The Gravity Pilot, M.M. Buckner

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.

Welcome to the Greenhouse

Climate change is here to stay. It’s a bit of a foregone conclusion at this point, given the rise of human industrialized society and the scientific evidence that is increasingly supporting the idea that we’ve influenced how we have changed our climate to the point where it’ll cause problems for life as we know it. As such, it’s a little surprising that there isn’t more of an impact in the science fiction realm. I think that’s about to change, as that reality sinks in a little more, and it seems that there are a growing number of books that are starting to come out about the topic, which I’m rather happy about. In 2009, Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl was released to great acclaim, set in a post-oil world, and is something of a novel that demonstrated what type of story really works.

Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change, edited by Gordon Van Gelder, feels very much like the type of anthology that is perfect for this time and place. Published by O/R books, which has published a number of more politically minded non-fiction and political works, this anthology pulls together original sixteen stories by a number of well known and respected authors, including Alan Dean Foster, Bruce Sterling, Paul Di Filippo and Brian Aldiss, all revolving around the topic of climate change.

The anthology is a bit of a mixed bag, which feels like a missed opportunity with a field that’s likely to grow, or a good first step in what’ll likely become a good sub-genre, much like Cyber or Steampunk (Biopunk maybe?). While there are some good stories here about the threats to humanity because of global warming, the stories that really stand out here are ones that aren’t actually about the changing climate, but the ways that people are adapting to a new lifestyle because of the impact of rising sea levels, warmer temperatures or any number of other issues. As a whole, the anthology gets its strength with the stories that are heavily grounded in some form of reality, and goes astray when things get a little strange.

Stories such as ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ by Judith Moffett, ‘Eagle’, by Gregory Benford, ‘Turtle Love’ by Joseph Green, ‘The Bridge’, by Gregory Guthridge, and ‘True North’ by M.J. Locke really demonstrate the story potential that exists for stories that involve climate change: the stories that people identify with the themes that involve the characters, and these stories do so marvelously: with the change in climate comes changes for the people and their ways of life, and that’s where the stories come out.

While the anthology succeeds here, there’s a chunk of stories that just didn’t do it for me: . Some of them just didn’t have the stories that I was all that interested in, but there were a couple, like ‘That Creeping Sensation’, by Alan Dean Foster, about giant bugs that come about as the result of higher oxygen levels, and FarmEarth, by Paul Di Fillippo, about people gaming to save the climate, directing nature (and feels far too referential to things like FarmVille), and ‘Men of Summer’ by David Prill, about a woman dating a number of guys during a particularly hot point in our future, that just fell flat, and either looked at climate change as a dominant point of the story, while sacrificing the overall picture / and morals that other stories had. The anthology, as a result, isn’t stuffy or pretentiously serious, but it doesn’t quite get the balance between serious and entertaining as much as I’d like.

That being said, I think that Welcome to the Greenhouse as a whole is a solid one: it gets the idea that climate change is a serious threat to the way of life that we’ve become accustomed to, but also that there is an incredible potential for stories here. Furthermore, it’s a field that’s ripe for speculative fiction, as Bacigalupi demonstrated with his three books, as well as a growing number of other stories that are starting to come out. It’s a book that stands out in a very small field. At the same time, the absence of one of Paolo’s stories (even a reprint), is striking, and any one of his stories in his collection would have fit in well here, along with Carrie Vaughn’s Amaryllis is another story that would have fit in well here. Doubtlessly, there are a number of other stories that would work for this type of anthology, but as it stands right now, it works well, and I hope that it’ll encourage further stories in the genre: it's an important theme to explore, along the same lines that the importance of the impact that nuclear destruction had during the golden age of science fiction, either implicitly or in passing.

The Weather Outside

It's finally snowing again in Vermont, and we're expected to get up to a foot in some places. Not necessarily central Vermont, which has lost a lot of its snow and taken on a spring-like atmosphere, something that will hopefully be changing. Meanwhile the rest of the country has gotten all of the snow that should rightfully be Vermont's, with feet of snow at a time, exhausting the budgets of state highway departments two months into the year.

With the snow came, from conservative pundits, a quick outcry as to how the storms invalidated the theory of global climate change, on the grounds that if there is snow on the ground, clearly, there can't be any sort of warming in the atmosphere, and that the liberal lies concerning man's impact on the planet have been unraveled by the white stuff on the ground. Just as quickly, liberal commentators slammed, and rightly so, the thinking behind these fairly short sighted arguments.

