Jumper author Steven Gould's second novel is a most rewarding example of thinking person's action-adventure. It's the tale of five spunky high school graduates who travel through a gateway — located in the back of a barn on a ranch belonging to Charlie, the story's narrator — that takes them to an alternate Earth in which human beings never evolved and the land is fresh and virginal and teeming with numerous extinct species like bison, passenger pigeons, and sabre-tooth tigers.
Directly after graduation, Charlie introduces his friends, two guys and two girls, to the gateway, and offers them the opportunity of a lifetime: to go across to this untamed and untapped wilderness, discover gold, and make more money than any of them have ever thought possible. And naturally, it will be of paramount importance to pull all of this off without the feds learning of the gateway's existence, taking it over, and doing all of the most horrible things you could conceive of our government doing once they've got access to this unspoiled world.
Wildside takes its time getting wild. If you come to this book looking for tons of swell action scenes in which screaming victims get torn to shreds by sabre-tooths, well, sorry. This is a much different kind of adventure. In fact, you don't even see a sabre-tooth in this novel at all. Its first half establishes our young heroes and details their intensely complex preparations for going into business as otherworldly gold prospectors. And it's fascinating, even if the way Gould (with a true Analog veteran's obsession with detail) chronicles their activities makes them seem more like a unit of highly trained Navy SEALs than a bunch of 18-year-olds. Gould goes into such thorough coverage of every aspect of our their preparations — taking flying and skydiving lessons, learning to shoot, buying and assembling tons of electronic flight navigation gear (with money made from anonymously selling passenger pigeons, extinct since 1914, to astonished zoos), building hangars and control towers, setting up base camps, etc., etc. — that by the time you're done reading it all you feel like you might know how to hop into a light airplane and take it for a spin. Comparing the activities of these whiz kids to many of today's youth, whose most advanced technical achievement might be maxing our their Warcraft characters, you begin to realize just how far Gould is expecting you to stretch your suspension of disbelief.
But stretch it you can, because Gould gives Wildside a freshness and a readability that echo the best of the classic Heinlein juveniles. Indeed, this novel could be thought of as a Heinlein juvie filtered through Chris Carter or Dawson's Creek sensibilities. Gould's kids must go through all the growing pains that even non-light-aircraft-flying, non-gold-prospecting, non-skydiving, non-secret-bank-account-holding 18-year-olds do, and most of them are thankfully out of the TTA zone (Typical Teen Angst). Gould succeeds in making everyone very real in spite of the fact their activities regarding the portal come off at first as a bit superhuman. Joey must confront a drinking problem; young love, unrequited, confused, and otherwise, is tackled from every conceivable angle. In all the characterizations are deeeply heartfelt and give Wildside a rock-solid emotional core. By the time the Pliocene feces finally gets around to hitting the fan, you're sold. The final hundred pages notch up the action and suspense to genuine white-knuckle levels, and the resolution is most satisfying.
Though I must say a sabre-tooth tiger fight would have been way cool (especially since both the paperback and hardcover artwork feature one prominently), you'd do well all the same to take a walk on this Wildside.