Novel: The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner

Based on a two-book sampling, I’m not sure M.M. Buckner’s novels entirely work for me, particuarly when it comes to structure. But she’s an interesting writer with spotless, engaging prose and strong themes, and I find her work highly readable and thought-provoking.

That’s certainly true of the fuzzily plotted but vividly imagined The Gravity Pilot (2011), an extended environmental metaphor set in a post-collapse dystopia. Orr Sitka is a skydiving enthusiast living a simple life in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska. All he wants is to share his life with girlfriend Dyce, and to fall free from great heights. Unfortunately, these conditions seem to be mutually exclusive, so that when Orr makes a record-setting skydive that captures the eye of the media, Dyce is abandoning him for a digital archiving job in the underground city of Seattle. Enter Vera Luce, an ambitious media producer looking to leverage Orr’s newfound fame. Thanks to Vera, Orr finally has the financial freedom to pursue his passion with impunity. But pressures placed by his new corporate masters, and his unwavering love for Dyce, motivate him to defy fame and fortune.

The Gravity Pilot commits wholeheartedly to its skydiving material, to important effect, and the book’s post-collapse backdrop is effective. Buckner’s characters are nicely defined, and her prose reads effortlessly. Where the novel fell short for me was in its plot: plenty of things happen, but it’s often difficult to see the story’s shape or to feel the stakes. Individual scenes compelled me, but they never quite propelled me further into the story; only near the very end did events truly escalate.

Yet the book read smoothly enough, and as with Watermind, I came away from it thinking. Buckner’s world-building is in service to powerful themes, and the more I looked at the book as metaphor, the more it connected. Running through the novel is a sharply rendered environmental dichotomy: there’s the outdoor, physical world (the Aleutians, the remote island geography, Orr’s death-defying passion) and the indoor, virtual one (the claustrophobia of Seattle, the Luces’ media-peddling, Dyce’s VR addiction). This stark thematic split anchored my read. As pure storytelling, this one didn’t quite hit it out of the park, but as commentary on human behavior in the twenty-first century, I found it intriguing and insightful fiction.

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