Review: Questionable Practices by Eileen Gunn, 2014.
Titling a collection “Questionable Practices” is just asking for it.
I, however, am a kind reviewer not given to snarky comments. I will not sacrifice accuracy for cheap sarcasm.
It is a clever title, though. Would that all the stories were clever or funny.
The two original works here, “Chop Wood, Carry Water” and “Phantom Pain”, are good. The first story is a retelling of the story of Rabbi Loew’s golem in Praha (Prague). It has gentle wit and sorrow as the golem relates his story, an account of the centuries since he was created, and how he hasn’t always been able to fulfill his task of protecting the local Jews. There’s no humor in the second story. It’s the sometimes clinical, but moving, account of a wounded American soldier in the Pacific Theater of World War Two. As he crawls to safety, he has visions of his future life. The pain he will experience in that life is not only from an amputated limb but lost loved ones as well.
“Up the Fire Road” is a funny, if ultimately inconsequential, story about a couple that finds a Sasquatch who casts its sexual glamour on them. “Speak, Geek” is a short-short story, one of those science fiction pieces first published in Nature. Its life in the corporate world, but some of the workers are dog-human and cat-human chimeras. It goes past “funnier than you would think” into “funny”.
I even liked “Thought Experiment” even though I generally hate it when any Baby Boomer mentions Woodstock in any way. It’s a time travel farce.
There are a lot of collaborations here, mostly with Michael Swanwick. In “’Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!’”, Mr. Swanwick offers a unique service to Ms. Gunn. It’s the funniest piece in the book despite swipes at Republicans and Dick Cheney that don’t work even as coherent political satire.
A techno-hippy meets the oncoming of the Singularity in the moderately amusing “Hive Mind Man” written with Rudy Rucker. Amusing … with a creepy, ambiguous ending hiding behind the California mysticism.
But there’s a whole lot ofstuff here that isn’t funny, surrealist pieces that go nowhere, weird takeoffs on tv shows that are neither interesting or funny as parodies or in any other way. “No Place to Raise Kids: A Tale of Forbidden Love” is a gender bender with a pregnant Spock – the Vulcan, not the pediatrician. Poem – and I don’t mind poetry – “To the Moon Alice” is about the old tv sitcom The Honeymooners. “Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005” is a surrealistic (and fictional) dialogue between the two writers as transcribed by Gunn.
And then there is “The Steampunk Quartet”, parodies subtitled “A Different Engine”, “Day After the Cooters”, “The Perdido Street Project”, and “Internal Devices”. Yes, I recognized all the parodied titles even if I haven’t read them all. But I found none but the parody of K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices even a bit funny.
Not being a fan of fairy tales in general, it was to be expected that I wasn’t all that fond of the Swanwick-Gunn collaboration “The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree”. A lot of dead people here, at Christmas time, and the unconvincing claim that “understanding is stronger than truth”. Another fairy tale-like story making a stab at delivering wisdom is “The Armies of Elfland”. Here the same authors deliver an interesting violation of story clichés in a story about some nasty elves who kill off most of the world’s people, leaving only children. One, Agnes, must learn to endure the torments of the Queen of Elfland. I take it as a feminist rejection of fairy tale expectations.
Sort of striding the intersection of the fairy tale stories and the literary parodies is “Zeppelin City” from, again, Gunn and Swanwick. I loathed this story and rushed to finish it. Totally unconvincing as an alternate history despite various early 20th century figures making an appearance, dull and plodding as literary parody despite zeppelins and bottled brains and autogyroists, shaky in its transitions between scenes, and banal in its observation that new technologies don’t lead to utopias.
Gunn fans I’m sure will want this collection. The rest of you … I’m not sure. If you’re curious about the acclaimed Gunn, I’d go for the cheap Kindle edition.
Eileen Gunn seems like a nice person, at least hearing her on a recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast. I believe she mentioned that one of the best stories in the book, “Phantom Pain”, was inspired by her father’s post World War Two experiences (at least, so my memory says).
And she seems like a funny person. But a lot of what I took to be attempts at humor failed here. Humor is, of course, hard for any writer. That’s what the old show-biz line about “Tragedy is easy. Comedy is hard.” means.
But I got the impression that a lot of Gunn’s popularity with other writers is that a lot of these stories are in-jokes for other writers. Or perhaps I just don’t generally appreciate post-modernism as much as others.
Given Gunn’s affiliation with WisCon and that she co-edited a collection called WisCon Chronicles 2: Provocative essays on feminism, race, revolution, and the future, I was pleasantly surprised that fewer than expected stories were “explorations of gender” or dealt with feminist issues. Given that affiliation, I suspect depicting the concluding menace of “Thought Experiment” as an “endless army of dark-haired, blue-eyed Caucasians with perfect teeth” is not meant entirely in jest.