Friday, February 18, 2005

Steve Gould is a SF author with a fairly low output - he's only published five or six books in the last fifteen years. However, there are some really excellent juveniles in that meagre collection - specifically, the Wild Side and his first novel, Jumper. the Wild Side is definitively a juvenile - the feel is sort of like H. Beam Piper writing from a Heinlein juvenile-novel outline - but I might have mis-characterized Jumper. At the time, the wish-fulfillment aspects of the plot - victim of child abuse develops a near-godlike ability to teleport, remakes his life as he grows into adulthood - led me to think of the novel as a really, really excellent young-adult novel. The fact that he followed it up with the equally excellent the Wild Side cemented it in my imagination as such. When he started writing adult-themed novels like Blind Waves, I was a bit disappointed - while fine books, Blind Waves and Helm didn't have the spark of his earlier work, and I was afraid that he was "growing out of" his talents.

This is why I was less than enthused when I saw that he had written a sequel to Jumper, more than a decade after the publishing of the first book. Jumper had not really cried out for a sequel - the character-arc was complete, the protagonist's power was such that the real conflicts of the book wasn't between him and the various terrorists, government spooks, and father-figures, but rather within his own skull - his emotional development. That emotional arc was pretty much complete by the end of the book, with him happily married, secure, and well-employed as a freelance spook for the NSA. (Why the NSA? For some reason, the CIA doesn't exist in Gould's Jumper world, or at least, is never seen on stage or mentioned. Peculiar. I'll get back to that in a bit.)

The new novel, Reflex is being advertised primarily with a description of the plot, so I won't be spoiling anyone any further by saying that it begins with the clever kidnapping of the superpowered hero, Davy, and offers an elaborate imprisonment "A story" of operant conditioning, alternating with a "B story" of his wife's quest to find her missing husband.

As a plot-description, it sounded idiotic, a total hash of the original novel, and I had initial qualms. The way Gould moves forward with the story redeems the pulp outline, however, and I found myself tearing through the book in a single sitting. Gould definitely shows himself to be a disciple of Lois McMaster Bujold's "what's the worst thing we could do to this character" school of action-novel plotting, and it's vital to maintaining interest in such an excessively powerful personage as Davy the multilingual, unstoppable, uncontainable supernatural god-of-spies. The villains are terribly, terribly careful in their construction of constraints for the man who can disappear from any pen, any cell, any jail. They're fighting with the basic impossibility of bending to their will a man who can jump to the other side of the world from any given situation, or, even worse, the other side of the wall - right in your face. The fact that the villains make a good show of it makes that part of the novel compelling.

The other half is problematic, in a self-respect sort of way. It's unapologetically pulp, one-half authorial special-pleading, one-half wish-fulfillment, and way more fun than it ought to be. In short, Davy's wife, Millie, ends up inheriting his ability to flick back and forth through space. She "jumps". This is a violation of the premise of the original novel, in which Davy is unique, and unreplicable. There were suggestions that the talent might be genetic, or some sort of mutational freak. Nevertheless, after her husband disappears, leaving her stranded in their insanely-remote West Texas mountain place - called "the Aerie" and inaccessible except via Davy's talent - she discovers that riding along on thousands of "jumps" has somehow taught her the reflex that allows "jumping". Of course, she learns this by nearly falling to her death in an accident while trying to get back to civilization, so it's not nearly as lame as it sounds, but still - comic-booky as hell.

Gould makes some genuflections towards literary and thematic merit by tying together the "reflex" goals of the harsh, ugly operant conditioning at the centre of Davy's story, and Millie's learned reflexes as she develops the family power in her search for the villains. Gould almost pulls it off, but in the end, it's just really brilliant pulp. It isn't juvenile, however - not with all of the torture and sexuality and violent grotesqueries - and I'm not sure if I've mis-categorized the original novel, or if Gould has jumped sub-genres. The wrap-up at the end of Reflex leaves the door open for a trilogy-finale, and I suppose Gould has earned the right to a pulp-trilogy trifecta.

Gould does his best to keep the book moored in a semblance of reality. Davy does chores for the NSA in retrieving North Korean nuclear scientists, and inserting agents all over the world. Real mercenary groups are mentioned, and real situations are cited. Back when Jumper first came out, the novel's fixation on Middle Eastern terrorists seemed somewhat archaic - dated Eighties attitudes towards terrorism. You know, it was the Nineties. We were watching the end of history, and that sort of thing was old-fashioned. Now, more than a dozen years later, it makes a heck of a lot more sense. Strangely, Gould drops that line, and takes an even more old-fashioned attitude which I won't get too heavily into to avoid spoilers. Let's just say that I find his sudden anti-capitalist line a bit peculiar.

Oh, yes - the supplanting of the NSA for the CIA. Most if not all of the work Davy does for the government is through the National Security Agency - the good old "No Such Agency". The strangeness here is that the real-world NSA isn't exactly a two-fisted HUMINT-and-counterintelligence-cowboys outfit. They're wire-spooks, crypto types and electronic surveillance boffins. Instead, they're shown doing stake-outs, running security perimeters, and quarrelling with the FBI. What does this mean? Damned if I know, but it's really odd. Does Gould have a day-job at the CIA or something?

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