Reviews and analysis - Gravity's Angels

Review by James Nicoll
(This review first appeared on Usenet, 05/2001)

Gravity's Angels
Frog, Ltd., 2000

This book seems to have been published in part by Tachyon Press (or something: Tachyon appears on the spine but not, as far as I can see, on the inside of the book). Logically it should have been at the 2000 Boskone but if it was, I missed it.

Gravity's Angels illustration, 94 kB

Pity, as it would have given me two Swanwick collections to fail to get autographed through extreme cluelessness (having spent the day part of a day within two meters of Swanwick without realising who he was). This is a collection of about a decade's worth of work by Swanwick, from the 1980s. I see it had an earlier edition from Arkham House, which I also managed to miss.

If my comments seem sparse, it is because I find it a lot harder to talk usefully about stories which are generally flawless. A general criticism is that there are enough typos in the book that I, not the most observant of people, noticed them.

An aside: I really like Frog, Ltd's company logo.


"A Midwinter's Tale" [Asimov's, 1988]

This is the story of the initial contact between the larls, a predator native to another world, and the human settlers, as recounted by a memory damaged soldier from a tale he heard as a youth. Brief and to the point, the contact is costly but highly useful to both sides.

"The Feast of St. Janis" [New Dimensions 11, 1980]

In a future fallen into decay and environmental disaster, an African representative comes to America to negotiate access to a still-highly rated American university. While he is waiting for a decision from the local authorities, he is drawn into a strange and horrible ritual involving a technologically induced behavioral twin of Janis Joplin, the conclusion and story of which reveals much about what America has become to him.

This reminded me of Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights", actually. Funny, because the two stories must have been written virtually simultaneously. Something in the water, I guess.

"The Blind Minotaur" [Amazing Stories, 1985]

A living construct in the form of a minotaur, made by the now-fallen Lords, wanders through a landscape oddly similar to that of various Greek myths, eventually deciding that to truly free humans from the rule of the Lords, he will have to become this era's Homer.

"The Transmigration of Philip K." [Asimov's, 1984]

Not surprisingly, given the title, this is a very Phildickian game of nested realities and paranoia. Not my thing, but if it were, I expect I'd enjoy it.

"Covenant of Souls" [Omni, 1986]

Set in a church, something, perhaps a ghost and perhaps not, is inhabiting the basement. As the world stumbles towards a final conflagration, the nature of what is going on is slowly revealed.

This could so easily be stolen for an X-Files episode. Thank goodness it has not, as I expect its strengths would not survive the translation from pretty good prose SF to mediocre SF TV. I hope that Hollywood doesn't decide to strip-mine Swanwick's body of work after his (hopefully long-off) death.

"The Dragon Line" [Terry's Universe, 1988]

In modern America Merlin is rescued from the ground by a Mordred who has lived through the years between Arthur's time and ours. The world appears to be doomed but despite the futility of his efforts, Mordred struggles to save it despite any personal cost.

There's no reason to expect a connection between this and Elton's Stark but they could be in nearby parallel worlds. Mordred may well fail but he still persists in trying, unlike the run-aways and useless idiots of Elton's book. Written around the same time, too. Must explore where Swanwick gets his water.

"Mummer Kiss" [Universe 1, 1981]

In a Philadelphia which has just barely survived the complete meltdown of Three Mile Island and the social aftermath, a young man has settled into an easy life, without major ambition until he crosses paths with an out-of-town reporter. For reasons related to her research, the powers that be of the city want her dead and because he has had too contact with her, they want him gone as well. Eventually he finds out why she is a threat to the city and despite himself manages to prevail.

This was incorporated in the later In the Drift which if memory serves was one of Terry Carr's SF discovery series, the same series which gave us Neuromancer and The Wild Shore. Not a lot of duds in that series.

"Trojan Horse" [Omni, 1984]

Set in a similar universe or perhaps the same as Vacuum Flowers. Mind-fiddling technology has let the people of the future build gods. The cost of becoming a godlike being is very high and the protagonist has to decide whether or not she wants to be drawn into the trap of godhead.

"Snow Angels" [Omni, 1989]

A fugitive from the US government runs into a former Olympic athlete, living in isolation since an accident crippled her and made her dependent on cyborging technology. Both have had their lives wrecked by misfortune but deal with their circumstances quite differently.

"The Man Who Met Picasso" [Omni, 1982]

A young artist meets Picasso and is given a lesson in art. He receives word that his father has died and Picasso predicts, correctly, that if the young fellow goes home his artistic career will be over. Picasso appears to be right, until the end of the story, when the former-young man realises the painting he studied had a meaning he could have applied to his entire life, that he didn't have to be the main supporter of his family but could have given them important indirect support of another kind by pursuing his career.

Boy, I'd like to hear people's opinion on this story, in light of the anti-parallels between the young man and Michael Swanwick and in light of the dedication the collection bears.

"Foresight" [Interzone, 1987]

Me too dumb to appreciate story of backwards time and reverse story telling. The problem with being an utterly shallow reader that sport-writing passes me by.

"Ginungagap" [TriQuarterly 49, 1980]

Humans have discovered a way to exploit black holes to talk to their interstellar colonies. As it turns out, they also can transfer enough information about materials to rebuild them at a receiver at the other end. A group of enigmatic aliens contacts humans through the black holes and a young woman volunteers to be sent through, despite the mixed results of the initial tests. In a sense she gains immortality and the stars, although her former boyfriend thinks all she found was death.

"The Edge of the World" [Full Spectrum 2, 1989]

Three teenagers explore the edge of the flat Earth. They stumble across a method ancient mystics used to gain wishes and use it unthinkingly. I am sure had they realised they were in a Swanwick story, they'd have leapt from the edge of the world, instead. All three get their wishes, of varying utility and cost. The fellow who gets a ladder is best served by his wish.


Even just flipping through the book to refresh my memory makes me feel depressed and alienated. These are well crafted tales, even the ones which do not appeal to me, but I wonder if taking a break from J. G. Ballard by reading Michael Swanwick was the best course of action I might have taken. I recommend this collection to anyone who likes a well written story but who is not pre-suicidal. Hrm. Or who is seriously suicidal, in which case I recommend The Child Garden as well.

I notice that at least two of the stories had origins tied into the death of someone Swanwick might have known (If he didn't know Dick, that would not surprise me, but Carr edited Swanwick's first novel and Swanwick contributed to the memorial anthology for Carr). However, the Dickian story is not, as such stories go, particularly grim. It doesn't even stand out in the context of this collection. The Carr short story, "The Dragon Line" is quite bleak and if I encountered it outside of the collection I would wonder if the circumstances of its publication contributed to this aspect. In the context of these other stories, I would just suspect that Swanwick, as he expresses himself in prose, is a grim fellow himself.

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