Steven Gould: worth hunting down

Having mentioned Helm, the other day, I was reminded how much I love Steven Gould, and how under-appreciated he is. I fear the film, (Jumper) which brought a small number of his books to popular consciousness, may also have done him a disservice, in terms of introducing him as an author to fans of the genre. I could be wrong about this, but I know next to no one who saw the film, and even less people who have read the book it was based on. Which is a real shame, because the book is a completely different and much more interesting animal than the film.

I first encountered Steven Gould because a friend of mine was mad about the film, and madder about the book it was (very loosely) based on. She was particularly a fan of the character of Griffin, played by Jamie Bell, and, to be honest, although he was a complete invention of the movie, and had nothing to do with the book, he was probably the best part. She wanted someone to squee with, and I can’t get enough of superhero films, so I was easy to persuade. Yet, I really find Hayden Christensen (David, in the film) unconvincing as an actor, and I was put off by his being the leading man. I decided I wanted to read the book first.

And what a book. Researching this today, I was completely stunned to realise that this was his first novel. It’s probably his best work. It completely baffles me that they jettisoned the plot of the original book in favour of unnecessary, and cheesy, complications. Perhaps introducing the Paladins as people who hunt ‘Jumpers’ made it into a more traditional superhero film, but the original plot is actually more relevant now than it was in 1992, when the book was written. Which is a great thing for a science fiction work to do.

Plot: David ‘Davy’ Rice is a teenager who discovers a talent for teleportation when escaping from his abusive father. He takes the moment as a cue to leave and never look back, running away to New York city, whereupon he is mugged. Without any identifying documents he can’t get a job, and believing that, as a minor, he’ll be shipped back to his father if he goes to the authorities, he decides to use his power to support himself. He robs a bank, leaving him wealthy, and the cops perplexed. He meets a girl, he falls in love. He starts to get the wrong kind of attention… things get complicated. And then his mother (who he has only just managed to find again) becomes the victim of a terrorist attack. Davy effectively becomes a superhero fighting terrorists who hijack planes. No cape or anything – it’s all told with a very natural style and realistic presentation – but he saves people using his superpower. Davy’s actions draw the attention of the NSA, and things get really complicated. Delightfully so.

This is a brilliant, well-thought out, well-researched, fast paced and engaging novel. And virtually none of it makes it into the film. Having Davy get chased by the ‘good’ guys whilst also chasing down plane exploding terrorists seemed to me an awesome set up perfectly calculated to wow cinema goers. You got a bank heist and spies and terrorists and a superhero. Not to mention a love interest who doesn’t know his secret (Steven Gould, you had me at Secret Identity Angst). The insinuation of the unlikely ‘Paladin’ in place of the NSA is bizarre and out of place. Samuel L. Jackson would have worked just as well as Cox the NSA agent, as opposed to Cox the Paladin. And Davy’s wonderful characterisation is simply lost on Hayden Christensen. The only good thing about the movie is Griffin, the more rough and ready British jumper who has been eluding the Paladins. This was also a great role for Jamie Bell, who really breaks out of his Billy Elliot history, here.

I was really interested, then, to see that Gould had somehow worked out a way to get a sequel that tied into the movie. Although I was less surprised that it was Griffin, as a character, who had his attention. I was impressed by this book. It is set in the movie-verse, and very definitely not set in the same world as the original story. I liked it. It was well-written, and filled out Griffin’s character to great effect. The only complaint I have about it is that there were some striking similarities to the original novel, especially in terms of the secret desert hide-away that can only be reached by someone who can ‘jump’ (i.e. teleport). I had the feeling that Gould had done a lot of research, and he wanted to show it. (This was just the first time I was to have this feeling, as I began working through his back catalog.) But for a tie in novel, Jumper: Griffin’s Story is probably the best I’ve ever read. I was surprised that the author could so easily adapt his world to someone else’s warped version of it, and make it work.

Reflex is the other sequel to Jumper. Again, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before a book that had two sequels, based on two completely different interpretations of the original novel. Really interesting. Reflex is set in the same continuity as the original version, and I liked it a lot better for it, although I imagine it would have less mass appeal.

