Gravity Wells, James Alan Gardner

EOS, 2005, 344 pages, C$21.50 tpb, ISBN 0-06-008770-6

For mid-list writers, simply getting a short story collection published is a small coup: anthologies are notoriously unpopular with mass-market audiences, and most trade publishers look upon them as favours, not money-makers. James Alan Gardner’s satisfaction at placing Gravity Wells with his regular publisher EOS must be considerable. With it, he not only gets a chance to republish a few worthy short stories, but also show a wider stylistic range that is to be found in his novels so far.

The very model of a modern mid-list SF writer, Gardner has, until now, written half a dozen engaging space adventures, recently making the jump from paperback to hardcover format with Radiant. I have not, to be entirely truthful, read all of his novels, but what little I have (Expendable and Commitment Hour) were… okay. Unremarkable. Maybe a bit boring, if you want me to be excessively negative.

But part of that lack of verve is due to the imperatives of mass-market fiction. For someone who intends to keep working in the industry, the most prudent course is to stay within the conventions of the genre, avoid stretching the envelope and stick to a prudent style.

With short stories, most of those restrictions don’t apply. Authors aren’t investing months of effort in one piece than may not sell. Experiments become possible. Gardner-the-novelist is a very different writer than Gardner-the-short-story-author. He’s looser. Funnier. If Gravity Wells does one thing better than anything else, it’s to highlight how daring Gardner can be when he wants to be.

Just look at the titles: Could you imagine a novel named “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream”? How about “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large”? Now imagine the content and the structure of the stories. The Aurora Award-winning “Three Hearings…” for instance, takes the form of three inquisitions dozens of years apart, tracing the evolution of a difference between humans throughout our understanding of science. Ambitious stuff, well-handled with an original approach.

Other “stories” have similarly slippery relationship with traditional narratives. “Lesser Figures of the Greater Trumps” is closer to a collage of odd descriptions, some more interesting than others. “A Changeable Market in Slaves” tells the same simple thing two dozen times, with hilarious variations –though it may take a second reading to extract its full flavour. “Kent State Descending the Gravity Well: An Analysis of the Observer” is a fascinating examination of a writer (not necessarily Gardner himself) as he struggles with how to fictionalize real-world tragedy. Perhaps my favourite piece of the book, “Sense of Wonder”, discusses unimaginably big concepts through a schoolyard dialogue.

In Gardner’s experimental style, even traditional narratives can be presented differently. “Shadow Album” tells a story through descriptions of still pictures (good concept, so-so execution). Meanwhile, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism” is a first-contact story taking the form of speeches from elder to younger –and sustains that premise for the length of a novella.

Gardner’s versatility also applies to the genre of the stories. He writes Science Fiction, but does not pretend to be a member of the hard-SF school. Most of Gravity Wells is closer to speculative fiction, some of them crossing over to the fantastic. “The Reckoning of Gifts” is SF clothed in fantasy garbs, but “Withered Gold, the Night, the Day” is straight up fantasy, as is “Reaper”.

Meanwhile, fans of more traditional SF will also find plenty to like. “The Last Day of the War, With Parrots” is classical Science Fiction, with a straight-up narrative, interesting inventions and a terrific rhythm. “The Children of Crèche” is also the kind of well-handled SF made accessible through clear prose. Finally, “Hardware Scenario G-49” is perhaps the most obviously funny tale in the book, the kind of story that never fails to leave a smile on your face.

I may not care too much about Fred Gambino’s cover illustration (a surprise, given that I love most of what Gambino has done elsewhere), but the content of the anthology itself is well worth your time. Aside from three of four weaker pieces, Gravity Wells is diverse, entertaining and more original than you’d think. I’m tempted to rate it above what I’ve read of Gardner’s longer fiction.

Now, if we could just convince EOS and other trade publishers that they should take chances on more short story collections…

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