Stable Strategies for Middle Management by Eileen Gunn

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Literalising the metaphorical struggle of the corporate world is a popular satirical approach. In the mainstream it reached a kind of hey day in the 80s and 90s in books like Martin Amis’s Money, Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, and maybe most purely in American Psycho. At about the same time, the idea was a cyberpunk staple as ruthless corporations fought open warfare for resources and profit, but the idea goes back as far as Frederick Pohl & Cyril Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants. These types of story portray a kind of neo-Kafka-esque world, with the banalities of capitalist populism replacing the equivalent banalities of the bureaucratic feudal world of pre-war Czechoslovakia.

It’s hard not to see the ghost of Kafka in the premise of this story, in fact: ambitious executives undergo bioengineering treatments to get genetic advantages from different species and mutate into hideous hybrid creatures as a result. The resulting physical transformations give Gunn the opportunity to lean heavily on the grotesque to underline her satirical point as the narrator turns into a predatory bloodsucking insect.

I awoke this morning to discover that bioengineering had made demands upon me during the night. My tongue had turned into a stiletto, and my left hand now contained a small chitinous comb, as if for cleaning a compound eye. Since I didn’t have compound eyes, I thought that perhaps this presaged some change to come.

Her husband, meanwhile, is undergoing his own insectoid transfiguration:

I looked at Greg, still asleep, the edge of our red and white quilt pulled up under his chin. His mouth had changed during the night too, and seemed to contain some sort of long probe. Were we growing apart?

The metamorphoses suggest Kafka but, instead of the alienation of Gregor Samsa, everyone’s at it in this story. For some reason this makes the story relatively weak. Maybe it’s easier to believe that one person might randomly turn into a beetle than that the a significant section of the population would begin wilfully turning themselves into mosquitoes and butterflies in the name of a high-paying job? While it’s obviously intended to be over-the-top this quality makes the story a bit of a straw man. It makes you wonder whether the rapacious breed of people depicted here actually exists. And if it doesn’t exist, what’s the point of the satire?

And it’s only short, though, so it’s easy to forgive this witty satire for it’s lack of depth. Gunn has good fun with the idea, and the story has a number of funny, well-executed jokes. I can’t help but see practical 1980s-style special effects in a Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg movie, and this story shares a lot of themes in their best films. As well as the psychotic world of corporate rivalry it satirises the human need to turn to snake oil and bogus science in their hunt for an elusive competitive advantage.

Themes: the psychotic workplace, body horror, transformation, bioengineering

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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