Michael Swanwick’s Griffin’s Egg tries as much to be retro sci-fi as it does to push the limits of the genre—or at least the limits when the novella was published in 1991. The story of a industrial worker on the moon who must deal with the spillover of violence from Earth to the point of post-humanism, the effort succeeds for as much as it could be improved, proving the combination at least marginally effective.
Gunther Weil is an employee of G5, one of the biggest industries mining the moon for metals and raw materials. Though working on a voluntary contract, he holds no place in his heart for the rote and plethora of bureaucracy, the rubbish strewn about the moon’s surface, or the radioactive storms that plague his rover trips delivering fuel pods. But he is more afraid of political turmoil on Earth; governments continually with fingers on the button, Weil considers life on the moon a worthy sacrifice. He can run, but he can’t hide; one day a button is pushed. World governments reacting in kind, the effects eventually reach the moon. A terrorist unleashing a chemical agent into one of the mining complexes, Weil and the others must find a way to bring normalcy back to their isolated colony. The choice they ultimately face amidst the evolving chaos, however, is anything but.
For those looking for an entertaining story, the novella is a mini-space opera with a lot to offer. The plot fast-paced, no time is wasted moving story along. Utilizing the trouble-in-the-moon-colony trope nicely, Griffin’s Egg hearkens back to the early days of Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, covering a lot of ground story-wise. At the same time, Swanwick gives tale a modern edge. Not a utopia, he blends many of humanity’s vices into the proceedings, imbuing an increasingly realist feel to matters as the story progresses.
Stylistically competent, there are, however, a couple large concerns. As Swanwick never delimits the situation or technology in detail, the future scene is rife with possibility. In The Iron Dragon’s Daughter—a work artistically and therefore intentionally abstract—such an approach adds to the tingling sense of wonder. But in the case of Griffin’s Egg, a piece aiming in the direction of realism, the approach only creates a degree of consternation. The continual reveal of game changing elements when the clock has already started running may be interesting from a tech point of view, but can be frustrating, and is particularly noticeable upon the conclusion. The characters faced with a difficult choice, there is a lack of drama given that the subject of the choice has evolved so frequently. Working like magic not technology, it gets mixed in with all of the other random items, leading to such questions as: if this is possible, why not that? Or, if I wait to the next page, will another element appear to negate this option? Suffice to say, the story would have worked better if the ground rules were worked into the story earlier such that the characters’ actions and choices would later be contextualized rather than open ended.
Another matter is that several of the scenes have a weak connection to the main storyline. Overall things having an improvisational rather than planned feel, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Swanwick was making up Griffin’s Egg as he wrote it. The characters and premise seeming to buffet rather than drive the story, the result is a feeling that the novella could have been expanded into a novel such that the scenes which only loosely fit would have been better situated, or conversely, the digressive scenes deleted in order not to distract from the whole. It must be stated, however, it’s entirely possible to relax and enjoy the story being told.
In the end, Griffin’s Egg is a semi-ambitious novella that balances story with questions about the evolution of mankind. Swanwick bursting with opinion, there are also doses, mostly cynical, of commentary regarding humanity and its perception of itself. Set on the moon, the scenery and plot elements have a strong Silver Age feel. (Check out the cover.) I found the story focused only at times, the continual appearance of game changers subverting the overall thematic aim. But for those looking for mini-space opera, it will certainly satisfy.