There are a number of different theories when it comes to how the climate of the world has interacted with humanity in the past ten thousand years of our existence. Scholarly evidence points to irrefutable evidence that the planet has indeed been heating up - both the atmosphere and the oceans (which are a major component to the Earth's atmosphere), and that this trend largely fits with the rise of industrialization around the world. By and large, there is an assumption that these two figures are inextricably linked together. This may or not be the case, but it does present a compelling notion that humanity is indeed responsible, at least in part, for some of the changes in the atmosphere. Numerous scientific groups from around the world look to general circulation models (which attempt to mathematically link the atmosphere, the oceans and life of the planet into a representation of the world) to help see what is happening in the world. While their methods differ, there is a general consensus that humanity has contributed to CO2 in the atmosphere in a way that is likely to raise global temperatures between .05 and 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Brian Skinner, Stephen C. Porter and Jeffrey Park, Dynamic Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology, 5th Edition, 518) While a single degree doesn't seem like a lot, and is even welcomed by some (I can't begin to say how many people I've heard say that they'll welcome Global Warming with each new snowfall each year) that sort of rise in temperature does more than just heat up the planet. With increases in temperatures, minute changes within atmospheric patterns occur - increased evaporation from water sources in turn leads to more precipitation elsewhere, which in turn has an effect on other areas, which in turn has its own effects in other areas. This is why the term Global Warming has been shifted in recent years to the more politically correct sounding Climate Change - not necessarily for politically correct reasons, but simply because Global Warming does not cover the entire story. Global Warming, in a way, is a component of Global Climate Change.

While wide-scale reporting of the weather did not really exist for much of the world prior to the Second World War, leading to only recent accurate data, other sources of information can be found within the geologic record. Global Warming and Climate Changing events are nothing new within the Earth's history, and numerous locations around the world help to pinpoint what happened in the past. On each continent, large formations of Limestone, topped with glacial deposits, point to long periods of warming periods, followed by global cooling events. Ancient ocean bed deposits littered with drop stones provide concrete and tangible evidence that these sorts of events happened time and time again, over the courses of thousands of years. With the most recent indications pointing to new elements of climate change, and with the possibility of humans speeding up what might be a natural process, the real question becomes, not what we can do about it, but what can we do next?

When looking through the geologic column, it becomes readily apparent that these sorts of changes occur often, and that the planet's climate has changed drastically throughout the billions of years of its existence. On both sides of the liberal and conservative arguments, there exists a certain stupidity and simplification to the issue at hand. I don't necessarily think that human society should be vilified for essentially doing what life generally does when left to its own devices: expand and make it easier to reproduce, or that we should blindly close our eyes to the changes that are clearly happening in the world. Where there is snowfall in Washington DC - In the middle of winter, I might add, there are countless other problems around the world as global weather patterns shift. Our atmosphere has a fickle attitude, and our memory only extends so far, but we have become comfortable with what we remember and what we are used to.

What I dislike the most is the timing of much of the arguments against Global Climate Change, with allegations towards respected scientific bodies, resignations and the recent row with the sudden weather, and the entire theory of climate change has been thrown into question, with TV pundits talking back and forth, and instant polls from viewers being broadcast as real news. The notion that human-made climate change is certainly open to debate, but there is irrefutable evidence that the planet’s temperature is rising. The idea that the polling data taken from average Americans is put toe to toe with decades of scholarly, peer reviewed evidence is just ridiculous. I would hardly expect any sort of average person to understand the science and workings behind how our climate works, not to mention the analysis of such a study, and when said viewers are fed information and doubt from the media, the comparison is even more ridiculous. I, as someone educated in geology and scientific method, can hardly understand the implications and vast nature of such science.

What scares me the most is that the television pundits who go on screen and doubt the existence of such a phenomenon or before a wide scale audience at a convention to dispute such claims most likely know that what they are doing is playing to the fears and uncertainty of the public to fulfill some larger agenda that they might have: whether it’s demonstrating climate change legislation as a sort of over-reach of the Federal Government or of elite liberalism gone wrong. And in reaction, the left overreacts, making fun or coming across as arrogant in their rebuttals, rather than explaining the background of the science involved with such a concept. In the end, it just helps to fulfill the images of both sides of political thought, all the while just adding to the hot air around the world.

The problem with all of this is the dismissal of scientific method, and it demonstrates that much of the mentality and feeling that existed under the Bush administration still exists within a large segment of the United States. There seems to be an irrational fear of academics, of learning and of knowledge, in favor of someone’s gut instincts and what they can see. The principles behind science are sound: any sort of phenomenon can be replicated and tested, but the thinking behind sciences seems to elude much of the population, something that is then exploited when something out of the ordinary occurs, such as the storms that have blanketed the United States recently.

In the meantime, I wouldn't mind if the weather patterns would shift back to normal, so I can get a proper winter back to the places where it can be appreciated.

(In the time that I wrote this last night and the time that I posted this, we got a foot of snow.)