them now, and of what I would think of Gunn's other tales.

Before reading any of the stories, I read all of the ancillary material: some introductions, notes to each story, an afterword, and a lot of blurbs. I often do this with collections and anthologies, because otherwise I find myself getting distracted. The risk is that the material will get in the way of the stories speaking for themselves, but I am generally able to forget it all once I begin reading them.

I'm not sure why Gunn or her publishers (Tachyon Publications) thought the book needed to be padded with so many words by people other than Gunn. I suspect they were worried because her name is not well known, even to many devoted SF fans, and short story collections are notoriously difficult to sell, even when written by notorious writers. The book contains blurbs from thirteen writers, everyone from Karen Joy Fowler to Stephen King, Ursula LeGuin to Warren Ellis, all of them saying wonderful things, of course. More wonderful things get said in William Gibson's introduction and Howard Waldrop's afterword. Michael Swanwick even provides a poem:
Hooray for Eileen and her bully machine
That turns out such volumes of stuff!
Some think it queer
She's so seldom here
Few find her absence enough.

It's unfortunate the publishers thought the book needed so much hype to live up to. It's certainly nice to know Gibson and Swanwick and Waldrop (oh my!) are so enamored of Gunn, that she is able to procure kind words from all sorts of Big Names, but it's all just noise. (Waldrop even offers a mispronunciation of Worcester, Massachusetts, which is not, as he says, "Were-chest-or", but rather "WOOS-ter", or, to be accurate to the accent, "WOOS-ta".)

Gunn's own introduction, and her notes after each story, are straightforward and amusing. I was most amused that the story for which I have such a fond memory, "Lichen and Rock", "Owes something to a whale-shaped rock that I knew as a child in the woods of New Hampshire." Appropriate, then, that I should have first read it at a young age while living in the woods of that very state.