The essence of this book is that Davy has been kidnapped by people who wish to control him, and his power, For Eval. How can you control, or even hold, someone who can teleport away any time he wants? Well, that’s the central issue of the novel. The solution is horrible, and gripping, and right up my alley. They put an implant in his chest, which they can trigger for pain and humiliation. Using this device they apply torture techniques to condition him to teleport, reflexively, back to a specific spot in the room where they are holding him on command. This is a much less mainstream book, and you’d have difficulty making it into a film, but it is very, very good.

Having read up these readily available books, I then went searching for more… but it was a real challenge. There aren’t any other Jumper books, and most of his other work is out of print, despite being pretty recent. Even where it was in print, it wasn’t available in the UK. Eventually, I managed to chase down two ex-library copies of Helm and Wildside.

Helm is out of print, and doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. It’s a science fiction book with martial arts and mind control. It’s like Steven Gould is channeling my interests, for this is very, very relevant to them. However, it is not of quite the same quality as Jumper. As I noted in my previous post, the man has clearly done his research on aikido, but he maybe could have made that a bit more implicit than explicit. Why hello there, whaling chapters. This makes the book slow to get going, and the fight scenes a bit awkward to read, at times, but apart from that, it’s a fun read – one I was glad I hunted down.

The basic premise is that humanity has fled Earth. Life is due to be harsh in the new world, and it is reasoned that without control and knowledge, humanity is doomed. So they employ an imprinter to impose the knowledge, skills, and philosophy of one of their leaders on one person in each new generation. And the leader they choose happens to know aikido. In the time when the book is set, only a select few know what the imprinter is and what it is for. It has become known as the ‘helm’, is jealously guarded, and needs to charge in sunlight for years before it can be ready for use. But the main character, Leland, is something of a bookish rebel, and climbs to its high charging place, donning the helm and downloading its knowledge without any of the preparation required. Whilst his father pushes him into a harsh training program, the feudal kingdoms of the new world are gearing up for war, a war Leland will ultimately have to try and find some way to resolve.

Once it gets going, this is a fun little book that plays with the disturbing idea of mind-control in an original way. Once the pace picks up, it is gripping. And it shares one advantage that is a strong theme in Gould’s work: he writes excellent female characters. They may not be the lead role, they may often be the love interest, but if so, they are not just that. They are independent, smart, skilled women who are characters in their own rights, without having to be armed to the teeth, literally fighting down their male counterparts. Although Herrin’s calm competence and athletic skill did please me in a similar manner to how I am currently enjoying Mur Lafferty’s Red Granny – who doesn’t like a little old lady who can kick your ass?

Wildside is, so far, much less impressive. It’s a YA novel, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I quite like stories about teenagers who know something their parents don’t, and about the unpopular kid who makes good. The central idea is, once more, right up my alley. A kid finds a door to another world. Great stuff! I’m always surprised there isn’t more of this shit. I loved it in The Chronicles of Narnia, I loved it in The Dark Tower, I love it in the works of Diana Wynne Jones. Doors to other worlds fascinate me. And it’s different that these kids decide to go to this new world and exploit it. It’s not what I would do, but it’s different, and I know many friends who have said that it’s what they would do, if they chanced on a portal to Narnia.

The problem is now familiar. The kids need to use airplanes in their exploration, and Gould clearly did a lot of research about flying light aircraft. OHMYGOD we do not need to see that much of it. Certainly, young adults don’t. I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve picked up and put down this book. I believe in Steven Gould. I believe he’s worth it. I would read another book of his, were one to come my way. But I could not be less interested in the tedious, tedious details about learning to fly, and the minutia of flight itself. I hope it gets better. I hope now that they can basically all fly, we can get on with the story. It looks that way – they just had to let someone else in on their secret, and I have the sense that pretty soon the passenger pigeons chickens will be coming home to roost. But… gah.

So, where does that leave me, with Steven Gould? I still really believe that this is an author who needs to be more widely read. Jumper is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, and Reflex is an excellent follow-up novel. I’m really impressed that he managed to do such a good job with the Griffin spin-off story, too. If I can, I will be hunting down some more of his work. My real hope, though, is that he’ll bring out something new. Something in print. Something as good as Jumper and Reflex. If he does, I’ll be reading it.

[Edit: Since I wrote this, many years ago, Steven has published several more books and his back catalogue has become more available, too. In particular, he’s put out a new Jumper book: Impulse.]

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