Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wildside by Steven Gould (1996)

Hardback cover blurb

It's another world, a pristine Earth where mammoths and saber-tooth tigers still roam. Where there are no cities, no highways, no pollution, no laws... no people at all.

It lies just beyond the heavy wooden door, hidden in the back of the old barn, through a tunnel that enters a hillside in South Texas but doesn't come out the other side.

It belongs to Charlie. A whole world accessible only through the doorway on the ranch that his uncle left to him free and clear. But to explore a planet, you need help. And equipment. And money to buy the equipment. Money to live on while you explore; money for taxes on the ranch, and to pay for the training you need to survive in a completely wild world.

So Charlie decides to capture some extinct birds -- passenger pigeons -- and sell them on the tame side to finance his venture. He sells more than a dozen of the birds, and Wildside Investments is born. That is the beginning of the end.

For how can you keep a secret like that, once anyone gets wind of it? Now Charlie and his trusted friends are going to have to fight for the preservation of the Wildside -- and their own lives as well.

My thoughts

Charlie sure has a swell uncle. Most people would be lucky to get a few items of furniture when their close relatives pass away, but in Charlie's case, his Uncle Max has left him an entire planet.

Wildside is told from the first-person point of view of Charlie, a teenage boy who is about to graduate from high school with his four friends when the novel opens. Charlie is a bit of an outsider, agreeing to drive his friends to the prom because he doesn't have a date. But in exchange for the favor, Charlie asks them to accompany him to his late uncle's ranch, which he has inherited. He has a business proposition.

The ranch is more valuable than it first appears because on the property is a tunnel leading to a parallel Earth where humans never evolved. As a result, Ice Age megafauna such as mammoths and saber-tooth cats have survived to the modern day. (The author assumes that the overkill hypothesis for the Ice Age extinctions is the correct theory.) A world without humans also is a world still abundant in natural resources, particularly gold. The group secretly sells off a few passenger pigeons to zoos in order to raise the money for the equipment they need to start prospecting for gold, but that turns out to be a mistake. The federal government soon learns about the parallel world and all those resources ripe for the taking...

Wildside is an entertaining little novel despite the fact Gould never realizes the full potential of his Big Idea. The prehistoric animals here are only for color, and the author could've left them out entirely and the novel would still read the same. Gould seems more interested in aeronautics, which he describes in such detail that after you read Wildside, you may feel like you qualify for a pilot's license. It would have been much more fun to watch Charlie and his gang face off again saber-tooth cats, hulking mastodons and giant short-faced bears rather than government bureaucrats, but unfortunately that's what we're left with. The deus ex machina ending also leaves a lot to be desired.

That said, I still enjoyed
Wildside for the things it gets right. Charlie and his friends are interesting characters, even if they seem to know a little too much about science -- particularly physics and paleontology -- for your typical teens. They evolve over the course of the novel from seeing the wildside as something to exploit to something to protect, so the book has a good, if heavy-handed, message about the environment. And the novel is short and fast-paced, so the plot rarely drags.

Wildside was originally marketed as adult science fiction, but it has since been reshelved in the young adult sections of most bookstores. It also sports a new cover with mammoths, saber-tooth cats and an Apache helicopter, although none are central to the story.

Trivia
  • Steven Gould shouldn't be confused with paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Reviews

1 comment:

Robin M. Weare said...

I have this one, and regard it with affection. You're spot on about its having entirely too much detail about aeronautics and not enough about the wildlife; I wish I could recommend it more heartily to other readers.

Personally, I liked the revelation. It might be because I'm fond of the idea of a civilization trying to go back and undo the horrible damage it's done with terraforming and all; in a way, it's reassuring that someone screwed up worse than we are doing. But I also like the moral dilemma they're faced with: at what point do they intervene, and share their technology?