by James Alan Gardner
I didn’t actually know who James Gardner was until attending the 2015 Ad Astra science fiction and fantasy writers’ convention, where I had the pleasure of sitting in on several author panels in which he participated. Despite the clear knowledge he displayed within the intelligent discussions I witnessed, nothing really made me want to run out and devour a Gardner book until another author mentioned his short story, “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream”––in which the first observations of Rh-positive blood with early microscopes are interpreted as blood borne serpents, indicative of sin, and society subsequently divides between the “righteous” and the “sinners.” I immediately did my research, and found it was from a short story collection called Gravity Wells. (It actually proved quite difficult to track down. The copy that eventually found its way into my collection was apparently discarded from an Ohio library, at least according to its stampings.)
Excitement in this case actually made way to hesitation, for at least a couple reasons. Firstly, I often worry speculative fiction that sounds interesting won’t make the leap to compelling narratives, depending on the care and skill of the author. Secondly, even if the writer who tackles the short story collection is very strong and highly respected by me, they may not be able to do the medium justice, when compared to the novel. (For every fabulous Daydreams of Angels, there’s a Bagombo Snuff Box: a collection that has a few good stories, but where most disappoint me.) Knowing nothing of Gardner’s writing, I wasn’t sure where this collection would fall, and so I waited quite some time to actually pick it up, worrying that my rose-coloured imagination would be shattered with an actual peek. It turns out I probably should have checked it out much sooner, as Gravity Wells easily holds its own among my favourites.
Not only are all the stories interesting, not only does Gardner show that he has the skills to push his concepts a step further––to be compelling––but he also demonstrates his amazing range throughout the collection. We start out on the right foot, with a great combination of light-hearted storytelling and the profound in “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large,” and we hop all over between the melancholy (“The Reckoning of Gifts”), the laugh-out-loud hilarious (“Hardware Scenario G-49”), and even the downright scary (“Shadow Album”). While I was very impressed by the aforementioned “Three Hearings,” my favourites were probably “Kent State Descending the Gravity Well: An Analysis of the Observer”––a tale built around an intriguing metaphor, focused on an author’s apprehensions at approaching a delicate subject with the proper respect––and “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”––with a story structure inspired by a musical work from the ’40s that was designed to introduce children to the various instruments in a symphony orchestra. And keep in mind that, as well as containing some extraordinary stories, the collection had none that I would consider bad.
So, Gravity Wells comes with my highest recommendation. Even if you don’t usually lean toward the sci-fi side of things, it’s still well worth at least a glimpse.