12 October 2014

Books: Jumping Off The Planet by David Gerrold (2000)

At the heart of David Gerrold’s coming of age science fiction tale is the Charles (or Chigger, his nickname), a new version of Jack who must grow up by "climbing" a beanstalk to see the “real world.” 

Jumping Off the Planet is set a few decades into the future (though like all science fiction writers of the 1950s and on, they never nail down the specific date. I’m assuming this is more to do with keeping future technology more real –another words, no holodecks), but the world hasn't changed that much: it's still a complete mess. What was supposed to save it was the Beanstalk, an orbital elevator system that lifts humanity up from the exhausted Earth to the Moon, the planets and, one assumes, eventually the stars. But while the Beanstalk is a technological success (read here on the theoretical aspect of the space elevator idea that has been around since 1895) it has, inadvertently, destabilized the world economy. 

Enter stage left, the Digillian family, a hugely dysfunctional family that would not be out of place in most of today’s TV dramas. Max and Margaret Dingillian have a had a bitter divorce and both have used their three sons, 17 year-old Douglas (who, as Charles narrates, is called Weird), the after mentioned Chigger, the  13 year-old middle child and the youngest, Robert (who Charles calls Stinky) as weapons in their never ending battle to ruin each other. Max is sort of a wimpy Dad, who has left a trail of broken promises to his sons, while Margaret comes off as selfish. But Max, perhaps realizing the only way to save what’s left of his family and his relationship with his three boys, finally takes them the vacation he has been promising for years and takes them on the space elevator, on the Beanstalk, up to Geostationary.

But a family that has only known dysfunction will continue to be dysfunctional. Also, their is a subplot (the books McGuffin) that has Digillian clan get mixed up in global politics and a web of smuggling that simmers on the very edge of the story. 

This novel, the beginning of a trilogy, is filled with some fantastic ideas. It often reminds me of what the heyday of science fiction was always about, taking a theoretical possibility (the space elevator) and wrapping a human, even modern story around it. While all the characters are difficult to like –they all seem to think unhappiness is a better way than trying to work together- you end up having a fondness of the three boys as the story progresses (well, except for Stinky). But I’ll admit there were times when all the characters did stuff that seemed more out of heightening the drama than solving their family problems.  Still, Gerrold keeps the voice of Charles set very much in the real world, making him intelligent, yet still yielding a convincing teenager who is caught in a battle between his feuding parents and resentment that some middle child feel when sandwiched between the older sibling who seems to get everything and the younger one who gets away with murder.

In the end though, it fulfills the basic aspect of all coming of age adventure: a boy who must leave childhood behind and become a man to replace the one who has become a full grown adult. Gerrold writes with an engaging style, even when describing (in great detail, mind you) the theory of the space elevator.

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