Review of STABLE STRATEGIES AND OTHERS by EILEEN GUNN
I went into this collection of short stories with no preconceptions, based on a recommendation alone. Honestly, I prefer that, when my reading experience is tainted with as few expectations as possible.
I have two favorites from the collection (and it didn’t escape my notice that the ones I enjoyed most are the ones staring a child and teenager respectively). In both “Computer Friendly” and “Nirvana High”, Gunn conceives futures that don’t feel so far fetched. “Computer Friendly” gave me chills when a classmate tells young Elizabeth that her parents are sending her to sleep because she’s defective and that way they can try again. The reader will likely be ahead of little Elizabeth in reaching conclusions, but it’s realistically painful watching someone so young look into and figure out her new friend’s unsettling words. “Nirvana High” stars teenage Barbara who has predictive powers but no control over the future she sees. The story opens with her vision that her favorite teacher will die trying to perform an advanced feat and then follows everyone’s reactions to the teacher’s death including the speculation about accident vs. suicide. The story features intriguing worldbuilding that suggests we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
“Contact” feels both familiar and yet still original. As the title implies, it’s a first contact story where two cultures and, hence, perspectives collide, but each gains a subtle widening of their outlook from their interaction. I also really enjoyed “Spring Conditions”, a super creepy story where unexplainable things start happening on a couple’s ski trip. However, Gunn opens “Spring Conditions” with layered characters and then doesn’t do much to explore those layers, which naturally frustrated me as a character-fixated reader. I couldn’t help reading this story as a metaphor, though from the author’s note I’m not convinced that’s what she intended. Also the ending lacked power, kind of trickling off without feeling like an actual conclusion.
“Friends” is a weird and funny story that trivializes the dramatic and makes the absurdly fantastical mundane. I found “Coming to Terms”, about a dead father who wrote inscrutable notes in the margins of his books, underwhelmingly tantalizing. In other words, thought provoking, but Gunn doesn’t push those thoughts very far. There are also a few short, silly stories including “The Sock Story” and the satiric “Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp”. Perhaps merely due to its placement as the first story (not to mention featuring in the title), I had the impression that “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” is Gunn’s most popular work here. However, my reaction to that one was rather “meh”. It has potential, but I felt that potential wasn’t pushed hard enough to garner my interest.
As I’ve grazed against saying outright, I thought Gunn’s endings overall lacked power. I enjoyed most of these stories and especially liked a couple, but for almost all of them I felt some level of dissatisfaction with the end.
I also want to specify that science fiction readers are probably more likely to enjoy this collection than fantasy as Gunn’s stories lean in that direction.
As a side note, I liked William Gibson’s quote in the foreword on writing: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”