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Gravity's Angels, Michael Swanwick, Frog Ltd., 2001, 350 pp.
Gravity's Angels collects short fiction by Michael Swanwick from the years 1980 to 1989. These are stories from just before Swanwick started winning Hugos and Nebulas, but almost every one of the stories in this collection was a Hugo or Nebula nominee. In Gravity's Angels, I can see some of the ideas that Swanwick developed more fully later; some of the stories are rough and interesting, others not polished enough. It's also clear to see in which stories Swanwick was cycling through various standard genre conventions as he tried to find his own voice.
The best story in Gravity's Angels is "Ginungagap," a longer story with a funky title and some deep concerns. Interestingly, it's one of the earliest stories in the collection (the copyright page lists its publication date as 1980). In "Ginungagap," we get the story of a woman named Abigail who is the first human slated for a test voyage; she will travel through the black hole named Ginungagap to visit the spider-like aliens on the other side. Security for the project is headed by a man named Paul, and it's his job to think of everything that could possibly go wrong, including hostile action by the spiders or some psychological breakdown on the part of Abigail. The tense relationship between the two is exacerbated by a basic philosophical difference: Paul believes that Abigail will be killed by the translation through the black hole, even if an Abigail-replica does appear on the other side, while Abigail simply doesn't see the distinction. Swanwick creates character interplay that dramatizes the issues at the same time as it holds our interest. And I love how the ending grows directly out of what we know about Abigail.
Other major stories in the collection are "The Feast of St. Janis," "Covenant of Souls," "Mummer Kiss," and "Trojan Horse." In "The Feast of St. Janis," Swanwick takes ideas of social control and the longevity of pop culture and applies them to a future in which America is on the decline. Is the only hope a concert tour by a woman who seems to be Janis Joplin? "Trojan Horse" reminds me of "Griffin's Egg," one of the first Swanwick stories (from 1992) that really stuck in my memory. Both stories are about how we might live as humans if we gain full control of our biological systems, whether emotional, sexual, or psychological. "Trojan Horse" is about a woman named Elin; she seems to be recovering from an accident or something, and now she has a new man in her life named Tory. But what do Tory's feelings for her really mean? The story also has an interesting Jesuit character named Landis; she is a great comfort to Elin, but she may be having doubts of her own about faith and what it means to be human.
"Covenant of Souls" is about strange happenings in a church in a city's downtown, and "Mummer Kiss" is a post-apocalyptic story that talks about the power of the mob. Neither story appealed to me as much as "Ginungagap" or "Trojan Horse."
Gravity's Angels has a few medium-length stories that are decently written but lack the same impact as the best longer stories in the collection. "A Midwinter's Tale" is about a way for aliens to understand humans and then what happens when a human comprehends the method and decides to undergo it. It's told by a soldier who is bitter about the galactic wars he has fought in; he's not even sure if the stories he's telling are real. "The Blind Minotaur" is a story that reminded me a great deal of Samuel Delany's The Einstein Intersection. Swanwick's story is set in an unspecified period that has mythological/futuristic overtones, with a title character who is immortal but has been blinded. "The Dragon Line" follows a character who also seems to be immortal, but is definitely living in our day and age, in a very grubby United States. It turns out the main character is Mordred, of Arthurian legend, and he has dug up Merlin from his crystal cave because Mordred needs help. A retelling of key elements of the Arthurian myth, with a stunning revelation about Arthur's birth thrown in for good measure. I enjoyed "Snow Angels," a story about a champion downhill skier who got in a serious accident a few years ago; she has received some advanced implants/prostheses and she is desperately trying to reach the same level of athleticism as before. The tale is told from the point of view of a man on the run; as he tries to get away from the law, he ends up at her mountain cabin during a snowstorm.
The rest of the stories in Gravity's Angels follow conventional outlines more closely. "The Man Who Met Picasso" is one of those I-met-an-artist stories, "Foresight" is a pre-Memento tale of time going backwards, "The Edge of the World" resembles Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon" (a later story, but one that channelled the same ideas more successfully), and "The Transmigration of Philip K" is a loving pastiche of a story by Philip K. Dick (and it provides the inspiration for the rather overblown cover art for Gravity's Angels by Michael Dashow).
Gravity's Angels is an interesting collection. The stories in it might not be as good as the work Swanwick has produced subsequently, but the book is worth reading both in its right and as a way to trace the development of the career of a major writer in the genre.
Last modified: February 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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