Questionable Practices: Stories
by Eileen Gunn
Cover Artist: Fu Wenchao/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Review by Benjamin Wald
Small Beer Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781618730756
Date: 11 March 2014 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Eileen Gunn is a protean author. To read her newest collection, Questionable practices, is to be exposed to a barrage of stories of radically different tone and style. But there is still a communality running through all of the stories, a common thread that can be hard to pin down. Perhaps it boils down to Gunn's sense of humor, which runs through the more satirical stories but also rears its head in the more serious pieces, combined with her deep empathy for her characters, whether they be slacker hippies or magically animated golems.
There are several collaborations in this collection, four with Michael Swanwick and one with Rudy Rucker, and in each case the story bares the hallmark of the collaborating author clearly. But Gunn's influence is there too, a subtle flavor that one comes to recognize, and to crave.
"Chop wood, carry water" is told in the first person by the golem, a creature of inert clay animated by the Rabbi of the Prague ghetto by kabbalah to protect the Jews of Prague. The golem is a surprisingly thoughtful and introspective narrator, mostly utilized for his great strength, keeping his thoughts to himself. The story tells how the golem loses his great strength and must go out to perform a mitzvah, or good deed, to regain it. The plot is fairly simple, but the skill with which Gunn brings the gentle golem to life rivals that of the Rabbi.
"Hive Mind Man", a collaboration with Rudy Rucker, brings us the story of Jeff, a charming, eccentric, somewhat manic young man who is constantly searching for ways to exploit his facility with social media. He reminds me of an updated take on Manfred Max, from Stross's seminal Accelerando. His new girlfriend Diane begins to worry when a marketer exposes Jeff to experimental new technology in an effort to exploit his unique connection to the zeitgeist, but the results end up being more revolutionary than anyone predicts. It's a fun, fast paced, out there story, with a touching romance alongside the antic techno-futurism.
The collaborations with Michael Swanwick are highlights of the collection for me. Swanwick is one of my favorite authors, especially at short fiction, and the collaborations bring out the strengths of both authors. "Zeppelin City", in particular, is an enormously entertaining retro-futurist romp, full of aerial battles with the eponymous zeppelins, plots by the nefarious and insane 'naked brains' (immoral human brains in jars), and radical revolutionaries. However, this is no mere escapist romp (not that there's anything wrong with escapist romps, mind you). Besides being brilliantly constructed and compulsively readable, Gunn and Swanwick can't help but make you think.
This is an excellent collection. The stories each feel fresh and different, both from one another and from anything else being written today. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always meticulously crafted and brilliantly written, this collection is excellent work from a master of the short story.