Published by Small Beer Press on Mar 18, 2014
Genres: Science Fiction
Find the book: Amazon, Goodreads
Reading Eileen Gunn’s latest collection of short fiction, Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press, 2014), is like buying a grab bag full of fireworks, having a few beers and then lighting fuses…and with each fuse, you have no idea what to expect. Launch. Color. Bang! It’s all here in an extraordinary display of virtuosity and craftsmanship. This collection is a perfect example of what contemporary speculative fiction should be, and Gunn is fearless as she leads us through the captivating landscape of her imagination.
The three strongest pieces in this collection are “Up the Fire Road, “ “Chop Wood, Carry Water,” and “Phantom Pain.” In “Up the Fire Road,” Gunn speaks through the voices of Christy and Andrea: lovers and friends. The story begins during a cross-country skiing trip on Mt. Baker where the two find themselves tired and hungry and running out of daylight. They are befriended and given shelter by a sasquatch named Mickey, and after spending the night in the Mickey’s cave, a love triangle develops with Mickey at its core. After several enjoyable days in the cave, Andrea becomes ill and thinks she may be pregnant. As Andrea and Christy prepare to leave, Mickey mentions that she may also be pregnant. (Yes, Mickey, the sasquatch, manifests itself in both genders.)
Andrea believes that she’s carrying Mickey’s baby, and Mickey thinks she may be carrying Christy’s baby. After Christy and Andrea leave the cave, Christy tries to generate some profitable press from the experience (as anyone could be expected to do), only to be embarrassed by the News of the World headline: “He fathered a bigfoot baby…and became a deadbeat dad.” Mickey, Andrea and Christy reunite for an appearance on the “Maury show” where the audience is treated to tabloid talk spectacle at it finest. “I’m sure you’ve seen the clip on YouTube,” says Christy at the end.
In “Chop Wood, Carry Water,” Gunn’s deep understanding of Jewish mysticism and tradition are on display. In this story, a golem is brought to life by a Rabbi on the muddy bank of the Vltava, “to the stench of burning metal and baking clay.” Once animated, the Rabbi tasks the golem with tending to the headstones in the graveyard and to defending the village. The golem, we learn, is intelligent. It finds gratification in reading through the books in the schule, and here the golem learns of the history of people and the dark fate that awaits all.
One day, the golem is astonished to discover that it has lost its strength. It can no longer move the headstones, and after seeking the Rabbi’s counsel, it learns, finally, what it needs to do to redeem itself and to recover its sense of purpose.
On his hospital deathbed, a former soldier remembers what it’s like to die in “Phantom Pain.” In the beginning of the story are the descriptions of a distant war. On the jungle floor, he crawls through the mud: “His leg was broken, he knew it, and it was chewed all to hell. Bullets from their own gun captured by the Japs, in one leg, shrapnel from somebody’s mortar – Jap? Yank? who knew whose? – in the other.” There are memories of his being at home with his girlfriend, Katie. He recalls much, but in his final hour, many years removed from combat and those distant recollections, he must confront his inevitable passing. “At the very center of dying was wanting to let go, and eventually the wanting comes to you, whether you invite it or not. Easy and hard are not part of wanting.”
In this collection, Gunn flits expertly from time travel motifs, to Star Trek vignettes, to self-help guru lampoon, and solid steampunk, and in each piece she shows absolute control. In four of these works Gunn partnered with Michael Swanwick (Nebula winning author), while “Hive Mind” was done in collaboration with Rudy Rucker. She is in good company, for sure, but one must wonder if this collection had too much bang and too little cohesion.
Speculative fiction, by nature, is meant to disrupt our conventional sense of history and reason. In other words, when reading Gunn, we should expect the unexpected. But in this collection of disparate narratives, it seemed, at times, exhausting to move from one to the next. After being lost in the world of a seventeenth-century golem, it is hard to jump backstage to a Star Trek set where Spock was giving birth to twins he was having with Captain Kirk.
Gunn’s fiction is alive. She is a hip-hop artist…someone who can glide between cultural references, from tabloid fluff to myth-building metaphors, with authority and cool. This is the stuff of real contemporary literature. This is innovative and hot writing. I’m excited to learn more about what she’s done in the past and I’m even more excited to see what she does next.