[I am aware the title and credit for the two books is somewhat munged at present]
Publishers like Tor send reviewers like me free books because they hope a review will result. Mission accomplished! Tor sent me a copy of Steven Gould’s latest book Exo and as a direct result of that I am writing a review featuring not one but two books. OK, one of them is of a different Gould book, 1993’s Jumper, and the other is of 1981’s The Journeys of McGill Feighan: Book 1: Caverns, a book by an author whom Tor has never to my knowledge published, a book that predates Tor’s very existence but still … book goes in, review goes out. The system works.
I don’t know how well Steven Gould and the late Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. knew each other. Both held multiple positions in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA; it is missing a letter because SFWA doesn’t give an F) in the same general period. It’s reasonable to assume that they did know each other. O’Donnell stopped publishing novels just as Gould was beginning (my impression is that O’Donnell’s exit from publishing was to some degree voluntary). What the two authors have in common (aside from being male authors of science fiction from the same general region of l’anglosphère) is that both of them have written series about young American men who can teleport.
I do have good reason to suspect any similarities between the books is because they were both drawing on the same classic works of SF rather than any direct inspiration of Jumper by Caverns. That good reason is that Gould lists his inspirations and Caverns was not on the list.
The Journeys of McGill Feighan: Book 1: Caverns
The only thing that marked baby Feighan as unusual in any way was that time when an eighty-seven tonne alien kidnapped and consumed him, keeping the child alive and well inside the alien for three days, after which the baby was returned to its parents unharmed and apparently unchanged. What purpose this served was mysterious; about the only information the Feighans were given was that it was on the orders of the terribly mysterious Far Being Retzglaran.
Earth was contacted by the Flinger Network so recently that the planet is still paying off the cost of joining the other six hundred and ninety-two worlds of the Network. That was still enough time for the Organization, a vast, galaxy-spanning criminal endeavour, to plant itself solidly on Earth. The Organization is old and has a long memory; the Far Being Retzglaran is an ancient enemy of the organization. So … when alien mobster Gryll learns what happened to young McGill, he takes a close interest. Rather frustratingly, every attempt to kidnap or interfere with McGill fails, which only confirms that McGill must be of tremendous significance.
Having a giant red flag planted on him by an enigmatic mastermind isn’t the only way fate is going to screw with McGill. He turns out to be a Flinger, one of the gifted few who can teleport up to 918 kilograms at a time 96 times a day, the people on whose shoulders interstellar civilization rests. The Network takes a very close interest in all Flingers and not just because of their utility; their basic nature makes Flingers living weapons, potential WMDs. McGill gets personal experience of how deadly an untrained Flinger can be, but he still chaffs at the heavy-handed methods the Network uses to monitor and control people like him.
The Organization’s efforts to control or subvert McGill fail, but they do manage to kill off McGill’s parents. It is clear McGill’s connection to the Far Being Retzglaran makes him far too interesting to the Organization for his own good; if he wants any hope of getting control of his destiny, McGill will have to find out why exactly the Far Being Retzglaran intervened in his life all those years ago. And that will require an excursion under an assumed name to a world divided between two hostile species!
Rereading this after a number of years, I am struck by the frequency of mood whiplash in the book. An example: the book transitions all too quickly from “McGill’s hilariously huge dad comically Juggernauts his way through criminal and official impediments” to “having served their narrative purpose, both parents are captured and murdered offstage.”
I felt sorry for poor Milford Hommroummy, who just wants to be the Organization’s boss crook for Earth (and who also wasn’t quite important enough to the plot to mention before now). He has a pretty clear idea of how criminal organizations need to fit into societies so they can turn a profit without inspiring the authorities to come down on them with both boots. Fate has unkindly given Milford a monomaniac boss, Gryll, whose obsessions with that one kid will make the Organization far too visible.
There’s a eugenics subplot in this that doesn’t really stand up to close inspection: the reptilian Rhanghan have been killing raiding Timili for generations, BUT because they only manage to kill and eat the stupider Timili, the mammals have been selected for intelligence. After generations of this, the Timili are getting very smart. Shouldn’t the potentially lethal raids be doing the same thing to the Rhanghan? Why is one subject to natural selection but not the other?
This particular volume is structured so that the Network’s attempts to brainwash their students into behavioral compliance come off as overbearing and heavy-handed (as does Earth’s determination to get 96 flings a day out of Flingers despite the general suspicion that dropping to 80 would add a decade or two to Flinger lifespans). Later volumes reveal why the Network wants that control: not only are Flingers disease vectors par excellence, but the same trick that lets a Flinger change the vector of a payload so that it arrives on a distant planet at rest with that planet allows the Flinger to toss 918 kilograms of air at a few kilometers a second. Or faster, no doubt. Rather destructive.
From McGill’s point of view, life just keeps throwing roadblocks at him. (Mostly) through no fault of his own, he leaves a trail of carnage in his wake. As the lead in an ongoing series, he is effectively unkillable, but nobody standing near him has that protection. By the end of the book, survivor’s guilt is taking a heck of a toll and nothing he learns really compensates for that. I remembered this as an action comedy but it is actually kind of a downer.
