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, Swanwick’s effort succeeds as much as it could be improved, making Griffin’s Egg 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 unleashes a chemical agent into one of the mining complexes and Weil and the others must find a way to bring normalcy back to their isolated colony. They ultimately face a difficult choice amidst the evolving chaos.
For those looking for an entertaining story, Griffin’s Egg is a mini-space opera with a lot to offer. The plot is fast-paced and no time is wasted moving the 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 his tale a modern edge. Instead of portraying 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 of large concerns with Griffin’s Egg. 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 — this approach added 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 an interesting technique, but it can be frustrating, and is particularly noticeable upon the conclusion. The characters are faced with a difficult choice, but since the subject of the choice evolves so frequently, it lack drama. 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, the story has an improvisational rather than planned feel, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Swanwick was making up Griffin’s Egg as he wrote it. The characters and premise seem to buffet rather than drive the story, and the result is a feeling that the novella could have been expanded into a novel so that the scenes which only loosely fit could have been better situated, or conversely, the digressive scenes deleted in order not to distract from the whole. It must be stated, however, that 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. 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. The story is not always focused and the continual appearance of game changers subverts the overall thematic aim, but for those looking for mini-space opera, Griffin’s Egg will certainly satisfy.