Review: Impulse


I’m not sure where I first read about the Jumper books by Steven Gould. Possibly on Boing Boing. Impulse is the third in the series, following Jumper and Reflex. (There was an awful 2008 film called Jumper, loosely based on the first book, starring Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell and Wooden Star Wars’ Hayden Christensen. The books are much better.)

In the first Jumper novel we met Davey, a teenage boy, who discovered he could teleport — he called it jumping — under certain circumstances, and to certain places. This was a Pretty Neat Trick, and unsurprisingly one that authorities of various kinds wanted to exploit. Jumper and Reflex explored Davey’s adventures. He got older and fell in love, discovering he wasn’t the only jumper along the way, and learned jumping has physical limits. In essence he reverse-engineered the physics of jumping, and it wasn’t the get-out-of-jail-free card it might have seemed.

In Impulse, with the Jumper universe well established, we return to Davey and his other half Millie a couple of decades on (Jumper was published in 1992, so we’re still present-day). The pair have lived in hiding all that time, jumping discreetly and in disguise, and they now have a daughter, Cent, in her mid-teens but lacking any social existence. She’s been home-schooled all her life, and she and her parents have come to realise that’s more of a non-life. So they work out a way for her to attend a real school.

Naturally being highly educated, paranoid and the new girl, Cent attracts attention. It’s no real spoiler to reveal she discovers she too can jump. And as she masters the technique she figures out how to do more – all logical within the established universe. Jinks both high and low ensue.

Meanwhile her parents carry on with their humanitarian activities (being able to bring fresh water into disaster areas without the usual hassles, for example, is a tremendously useful skill). Although the focus is mostly on Cent – first-person, strong teenage female protagonist alert! – we also follow Davey and Millie (in third-person).

In truth those diversions from Cent’s story feel a little half-hearted. They move the Jumper universe forward a little but you sense the author’s treading water, moving pieces on the chessboard to prepare for another book. (Exo, the fourth book in the series, was published in 2014: no idea what it’s about. I’ll read it at some point.)

The adventures of Cent herself are small-scale: school shenanigans and teenage angst. Bullies, boys, and her growing independence from her parents. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s difficult for me to say whether it’s a realistic depiction of life for an unsocialised teenage girl in an American high school – as an ancient Briton my exposure to the freshman/sophomore/junior/senior lingo is limited (Buffy, 80s teen movies…). It feels convincing enough, which is all that matters. I’m sure almost all of us, whatever our backgrounds, can relate to bullying at school. (I’d have loved Cent’s powers on more than one occasion.)

In the three Jumper books I’ve read so far Gould has wisely resisted the temptation to give more and more characters the ability to jump. In Alfred Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination anyone can learn how to do it (Bester calls it “jaunting”, the same word used in the cardboard’n’flares 1970s TV show The Tomorrow People). Although the imagery of thousands of people bamffing into existence to gawp at a current event is beguiling, it’d soon lose its impact in the Jumper books. When everyone can jump, jumping is boring.

Impulse is, I’d say, less of a YA thriller than its predecessors – it’s more of a coming-of-age story with an SF twist – but just as compelling. The female teenage protagonist is great to see, even if my hunch is it may deter the stereotypical teenage boy from picking up the book. A shame if so – there’s plenty to enjoy.

Like Jumper and Reflex, Impulse is very much one of those books you read with an inner sigh, wishing you had the same power. Fancy a day skiing? Some authentic Chinese food? Easy. Right now, I’d jump to somewhere I can get my feet warm. Rio seems nice.

*thinks hard*

Nope, still here.

Nemo scit aliquid

When I was young, my dad worked for the family business. So did my uncle. Until I was about ten years old I thought that’s what happened: you followed in your father’s footsteps. I distinctly remember the conversation with my mum where she told me I didn’t need to do that: I could do whatever I wanted when I grew up.

It was a revelation. The earth shook, and when the dust settled I saw that normal had shifted.

Normal is what you grow up with. And normality shifts.

It shifts slowly, perhaps, and subtly, but shift it does. Normal for a seventies kid (flares, choppers, strikes) wasn’t normal for an eighties kid (ghetto blasters, BMXes, ZX Spectrums) or a nineties kid (consoles, CDs, slow internet). And normal for today’s children, like my two young nephews, is unimaginably different again. Only Blue Peter has remained constant, the unquenching spirit of Biddy Baxter straddling the generations.

This shift, the result of grinding techtonic plates, is unavoidable. You’d be a fool to try to deny it, or to resist it. Times change. Nothing lasts forever. And this, too, shall pass away.

* * *

The screenwriter William GoldmanButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, etc — famously wrote in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade what he said was the single most important fact in the entire movie industry: Nobody knows anything.

Despite decades of experience and armies of accountants and consultants and advisers, studios still commission expensive flops, and still reject what turn out to be blockbusters. Universal passed on Star Wars. Columbia passed on E.T. And every studio in town rejected Raiders of the Lost Ark before Paramount said yes. (Of course, after Star Wars was a success, space films were commissioned by the galactic ton.)

Goldman’s book was written in 1982. The world was different then: cinema normality has shifted. But Hollywood still operates the same way. Nobody knows anything.

Not just Hollywood. Not just the movie business. The Beatles were rejected several times. Harry Potter was rejected several times. Good TV shows aren’t commissioned, and poor ones are.

Across the creative industries, nobody knows anything.

And yet for the last century the studios and music publishers and book publishers and TV companies have been creativity bottlenecks, cultural gatekeepers. They have been the sole arbiters. They have decided which proto-stars to anoint with their dollars and pounds and which to turn away from like a leper on a street corner. And since they know nothing, those organisations that still remain must simply be the lucky ones. Somehow they have retained enough cash to hold onto their gatekeeper crowns, or sold out to someone who did.

* * *

The media companies began their scramble to dominance in primeval form in the late nineteenth century, and they did so because normality shifted: technology advanced to allow the mass production of culture. What had been a singsong around a piano or a topped-and-tailed trip to the theatre — live performance — could now be a recording, and later a broadcast. Shellac, vinyl, film, radio waves, magnetic tape, shiny discs, and so on. Cultural normality shifted.

And the costs of mass production and the risks of mass failure favoured those with bigger pockets, who became luckier and luckier, until by the end of the twentieth century they stood dominant: a landscape of media leviathans, which we see today as normal.

And it became, to a first approximation, impossible to make a film, or to sign a music contract, or to become a published author. The leviathans were in control, the cultural gatekeepers, because they took all the risks.

Even though they knew nothing.

* * *

The internet came along, and normality shifted again. It is no more an inviolable truth that we have a small number of large, lucky cultural gatekeepers than it is that I must work in the family business, or wear flares, or ride a BMX, or listen to the shrill whistles of a 14K4 modem. The internet has democratised, disintermediated, and revealed an untapped human desire for an infinite number of cat videos.

Of course normality will shift again, in a way nobody can foresee. But today’s cultural gatekeepers won’t remain in their present form. They will crumble into separate services like editorial and marketing, or wither away completely despite extensive lobbying of governments to legislate to preserve their business models, like a monk squatting on a squire until he agrees to buy his illuminated manuscripts and put that nice Herr Gutenberg to the stake.

* * *

Normality shifts, and — across the creative industries — nobody knows anything.

How else can you explain the decision by HarperCollins, upon the book’s 75th anniversary, to publish a new hardback edition of The Hobbit in Latin?