Wildside, Steven Gould

Tor, 1996, 316 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52398-9

Readers of Wildside may very well find one word ringing in their mind during the whole book.

Heinlein.

Ultra-competent young hero. Importance of self-sufficiency. Sex-hungry cast of characters. Distrust of the power of government. Coming-of-age novel. Easily readable yet detailed prose. Enjoyable first-person POV… Yep, that’s a Heinlein book all right!

While modern, civilised man is a creature of flesh, asphalt and silicon, there is always a part of us that mourns for the untouched beauty of nature. How else to explain natural parks, summer homes in rural regions, camping and the popularity of westerns? Similarly, most of us would pay obscene amounts of money to have a pristine “world” all of our own.

Enters Science-Fiction, which has years of experience in describing The Doorway. (In addition of being a doorway in itself) The Doorway is usually some kind of unassuming passage, leading to a world very much unlike our own. In Wildside, it’s an alternate Earth untouched by humans. Wondrous creatures such as passenger pigeons, sabertooth tigers and mammoths still roam free though the countryside.

But, as the jacket copy says, “the door belongs to Charlie Newell”. And that’s a problem in itself. Not that Charlie is weak or incompetent: He’s able to take care of himself, live alone on a small ranch and pilot planes. Not bad for someone whose high-school graduation occurs in the first pages of the novel.

But every protagonist has to have a few problems, and Charlie’s no exception. He loves Marie who’s going out with Joey, who has a drinking problem. All of the above will have an impact on subsequent events. When Charlie shows The Doorway to four of his friends (Marie and Joey included) and make them an offer they can’t really refuse, the plot begins.

A fascinating part of the novel are the meticulous preparations Charlie and his friends must take to function on the Wildside: Small planes, support equipment, skydiving lessons and pilot training for everyone. For once, conquering the unexplored doesn’t seem to be an improvisational endeavour. The steps are authentically detailed, down to the small-aircraft lingo.

Technically, this is an admirable novel: The prose is dirt-simple, but not without merit. All characters are meticulously defined. After only a few pages, they begin to take form. The plot is well handled (if not without lengths in the second third), the conclusion is suitably mind-expanding… and Charlie finally does get (a) girl.

Wildside is sufficiently impressive to make one interested in the author’s previous works. After all, could one read only one Heinlein novel?

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