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Phases Of Gravity by Dan Simmons

1/12/2011. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy Phases Of Gravity in the USA - or Buy Phases Of Gravity in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 310 page deluxe hardback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-416-4).

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Unusually for me, I’m reviewing a non-SF book. This is purely by accident of course. The title, the fact that it’s about an astronaut and is being published by Subterranean Press fooled me into thinking that Dan Simmons’ ‘Phases Of Gravity’ was going to be Science Fiction. What the book actually is about is former Apollo astronaut Richard Baedecker’s attempts to come to terms with his mundane existence sixteen years after walking on the moon, the advance of middle age, strained relationships with his son and ex-wife and the search to put meaning into what he is and has.

The book’s structure is a complex web of flashbacks, reminiscences, flashbacks about reminiscences, memories of flashbacks about reminiscences and memories of other episodes later in his life that remind him of the thing he was reminiscing about during one of the flashbacks. This did lead me to sometimes lose track of what was happening in the primary timeline, though often that didn’t matter as Baedecker isn’t actually doing much apart from wandering round searching for meaning to his life and remembering the old days. It is these memories then that make the book what it is: a rich tapestry of touching and memorable scenes from Baedecker’s youth spent at his father’s cabin, his time in the Apollo programme, episodes during his son’s life and other snippets that suddenly gain significance to Baedecker as his travels unfold.

It’s quite a mellow book to read. No startling revelations or dramatic action sequences, but a dawning sense that something significant is there to be discovered. As the novel progresses and the various chapters of Baedecker’s life fall into place, I began to construct a timeline in my head. The interest becomes not so much what Baedecker will discover, what his conclusions to the mysteries of life will be, nor even whether he will make such a discovery, but rather whether he will recognise the answers when he finds them and whether they will satisfy him.

There’s no doubt that Dan Simmons has done a masterful job of creating a complex and sympathetic character in Richard Baedecker. The travails of his life and the relationships he develops along the way are realistic and convincing, the chance encounters sound true-to-life. For me, it was an unusual experience reading such a book, it is so far removed from anything I would normally be reading. I guess ultimately it’s a book that has to be taken on its own merits, without preconceived ideas or expectations. You may come away with a discovery as profound as Richard Baedecker’s journey.

Gareth D. Jones

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