This year has seen several novels that I've come to with high expectations, only to be let down by a poor story, characters and writing. M.M. Buckner's latest novel, The Gravity Pilot, falls into this trend. Despite a strong premise and interesting world, the book is a lack-luster read, one that left me frustrated and awaiting for the final chapters.
Set in the decades ahead of us, global climate change has drastically affected the planet: the atmosphere is almost unbreathable, and ocean heights have forced drastic changes for cities around the world. In the midst of this world, Orr Sitka and his long-time girlfriend, Dyce, work to live amongst hard times: Orr turns to extreme sky diving, flying amongst the clouds, while Dyce looks to the internet and the abilities of wiki-libraries for her interests. On the day that Orr performs a particularly death-defying jump, breaking world-records while doing so, Dyce finds the job of her dreams. Unfortunately, the two events pull the two apart, with Dyce moving out to Seattle, now submerged and underground after the oceans rose, while Orr finds that he's in the international spotlight when a media mogul latches onto Orr with the intent of saving her and her father's failing company. At the same time, Dyce finds herself in a new world, becoming hopelessly addicted to gaming simulations (sims). When Orr finds out about her problems, he does everything in his power to help her.
There's points where this book excels: The first half of the novel does a terrific job setting up Buckner's future version of our planet, weaving together elements of climate change, technological innovation and inserting mass-media and consumption into the mix. Orr and Dyce fit well as a couple on opposite ends of temperament and interests: Orr feels rooted in the past, with his dismissal of the web and what it can offer, while Dyce is a complete believer in the system. Despite their differences, it's clear from the first couple of chapters that they're a pair that's comfortable with one another, and it's genuinely heartbreaking to see their separation.
However, problems begin outside of the setup and introductions, and the book, with all of its promise, trainwrecks. Orr, for all of his reclusiveness, is sucked into a highly public and controlling world, while Dyce is isolated with her work, but neither storyline ever restores my suspension of disbelief at the events. For one, the book feels too zany and ridiculous with its characters to really take seriously.
The main issues center around Rolf and Vera, father and daughter media moguls who are working to expand their company's bottom line with a new media hit: the Gravity Pilot, Orr's death-defying alter-ego. Complications arise between father and daughter (in what appears to be a somewhat incestuous relationship), not only by the actions of the characters, but of either the character or author's inability to understand how a major media enterprise would actually work in real life. The driving force appears to be working to find funds to maintain a biosphere put together by Rolf: the idea that Cyto, their company (and by all appearances, a major force for media in the nation or even the world), runs on some single form of revenue is patently ridiculous. The lengths and offhanded references to Vera getting loans from singular individuals leaves the book feeling very unthought-out, with no rhyme or reason as to the company's actions, and for the most part, losing sight of why they're fielding their Gravity Pilot (seemingly at great expense).
Furthermore, the plot gets muddled within itself: Orr trains and becomes a bigger star on the internet, before learning from a freelance journalist that she's in trouble, and hatches a plan to escape from Vera's clutches, journeys to Seattle to help her, ultimately leaving without her, before hatching a second plan to escape and help her again, which feels like a lot of unnecessary duplication, but also makes the plot and character's actions far more complicated than they really need to be. Furthermore, the entire storyline with Dyce feels off to me: it comes off as though it's a maiden in distress story, the girl who didn't listen or heed her partner's wishes / advice and falls as a result. In this day and age, her helplessness bothers me greatly, because she's written as an exceedingly strong character to start off with, but ultimately never goes anywhere.
This, I think, is at the heart of my issues with the book: the four central characters all have one main issue. Dyce wants to be in Seattle, bu then wants to escape her addiction and to be with her lover. Orr is miserable without her, and ultimately can't decide what to do about it, while Vera sees that Orr is miserable, and works to push him harder, while Rolf is working to control his daughter and the company. All of these problems would have been easily solved by any of the characters realizing what they really want (and it's clear that they already realize this, rather than the book being about some form of self-discovery, which would have made it much better). In Vera's instance, it's clear very early on that there were ways to make her situation better, either by helping Orr and Dyce talk (which was in her power to do), and in Rolf's case, it would have likely been to exert some form of business control over what he daughter was doing, and avoid bankrupting his company. The fact that all of the characters seem to take deliberate steps to make themselves more miserable further makes me wonder about the attention that went into the plot.
It's clear that there's some points that the author is trying to make from the book: this is where The Gravity Pilot is at its best, in a way, with a cautionary tale about the addictions of internet / toys / social media and its general affect on society (not good), without advocating that people should be a complete luddite in the process. Indeed, there's some interesting background parts to the book where it appears that there's a lot of thought put into how some basic things would be solved: climate change and bio-engineering, the societal effect of living underground, heel-spike stairs to capture energy, all woven into this book fairly seamlessly. Ultimately, however, the themes and the characters are disconnected somewhere, and we're left with a book with some very good things going for it, but with the other half almost completely ruining any good efforts that it had.
At the end of the day, The Gravity Pilot is a book that has potential, but fails to live up to what it sets out to do: it's a disappointing, frustrating read, but notable for its excellent world-building and vision of the future.