Jumper (Steven Gould):
Seventeen year old Davy Rice’s miserable life takes a turn for the better when in the middle of yet another beating from his father, Davy discovers that he can teleport. Why Davy can teleport and why this talent manifested during this particular beating are questions whose answers are never forthcoming. However he came by the talent, Davy is quick to use it to escape an intolerable life.
As he soon discovers, his father isn’t the worst predator out there. While Davy manages to escape being raped, he’s not so lucky when it comes to being ambushed and mugged. Moreover, all of his attempts to create a new life for himself are sabotaged by the fact that he is an underage juvenile without documents. It doesn’t take too long for Davy to decide that if the law seems designed to sabotage him, he will simply become a criminal of a new and wondrous kind.
At this point it would have been very easy for Davy to evolve into a bona fide super-villain (or worse), but he’s saved by a couple of factors. One is his determination not to turn into an abusive monster like his dad. Another is his romance with a young woman named Milly, someone who can provide Davy the occasional prodding when he drifts off-bubble. Even better, he finds out the true story behind his mother’s disappearance years before; she is still alive and they can start rebuilding their relationship.
Or at least they could have done so if terrorists hadn’t blown Davy’s mom to smithereens.
And then there’s the matter of Davy completely sucking at the whole “not attracting official attention” thing; when an NSA spook named Cox discovers that Davy is somehow commuting from North Africa to the US in a matter of hours, Cox is very curious at to how Davy is managing that and very determined to get answers. And Cox has the weight of the US’s alphabet soup agencies to back him.
I would just like to say how outrageous it is to think a fine upstanding agency like the NSA (or the police, in a different subplot) would abuse their power and mistreat American citizens just because they were terrified of terrorists. Or of the political fallout if they were perceived as being soft or terrorism. Or just because they were power-abusing jackasses.
Like Caverns, Jumper also suffers from a form of whiplash. In this case, it’s less of a hyperkinetic variation in mood and more of a vacillation between genres. The book starts off being about a kid with a special power and a terrible past, and his attempt to mature into a decent person. Around the time the terrorists show up, followed by Cox, it turns into what amounts to a superhero book.
Just as I have read all four of the McGill Feighan books, I’ve read the other Jumper books (even—shudder—Jumper: Griffin’s Story, which was a tie-in for the terrible, terrible Jumper movie). I can tell you for certain sure that the whole “THEY want to control Davy! Can Davy SMASHFACE hard and smart enough or will THEY win?!” storyline turns out to be one that Gould does best. He can write more variations on that than he can of “how do I avoid being shaped by my experiences into a monster?”—even though the second question is more interesting than the first. In this novel, Gould manages to keep the second question in focus even after the action movie crap begins. The fact that this is more than a simple adventure book is, I think, why it was so well received back in the 1990s.
In O’Donnell’s case, he (or his publisher) set out to create an ongoing series: you can tell this because they make it clear on the cover that this is Book One of the Journeys of McGill Feighan. I have the impression that Gould, on the other hand, ended up writing a series because readers wanted to know what happened next to Davy and Milly. That is perhaps why Jumper is a better read as a standalone novel than Caverns. Jumper is a better book thanks to its standalone readability; in the twenty-three years since it first saw print, it has had at least thirteen editions, whereas Caverns fell out of print within four years of its publication.
What made me want to reread both books back to back is the fact that Davy’s nightmare, that he will fall into the hands of the government, is McGill’s reality: not only are Flingers closely monitored and controlled by the Network, McGill in particular is stalked by the Organization and is the Far Being Retzglaran’s pawn in whatever game the Far Being Retzglaran is playing .
Having reread both books, I see that there’s another way the two books are related. “How do I avoid being shaped by my experiences into a monster?” applies to both Davy and McGill. Davy teeters on the edge of the abyss from time to time, but while he seems to get a real buzz out of cathartic torture, when people die as a result of Davy’s actions, as happens infrequently, it’s accidental. In contrast, McGill’s threshold for lethal violence drops impressively over the course of 214 pages; he feels very sad the first time he flings someone into the sun, but by the end of the novel he is doing it rather offhandedly to pesky would-be assassins….
It’s hard to say which of the two authors is the better prose writer , but I get the sense that Gould is in more control of his work than O’Donnell. I think O’Donnell was sabotaged by his desire to create a series, or rather, to have at the center of this book the very issue—what does the Far Being Retzglaran want—O’Donnell cannot answer . I have fond memories of both books, but Jumper lived up to them better than Caverns.
Jumper is still available from Tor. Caverns is long, long out of print.
1: I don’t think we ever were given a solid explanation as to what the Far Being Retzglaran was up to when it had the alien eat McGill (or if an explanation is given in the fourth book, I have since forgotten it). As I recall, there’s every chance that Far Being Retzglaran was just distracting the Organization from its real purpose by drawing their attention so unsubtly to the baby Feighan.
2: Part of this is because I hope my memories of other, better O’Donnells are correct and not as misleading as my memory of his fairly awful Mayflies.
3: There is an explanation of sorts given in Caverns but it is clearly a red herring.