Just read Eileen Gunn’s short story “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” (1988) in The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. The various, dull inhumanities and cranial-scrubbing atmosphere of office work provide a strong template for science fiction’s capacity for what Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement.” This estrangement could be characterized as a distancing from the particular political or economic moment’s construction of itself as natural or inevitable; it makes one see that things can be different, should be different, and that what is considered natural or inevitable is in fact highly unnatural and contingent. There is a gap between the reality of the text and actual, empirical reality, but a gap that nonetheless has a clear and logical connection (sleep is eradicated through technology, a cure for AIDS is synthesized, the US never dropped the atom bomb, etc.)
In Gunn’s short piece, one is allowed to see again the terror behind such banalities as “I see you [co-workers] more than I see my family.” In the astringent little world she has constructed, the dynamics of capitalism have set forth a process of literally altering the minds and bodies of its labor force for its own purposes. No longer content with emotional policing and affective demands, the corporate program under the capitalist operating system surgically and genetically transforms its workers to have animal qualities that make them “successful competitor(s) for a middle-management niche, with triggerable responses that can be useful in gaining entry to upper hierarchical levels.” Thus we get the literalization of the old cliche about apes in business suits, along with more unusual fauna such as butterflies and mosquitoes. Gregor Samsa works in marketing.
Reading the story, one is once more confronted with the fact of how much wage (and salaried) labor draw every other aspect of life into their orbit, and drain them of their greater potential and substance. As the narrator Margaret says, “Something that’s fun? I’ve invested all my time and most of my genetic material in this job. This is all the goddamn fun there is.” Even our fantasies about an existence outside our labor are rendered feeble by that labor. The nostalgia we spend our time waxing drips in a pathetic and degraded manner, and is invaded, like our dreams, by the labor we want to think away from. We live in a psychic landscape of sleepless, 24/7 availability, streaming archives of films we will never watch, phones that update curious authorities about where we are at any given moment, and escape that only comes in the form of more consumption – and all of us like to think we are the last real island of beauty.
Margaret again: “I used to be more patient, didn’t I? More appreciative of the diverse spectrum of human possibility. More interested in sex and television.”
At the end of the tale, Margaret has turned into an insect that appears to be a praying mantis. After being confronted by her “warm” and “caring” boss, she unhinges her jaws and bites his head off. He runs around his sad office, spurting blood idiotically, making inadvertent copulative motions like a male mantis post-coitus. Margaret sits and thinks for a minute, then telephones her boss’ secretary and advises that they call in Personnel and have the late Mr. Samson re-engineered. Glowing in the luke-warm heat-lamp of corporate power like a two dollar sausage at a gas station, Margaret realizes this might have been one of those “triggerable responses” she had heard about. Maybe she could just….be the boss. Just like that, so exciting. Exciting enough to go home and fuck the husband one more time. Maybe the last?
“Stable Strategies,” in its structure, reminds me of a piece of short fiction from the horror field, Thomas Ligotti’s “The Town Manager.” In both these tales individuals find themselves locked into and dominated by unjust and hilariously arbitrary systems, and at the close of the ratty page-curtain, adopt a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude and become what they once hated. Eileen Gunn’s story is less brutal, less bitter, but also more incisive and specific. And yet this lack of brutality, this meager thimble of bitterness leads the story to become more or less harmless jestering. The kind of work that would elicit knowing chuckles from gym-toned middle-management tie-lickers if they were to read it, laughing “It’s funny because it’s true,” and then walking back to the meeting, thinking about successful competition, triggerable responses, and actionable items.