Gravity's Angels - Michael Swanwick

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Gravity's Angels
Michael Swanwick
Frog, Ltd.
ISBN: 0679767827 (Amazon link)

Gravity's Angels presents a Baker's Dozen of Swanwick's short stories from the 1980s. They're good. They're very, very good.

Short fiction isn't really one of my favourite things - I even buy Interzone and only read the reviews. Personally, I tend to find that short fiction suffers from a couple of drawbacks. Often authors seem to choose the short story to play with an experimental voice or structure, and more often than not this doesn't quite satisfy, perhaps because I tend to associate short fiction, particularly in magazines, with young authors still learning their trade? It's rare that I read a short told in an unusual way and enjoy it outside the stylistic treatment, though certain authors, Ian McDonald for example, could cheerfully write shopping lists and I'd admire their style.

At the other end of the scale is the, "More! Oh you could do so much more with that!" feeling. This is the best sort of complaint to have, finding that the author has written something so interesting, so compelling that you want them to develop the story to novel length so that you can revel in the ideas, the settings or the characters. I don't get this feeling often - usually it's the inverse complaint of reading novels which should have been short stories!

It might be a matter of personal taste, but I think it's very difficult for an author to do something interesting enough to be worth a short story, but judge the level of detail precisely to leave the reader satisfied that the tale told is complete, without nothing more to add. Swanwick seems to have that knack - out of the 13 stories in Gravity's Angels only a couple didn't leave me completely pleased with what I'd just read. Here's what I made of this collection:

A Midwinter's Tale - First contact with sentient predators on a frontier planet. Told in retrospect from both sides. Excellent.

The Feast of St Janis - This one I just bounced off completely, it may be a cultural thing as spoons carry more meaning for me than Janis Joplin does. In a decayed future, Americans celebrate their cultural icon in an interesting way.

The Blind Minotaur - Atmospheric. A wistful, melancholic story of a genetically engineered Minotaur, now blinded and living with his daughter. A fascinating backstory builds up around the Lords, Greek God analogues who use tweaked hormones to control people's emotions, and the Minotaur is their Homer.

The Transmigration of Philip K - No prizes for the reference. Paranoia, unreal realities, the little man trying to cope with his unstable world. I liked it a lot.

Covenant of Souls - A switch to a realistic voice in a modern, urban church. Squatters in the basement, street people outside, budget problems, sinister visitors from official departments - oh, and a ghost? An angel? A space-time anomaly? God? An alien? living in the church. Excellent.

The Dragon Line - Modern day America again, with an emphasis on the damaged environment. In a neat riff on the Authurian themes of the King and the land, Swanwick has Mordred bring Merlin back to ask for his help in saving the biosphere. Oddly savage plotting rescues one of the weaker stories.

Mummer Kiss - Environmental issues again; The Drift is a geographical region of radioactive contamination outside Philadelphia. A curious secret society who celebrate a Carnival seem to hold a secret about it, and are none too pleased when a young man working in the Drift - dumping in more effluent! - crosses paths with a fiery female reporter who seems scornful of everything he's been taught. One of the best in the collection.

Trojan Horse - A nice 'What If' tale where people can engineer themselves into different states of mind. Or can be forced into new personalities as a criminal punishment. Except that the concepts of 'personality' and 'person' can become blurry, and if you were engineered to be a god for a time, would you permit them downgrading your brain again? Excellent.

Snow Angels - This one didn't work for me that well; a former Olympic athlete lives in seclusion, relying on cybernetics and drugs to live her life in the mountains. A fugitive from justice runs across her and chooses to run from her offer to make him transcend his body. Sharp characterisation, vivid setting, but I just didn't see what Swanwick was trying to do here.

The Man Who Met Picasso - Possibly my favourite - a young artist meets Picasso and is given some difficult advice.

Foresight - 'What if' ...we lived life in reverse? Remembering everything that will happen, but not what has already happened? A classic example of the experimental problem I noted above. I just didn't enjoy this either for the central conceit or the way it is carried off.

Ginungagap - As good as many novels I've read, another favourite. First contact and possible interstellar travel via wormhole mediated communication with advanced aliens. A young woman debates the meaning of death against a practical tale of working in an environment where political and security concerns interfere with the scientific mission.

The Edge of the World - A curious one. Bored teenagers go exploring at the edge of the world, on a literal flat earth. This is mainly a character study of the girl in the party, with resolution being provided by a nice Twilight Zone twist.

Overall, a superb anthology from a gifted writer. Recommended.

Posted: Sun - November 9, 2003 at 12:26 AM