Blind Waves

Every now and then, someone posts to rec.arts.sf.written seeking recommendations for books like the old Heinlein juveniles (and assorted other books of that era). I'm always a bit surprised that Steven Gould doesn't get mentioned more often in those threads, as he clearly seems to be mining that same literary vein.

Sure, there are differences between Gould's books and the older stuff- Gould's books tend to be a bit darker, and have more sexual content- but that's a matter of moving with the times. Darker, more realistic books are the norm these days, and as Heinlein's wretched later books indicate ("Spung!"), the lack of explicit sex in his older books wasn't exactly the result of a principled stand on his part...

In general form, Gould's books to date- Jumper, Wildside, and Helm are very much like the classics of the (sub)genre. The protagonists are young (eighteen-ish, or a bit younger), bright, and exceedingly competent. The plots move along briskly, obstacles are overcome, and everything ends well for Our Intrepid Heroes. And generally, the reader ends up learning a good bit about one topic or another in the course of the book (martial arts in Helm, aviation in Wildside-- Jumper is more general, but presents probably the most well-executed plan to take advantage of the power of teleportation that I've seen in print...). They're fun books, with a lot of the wish-fulfillment aspects that people miss from the Good Old Days (tm).

Blind Waves, Gould's latest, departs from this slightly- the protagonists are older, the villains murkier. It's still very much in the vein of his earlier works, however- the hero and heoine are still ultra-competent, the plot throws up a bomb or a gunshot whenever things threaten to bog down, and all's well that ends well. There's even a bit of information about the finer points of diving for the general edification of the common reader.

The setting is a somewhat indeterminate point in the future, where the Obligatory Ecological Catastrophe has occurred- in this case, the melting of a fair chunk of the ice caps. Sea levels have risen a hundred feet or so, drowning quite a bit of valuable coastal real estate, and leaving millions homeless (it's not clear how quickly this is supposed to have happened- some passages make it sound like a rise in sea level over many years, others as if the whole thing happened more or less overnight). In response to this, for reasons not entirely clear to me, the US government apparently ceded power to dastardly villains for a few years, enacting draconian immigration policies which prevent just about anyone from entering the country, and have turned the INS into "the second largest division of the armed forces." Thousands if not millions of refugees fall into political limbo, and are confined to squalid camps in the floating city of New Galveston.

It's a better book than that makes it sound. Sure, the setting is a little dopey, and requires quite a few improbable events in the backstory. But veteran SF readers have accepted sillier plot contrivances for the sake of a good story, and Gould provides a good (though not great) story to go with the setting (which is, of course, plenty cool if you're willing to ignore the improbabilities...).

The story (which isn't all that well represented by the back cover copy) follows Patricia Beenan, upstanding citizen of New Galveston and professional salvage diver (mining old cities for sunken tidbits and repairing oil leaks and the like) after she stumbles upon the sunken wreck of a freighter, with dozens of bodies inside, which may or may not have been sunk by an INS ship. Oh, who am I kidding- it's obvious from about three pages after the discovery that an INS ship was responsible. She's chased and shot at by an INS ship, and finally manages to outwit them to gain the safety of New Galveston. At which point the male lead enters the scene: Commander Thomas Beckett (not yet a saint), a decent and honorable invesitgator for the criminal investigation division of the INS. He's assigned to solve the mystery of the sunken freighter, and naturally begins his search for the killers by falling madly in love with Our Intrepid Heroine, at which point everybody decides to kill him, too. Will Beckett and Beenan unmask the villains and save the day? Of course they will- this isn't rocket science, people...

Very little about the plot stands up to close inspection- in fact, it throws in about two twists too many near the end, in explaining just why the freighter was sunk in the first place. But it rattles along amiably, as the protagonists dodge past a dozen or so assassination attempts, bantering all the while with quotes from Shakespeare. I wouldn't quite call it a guilty pleasure- the writing and plotting are a bit too crisp for that- but it's almost pure fluff. Other than a couple of forced bits of dialogue, the prose is basically transparent, and the story never really bogs down. The romance isn't quite believable, but it works in a cheesy action movie sort of way.

I read this book over a New Year's holiday with friends, loafing the days away reading on a couch in a big sunny room, whiling away a few hours until people felt energetic enough to play silly games and drink a few beers. It's just about a perfect book for that kind of situation- silly in places (but never insultingly so), engaging enough to keep my attention, and well-written enough that I didn't feel guilty reading it.

It's not his best (I think Jumper is still the best thing he's written), but it's better than a lot of books selling a lot more copies. And it's about as good an entry into the "Heinleinesque juvenile" class of books as you're likely to find on the "new books" shelf, despite the advanced ages of the protagonists... If you're after a fun, quick, slightly pulpy read, Blind Waves is worth a look.

Last modified: 27 February, 2001