When a 22-year-old Alaskan completes a record-breaking skydive from the Mesosphere, his childhood sweetheart leaves him because she fears he’s too reckless. Then a cunning talent scout lures him into making ever more dangerous skydives as content for web-based games. His natural grace in the sky wins international sports fame, but he yearns for his girlfriend. When he hears she may be dying, he abandons everything to go to the underground city of Seattle to search for her.
The Gravity Pilot is a new account of Orpheus, the Greek poet who traveled through the Underworld and faced the Lord and Lady of Hades to rescue his lover, Eurydice.
In Buckner’s novel, Orr is a gifted skydiver whose athleticism is as graceful as music. When his lover, Dyce, loses herself in the addictive world of online gaming, Orr confronts the bizarre couple who own the web servers. In the end, he must decide how much he will sacrifice for his addiction-damaged lover.
As in her previous novels, Buckner explores the near future in which the Earth has been altered by climate change, pollution and growing population. This speculative work takes a look at new green technologies that may give our next generation hope.
The novel also explores the rapidly evolving world of extreme skydiving. Buckner did broad-range research on skydiving history, atmospheric science, space suit technology and the many recent attempts to break the world altitude record set in 1960 by Joseph Kittinger. She also made a skydive herself, “to get the feel of the sky.” Read an Excerpt from Gravity Pilot
“Five . . . four . . . three . . .”
At the mark, Orr ignited the main engine, and fire exploded through the aft nozzle. Thunderous vibrations rocked the hangar windows, and Mister Missile lifted on a thick column of exhaust. Acceleration flattened Orr deep into his vinyl seat. His stomach tightened as the rocket shuddered upward through the long jolting climb to the tropopause, the highest reach of Earth’s blustery weather.
When he broke through the cloud tops into the sudden calm, the quiet engulfed him. Black silence, as pure as ice. His interior spaces opened wide, and he released his grip on the yoke. He was rising into the stratosphere, higher than he’d ever been. Even through a thick scarred window, such a view clears a young man’s mind. He rocked forward and bit his lip to keep from singing.
Pete’s slow drawl crackled over the radio com link. “Check your velocity, son.”
Orr scanned the rocket’s old-fashioned console dials. “I’m still accelerating. That’s funny.”
Pete said, “You’re climbing too fast to exit. You gotta slow her down.”
Orr flipped a switch to override the rocket’s cranky onboard computer. He punched keys to cut fuel and close off the oxidizer flow in the combustion chamber. But the engine didn’t respond. Maybe a valve was stuck.
“Firing retros,” Orr said. He felt a slight jerk as the side-mounted verniers expended their short burst of fuel. He slowed for an instant. Then the acceleration resumed.
“Little firecrackers ain’t worth shit,” Pete said.
Orr accelerated straight up through the stratopause, the roof of the stratosphere. He knew better than to exit. If he popped the hatch, the speed would rip his body through the metal wall before he was halfway out.
“Orr, this is Gabe. Abort the jump. I repeat, abort the jump.”
Pete came on. “Just ride her up and down, Orr. See the sights. That fuel pressure warning must’ve been for real.”
Orr gripped the helm and rotated the deflectors in the exhaust nozzle, trying to reduce speed and force the rocket over into a flat trajectory. He’d worked too hard to get this chance. Raking kelp. Fixing machinery. Washing out tanks at the seafarm. He flipped keys to reposition the rocket fins, but the engine fought back. He heard it detonating inside like a ruptured heart, and he climbed through sixty kilometers, sixty-one, sixty-two. He soared above the stratosphere, into the freezing mesosphere. The temperature outside read minus forty degrees Celsius.
At last, the engine sputtered out, and he knew its chambers would never fire again. His velocity dropped. In a few seconds, the old bucket of bolts would pitch over, exactly as it should have done in the stratosphere. And Orr would feel that instant of weightlessness — his one chance to exit. After that, Mister Missile would drop like a bomb till its glider ’chutes deployed for a splashdown in the Gulf of Alaska.
He had to make a decision now. Exit, or stay with the rocket. But he was so high, almost at the edge of space. His pressure suit wasn’t rated for this altitude.
“Ride the rocket down,” Pete said, as if reading his mind.
“Don’t jump, Orr. We’ll find another engine. We’ll try again.” Gabe’s voice cracked.
Orr checked the altitude, and his mouth went dry. Sixty-four kilometers. Nearly forty miles above the Earth. The thought of leaping into that frigid void made his balls retract. But a Wing dive from that height would set a new world record. He tried to imagine what Dyce would say. A world record. She couldn’t call that nothing. The rocket pitched over, and he floated up in his seat. Against all reason, he felt lucky.
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THE GRAVITY PILOT
“Buckner tells an amazing story with characters that come off the page and live in the scenes of the readers mind. She reminds me of the best of Tiptree and LeGuin... THE GRAVITY PILOT is not a book to be skimmed through, it is one to be savored.”
— Barry Hunter
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“If a writer can write, you got your money’s worth. But every so often, the writer can sing, and then you’ve found a story you’ll never forget. Buckner can sing like Billie Holiday.”
— Spider Robinson