The Pleasure of Working Things Through

My bedtime reading for the past week or so has been Steven Gould's Exo (excerpt at Tor). This is the fourth book in the Jumper series (not counting the movie tie-in novel), and ordinarily wouldn't be worth much of a review, because if you haven't read the first three, this book won't make a lick of sense. If you have read the others, it's a worthy sequel, but three earlier books makes for a lot of backstory to explain in writing the book up.

It's worth noting, though, because it belongs to a sort of unofficial subgenre: books about Working Things Through. The story includes a huge amount of detail about the building of space suits and space habitats, which you might think would be crashingly dull. But it comes about fairly naturally in the course of the plot, while the main characters use the information to build a space suit and habitat, and because of that, it's weirdly enjoyable. The characters are learning practical stuff for them, and the reader gets to enjoy a sped-up version of the learning process by proxy.

Most of Gould's earlier books also belong in this same subgenre; they almost all feature a character learning or employing some sophisticated skill (martial arts, scuba diving, flying). Even when the skill in question is something impossible-- say, in the three previous books about people who can teleport-- there's an enjoyable level of rigor to the way the characters work through their abilities, and figure out how to employ them in the right way to deal with the problems they're facing.

Of course, Gould's not the only one working in this general vein. I've read umpteen Recluce novels by L.E. Modesitt because they tend to scratch the same itch-- the characters are generally apprenticed or newly enlisted, and spend most of the book working out how to do what they need to, and then systematically doing it. Another great one for this is Jack McDevitt, particularly the series I think of as Antiquities Dealers Innnn Spaaaace!!! (officially the Alex Benedict series). And, of course, there's a lot of this sort of thing in older SF novels, though a lot of them tend to spoil things a bit by going on at length with their political theories about How The World Works.

The naive young protagonist who needs to learn the ropes is an eternal staple of sf, of course, being a very convenient excuse for infodumps in the form of instructive lectures. But the sort of books I'm talking about go well beyond that. The instructional sequences in most books are basically the literary equivalent of a montage in a movie-- something you pass through quickly to get to the part where the hero confronts the Big Bad Guy. Harry Potter spends just enough time in class for his teachers to infodump about whatever new thing is needed to understand the plot of that book, but those are just a handful of scenes in a much larger plot. The books I'm thinking of make the learning central to everything; applied to Hogwarts, it would reduce the thwarting-of-Voldemort bits to a brief montage near the end.

The failure mode of this sort of book is that it feels light on plot-- a number of the Recluce books are kind of anticlimactic, and the eventual confrontation with the Big Bad Guys in Exo just narrowly misses feeling tacked-on. I'm a sucker for this when it's done well, though, and Gould excels at it.

(This is not unrelated to my desire for Ponder Stibbons stories. And also my general scientific leaning...)

So, you know, if you like that kind of story, check Gould's books out. Exo is yet another example of a story where the real fun is watching the protagonist Working Things Through in a systematic way.

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Good points. Except your remark about needing the previous three Jumper books to understand what's going on.

When you see someone Jump it's intuitively clear what's happening. They're here, then they're there. Someone wants to take someone with them on a Jump, they embrace them. They don't want someone to see them Jump, they run around a corner or hide in the dark. No need to explain anything.

In fact, no one can, for the Jumping process is completely mysterious as far as the physics goes and would quickly unravel if the author tried. No one goes into "subspace quantum tunneling" or "trading momentum with a reference frame" or anything along those lines. It's presented as a fact with no theory behind it. Because it's frankly impossible. Gould does what Heinlein suggests: imagine one impossible thing and speculate on what stories could result from that.

Where the explanations come in are natural problems and easy-to-understand solutions. For instance, you want to build a space habitat but we know there's radiation in space. Three feet of water is good enough for shielding; Jump it out there inside plastic barrels. Or better yet by "twinning" - a process which is again shown in action rather than explained.

What Gould does perhaps do too long is go into calculations. Most of us (even engineers like myself) do not need or want the specifics. To follow the story we need the answers. But those sections can easily be skimmed over.

But it IS helpful to read (or in my case, reread) Impulse, where Exo's main character is introduced. Not because it's needed to understand anything. But because it's rousingly FUN.

By Laer Carroll (not verified) on 21 Sep 2014 #permalink

Sounds like it is worth a look.

I immediately got hooked on "Mysterious Island" by Jules Verne because the whole exercise of clever survival with nothing but what you carried (plus some odds and ends that mysteriously appear) was very engaging. You could imagine actually doing it.

One difference from the book you describe is that it isn't about a Hero, although leaders develop. It is a group effort where even one doltish individual has a talent to contribute to the survival of all.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 21 Sep 2014 #permalink

I'm glad you mentioned this, since I didn't realize he had a new book out, and I've liked everything of Gould's I've read, to the point that I wish he would write more.