Tag Archives: James Alan Gardner

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…

Commitment Hour, James Alan Gardner

EOS, 1998, 343 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79827-1

First, a truly horrible confession, then the review.

My truly horrible confession is that I don’t care all that much about Science Fiction that sets out to explore the limits of gender identity. It’s a theme that just doesn’t interest me. Now, this wouldn’t mean much to most, but in a field which has hailed works like The Left Hand of Darkness and pioneered feminism before it was hip, well, it’s a bit like claiming to be a heretic. Broadly speaking, I have a really hard time getting excited about anything that makes in on the Tiptree Award ballot. (“An annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” says www.tiptree.org)

Which makes my reaction to Commitment Hour even more surprising.

Shortly stated, Commitment Hour is the story of a small village in a distant future in which the young ones switch, year after year, from one gender to another. After their twentieth year, they get to choose what gender they’ll remain for the rest of their lives.

Normally, I would simply shrug at the premise and grit my teeth at having to read hundreds of pages on the subject. But the wonder of Commitment Hour is how it quickly and efficiently draws its reader in the lives of protagonist Fullin and the rest of his/her village. Before long, their calm routine is disrupted by the arrival of an outside observer and his neuter companion, an especially troubling event given the village’s widespread hatred of neuters.

As the story unfolds, so do the layers of meaning and purpose behind the village’s unusual society. While the story may start in a cheerfully retrograde pastoral fantasy setting (another one of my pet peeves), Gardner slows strips away the false simplicity of Fullin’s life until we’re left with brushed steel and active nanotechnology. Good stuff.

All the while, Gardner’s voice does wonder at keeping the preaching to a minimum. A few lines are surprisingly funny (“As a forty-year-old woman, (she) actually had a remarkable body… then it struck me that I was ogling (…) my mother. I shuddered with a sudden case of the icks.” [P.151]) and the overall light tone of the novel is a welcome change from the dreary self-importance in which most Tiptree-Award nominees usually smother themselves. The accumulated goodwill created by the novel is strong enough that its impact isn’t soured when the story hakes an abrupt turn toward dramatic intensity during the course of its conclusion. Then again the conclusion is suitably uplifting, a minor miracle given the twenty or so ghastly pages leading to it. A lot of it has to do with the novel’s plot-driven thrust: Here, the genre-switching is an important part of the story, but certainly not the end of it; it’s only a part of a larger mystery and a good excuse for exploring other issues. Could this be why this book interested me despite elements I wouldn’t normally go for?

Technically, there isn’t much that’s wrong with Commitment Hour. The writing is efficient, the numerous character are well-sketched and the story steadily advances, page after page. The protagonist has a few unpleasant choices to make, and every chapter seems to be bringing extra complications. The only aspect where I felt a discontinuity between the author’s intentions and the actual execution were in presenting the protagonist’s different thought processes as s/he switched from male to female personalities.

But no matter. Commitment Hour is still an unexpected good read. In fact, it’s even more surprising given how little I had cared for Expendable, Gardner’s first novel. His second effort seems more compelling, more interesting and, yes, more successful. You can reliably bet that I’ll be taking another look at this author’s works from now on.

Even my reluctance to appreciate works lauded for the Tiptree award can be explained after all; while doing research for this review, I cam across the “long list” of works considered for the 1998 Tiptree, and saw that Commitment Hour had been dismissed as too conventional and mainstream. Go figure. Show’s em how much they know.

Expendable, James Alan Gardner

Avonova, 1997, 337 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79439-X

Being a faintly patriotic Canadian reader (born and working in Ottawa, no less!) I usually feel almost duty-bound to report favourably on the Canadian SF that I read. While Expendable isn’t bad, it does have enough deficiencies to make one wonder.

National borders aside, James Alan Gardner is a hot new author. In two years, he has published two novels (Expendables and 1998’s Commitment Hour) and a few stories, winning the 1998 Aurora Award for “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream”. He seems to be poised to become as big a success as that “other” Canadian author, Robert J. Sawyer.

But like in Sawyer’s novels, the good mixes in the eek! in Expendables, with uneven results.

Festina Ramos would be a babelicious chick if it wasn’t for the ugly wine-red birthmark covering half her face. Not living in a particularly forgiving society, she’s drafted into the exploration corps as an “expendable” contact specialist because… hey… she’s ugly.

No kidding. First pages. Is this an excuse, a bit of window-dressing, a portent of deeper reasons? No! Though we wish otherwise, ugly makes you a perfect candidate for high-risk job: “In a society where people expect to ease confortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone being killed is deeply disturbing unless… the person who dies is different. […] If the victim was not so popular, not so well-liked and above all, ugly… well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.” [Page Three] Right, mate. Explains today’s army, right?

Take a big pill of Disbelief Suspension, and call me back in the morning. Forget about the implication of such a society, or the various alternate methods by which this could be implemented. This is the make-or-break premise. Take it or leave the book.

Those who choose to remain with the book shouldn’t regret their decision. The tale of Festina’s exploits is told reasonably well. The narration is suitably sarcastic -it helps covering up the logical flaws- and the portrayal of a goof tough female heroine is always welcome. Despite many dead moments and a few suspicious scenes (as well as improbable gadgets we sense included just-for-cool), Expendable is a well-crafted SF adventure. Unlike other writers who like to present a clear-cut, rigidly straight vision of the future, Gardner puts a lot of texture, details and off-hand trivia in his prose. The result that even given the ludicrousness of the situation, it has a kind of weird legitimacy as long as one doesn’t think about it too much.

Other aspects of the book, like the over-the-top fiendish plan, are unfortunately head-scratchers when objectively considered outside the self-assigned scope of the novel. Much like a villain who acts in an evil manner for no other reasons that, heck, he’s a bad guy!

As with most other “planet mysteries”, the initial troubling setup works better than the actual revelation of the mystery. Unlikely coincidences abound, like the presence of a gallery of Festina’s friends later in the story.

Sometimes interesting, sometimes discouraging, Expendables is likely to please some and discourage others. It shows, mostly, the promise of James Alan Gardner as an author… especially if he can restrain his initial situations and tighten up his plotting. In the meantime, let’s see what else he’ll write next.