Two from Tachyon

Dropping a bomb on typical publishing practicesPublishing is a wacky world, with huge conglomerates controlling the big imprints, return policies that see half of all published books destroyed as a matter of course, and only a small fraction of authors making a living at what they do. Why would any sane person get involved in such a madcap enterprise, either on the business or creative end of things?

It must be love, because small presses like Tachyon of San Francisco continue to put out interesting stuff.

Whether or not the large imprints in science fiction have become more commercialized than ever, numerous small presses have popped up and they often publish fascinating short story collections. That’s not to say that good choices are the exclusive realm of the big or little guys, but I have been consistently impressed by what Tachyon and similar small presses like Golden Gryphon and Small Beer have done in the genre. Science fiction has a strong tradition of authors working at shorter length, but the magazines that publish short stories have a relatively small circulation and, by their nature, a brief shelf life. Small presses fill a niche by putting out short story collections.

I’ve been thinking about this because of two recent collections from Tachyon, Eileen Gunn’s Stable Strategies and Others and Carol Emshwiller’s I Live With You.

The title story in Gunn’s collection, “Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” is probably the best of the bunch. Margaret works for a big company, and she has signed the consent forms so that bio-engineering department can alter her body to whatever form the company requires. She wakes up one morning, her body becoming more insect-like and her mood getting much more aggressive.

As Gunn points out in her notes about the story, it’s a mix of Kafka and Gunn’s own experiences from working at Microsoft. And it’s hard not to think of the fantastic ending – Margaret finds herself unable to resist literally biting someone’s head off in a meeting – when you’re at work!

I should point out that Gunn’s story, “Coming to Terms,” original to this collection, won a Nebula Award recently. That’s the opposite of how these things usually work. The business model of small press collections is based happily on the extensive awards system in science fiction: short stories win awards, then get collected in books that trumpet the awards on the cover. It’s a win-win situation, because it creates a regular market which then motivates more authors to write short stories. If “Coming to Terms” wins a Nebula, it makes everyone all that much more motivated.

Dropping a bomb on typical publishing practicesOther Gunn stories touch on such topics as alternate Presidents, hackers in a euthanasia-friendly future, first contact with flying aliens, a Stephen King-inspired horror story, and a round-robin story about famous sci-fi writers in WWII.

While stories in Gunn’s Stables Strategies and Others were quite diverse, the stories in Emshwiller’s I Live With You are much more thematically consistent. This is not necessarily a good thing. I usually like Emshwiller’s writing because of the deceptive simplicity of her prose. She uses very few big words, mostly because she writes about characters who don’t have a big vocabulary. Each story is stubbornly, intensely from the point of view of the people it’s about.

But if your protagonists are too similar across a number of stories, and your writing emphasizes the point of the view of the main characters, then the stories start to blend together. Emshwiller really focuses on stories about war, about men who get messed up by war, and what women do about all this. These are great topics, but I got a little impatient with the collection because of the repetitiveness.

One story that sticks out is “Gliders Though They Be.” It’s about two weird species, possibly aliens although that’s never specified. The two species are very similar; one group can glide through the air, the other have no feathers at all. The protagonist comes from the glide-less group, and he goes to infiltrate the village of the gliders. He hides his nubby wings, proceeds to impress a local female, but then finds out that he has to beat out the other suitors in a gliding contest.

It’s just as good an ending as “Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” because Emshwiller concludes her story with the protagonist getting carried away by a hawk. But he finds the experience, however short, to be thrilling, because he finally gets to fly, far higher than those gliders. The last lines of the story:

I had not thought there’d be so much wind. So%