Retro Review: Wildside, by Steven Gould

Steven Gould is one of those authors who writes books that you can just dive into over and over. His first book that I read was “Jumper”, the story of a young man who discovers he has the ability to teleport. That is probably his best-known work as it spawned a (regrettably) bad movie that took quite a few liberties with the original story.

On the bright side, Gould has continued the series, and I’ve enjoyed each in the series more than the last – Reflex, Impulse, and Exo. So consider this an endorsement of that series as well, though today I’d like to focus more on my particular favorite of his, Wildside.

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The cover that got me hooked – hardback, 1996

I was going to paste the blurb, but the most recent edition is so spoiler-filled that I’m not sure I even want to do that. I don’t remember the original paperback being the same, but I read it until it fell to pieces so it’s hard to say if my memory is accurate or not. Generally speaking, the plot follows Charlie Newell – a bright but overweight teenager who enjoys flying and has one heck of a secret. If he can keep that secret safe, the project that he and his friends embark on has the potential to make them all very, very rich. It’s hard, dangerous work – but, I should point out, legal. The kids aren’t cooking meth or anything untoward. It’s . . . shall I say, a slight twist on Gray’s Sports Almanac from “Back to the Future 2,” though there is no time travel involved.

In a sense, the book is a throwback to old school sci-fi like “Farnham’s Freehold.” Much of the early part of the book involves planning, construction, and our crew figuring out creative ways to get things done within the limitations the story puts in place. Wildside was pulp revolution, screwdriver sci-fi long before that kind of thing became cool again.

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Paperback edition – I read this to pieces. And I swear, there’s no time travel.

I’m trying to be as oblique as possible, because the experience of going into the book without knowing all the ins, outs, and story beats, was just a great experience. l wouldn’t want to steal that from you. I still enjoy reading it for the 10th, 11th, or however many times it is, but it’s more of a comfortable T-shirt than something new and exciting at this point.

Where Gould excels is putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations and mapping their reactions. As we join the story, Charlie is fully aware of his secret, but when he lets his friends on, they proceed from disbelief to acceptance in a way that’s eminently relatable. They even throw some pop culture jokes in there. (Proof, I think, that the conventional wisdom that such things “date” your story is misguided. The book is twenty years old, and the most striking thing at this point is the use of payphones.)

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Digital cover. Subtle story hints. Paperback is still my favorite.

In a similar story beat to “Jumper”, there are those who get wind of what Charlie and the gang are up to, and want in on the action. The evil government guys are a bad (and all-to-often abused) trope of fiction, but Gould handles it pretty well here, layering humanity on the various parties involved and not engaging in too much mustache-twirling.

The epilogue would seem to tie up all the threads nicely, and I guess Gould regards it as such because no sequel has been forthcoming. Which . . . is a disappointment. I regarded “Jumper” as a great standalone and was shocked when the sequel came out and took the story in unexpected and awesome ways. After all this time, maybe it’s just too much to hope for more.

Then again, you never know.

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