Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Night Shift by Eileen Gunn

Night Shift, Eileen Gunn (PM Press 978-1-629639-42-0, $15.00, 115pp, tp; -56-7, $8.95, ebook) August 2022.

I’ve come to think of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series, which has by now been going on for some 13 years under the editorship of Terry Bisson, as my favorite collection of author hang­outs. These modest collections of fiction, essays, bibliographies, and interviews have ranged from legendary authors like Le Guin and Delany to newer voices like Meg Elison and Vandana Singh, and each one feels like spending a fascinating evening with the subject. Eileen Gunn’s Night Shift is no exception. To put it mildly, Gunn has not been the most prolific of fiction authors – the bibliography at the back of the book lists only 35 stories in a career of over half a century – but her influence in the field has been undeniable, from editing the pioneering webzine The Infinite Matrix to her sought-after editorial skills, her work with Clarion West, and her insightful essays and appreciations of fellow writers. The latter are represented in Night Shift by a sometimes hilarious but moving tribute to Gardner Dozois, appreciations of Joanna Russ, Carol Emshwiller, and the poet JT Stuart, and a partly autobiographi­cal piece about how discovering Le Guin’s ‘‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’’ exploded her notions of what SF could do.

That piece on Le Guin also features, in only a few pages, a brilliantly insightful analysis of how the story works, and it’s interesting to see that same critical scalpel at work in Gunn’s own fiction. She seems to have an aversion to unneces­sary words, for one thing. ‘‘Transitions’’, written for that X-Prize anthology in which authors were invited to imagine boarding a plane in 2017 and somehow landing in 2037, sketches in a few pages a convincingly detailed portrait of a balkanized and privatized near future wracked by climate change, but manages also to generate a haunting sense of loss and displacement, as the narrator meets her long-remarried husband and grown son. The narrator, a Black woman engineer, is also an example of Gunn’s experimenting with different viewpoints, as is the Samoan narrator of ‘‘Night Shift at NanoGobblers’’, an updating of the clas­sic hard-SF theme of asteroid mining. Now the mining is done by programmed nanobots, and the narrator Sina is overseeing a new generation of ‘‘slimebots’’ whose behavior is modeled on slime molds, with which she seems weirdly infatuated. Again, between her negotiations with her AI collaborator Seth (who seems to identify with the half-human, half-other Seth Brundle of The Fly), we learn a surprising amount about Sina’s childhood and her own dreams of communication with the alien.

As its title suggests, ‘‘Night Shift at NanoGobblers’’ is also an example of Gunn’s famously acerbic humor, and that humor is on full display in the two remaining tales, ‘‘After the Thaw’’ and ‘‘Terrible Trudy on the Lam’’. The former is cast in the form of a dialogue between a physi­cist revived from cryogenic suspension and the rather inept, literal-minded AIs (named after Norse gods) charged with her re-orientation to the world – although it turns out that the promise of a human body was never part of the contract, and the physicist finds herself in the body of a cephalopod, assigned to a data management job totally inappropriate to her skills. When she asks if sheer annoyance is simply built into all AIs, she’s informed that it’s an ‘‘undocumented feature.’’ Anyone ever trapped in an automated telephone tree will know exactly how she feels. ‘‘Terrible Trudy on the Lam’’ has all the earmarks of a classic tall tale, about a Malayan tapir who escapes from the San Diego zoo in the early 1940s, learns to roller skate, becomes a nightclub sensation (complete with a Jimmy Durante imper­sonation), and eventually gets a job as an assistant to a hardboiled private detective. It’s a complete hoot, but gains a fillip of genuine nostalgia when Gunn informs us in a brief afterword that a real tapir, famed for repeated escapes from that same zoo, was nicknamed Terrible Trudy. Goes to show you: there’s always truth where you least expect it in a Gunn story.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.

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