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OUTWARD BOUND
1999

Book cover design by Drive Communications, New York.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

Tor's short-lived Jupiter series of young adult SF novels purported to be "patterned after the inspiring coming-of-age novels that Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov used to write." All of which makes throwaways like Jim Hogan's Outward Bound really infuriating. The old Heinlein juvies, which may well seem dated today, truly did evoke the kind of gosh-wow sense of wonder that all of us can claim was the combined emotional, intellectual, and imaginative high that hooked us as fans of SF in the first place. In contrast, Outward Bound is a cable-TV after-school special, offering unsubtle Life Lessons while trying to retain some semblance of street cred through the use of some borderline PG-13-ish rough stuff. I'm not sure who'd find this kind of thing "inspiring." "Competent," perhaps, but "formulaic" and "workmanlike" also fill the bill.

Hogan writes the tale with solid professional skill. A man of his enormous talents could hardly do otherwise. It's just that he makes the mistake of thinking a book for young readers needs to do quite a bit of hand-holding, boldly underlining important themes and moral messages, and covering every imaginable coming-of-age cliché with almost military precision. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Heinlein never talked down to his juvenile readers quite like this; even J. K. Rowling doesn't.

The hero of this little tale is 15-year-old Linc Marani, who's living the dead-end life of a small-time street thug, in what we're told is the 22nd century (although it seems no different than the late 20th). Linc is set up as a fall guy by his dishonest bosses (crime doesn't pay, kids), and is offered the opportunity of either rotting in jail or entering some mysterious boot-camp training program. Linc, who can get downright philosophical in a pinch, opts for the program. It's a tough, highly physical regimen, where no one is forced to stay, but those who choose to stay are held to very strict rules. There Linc Becomes A Man, learning the value of teamwork, friendship, and the fact that when you get right down to it, you can still kick the crap out of someone who's fucking with you (he deals decisively with a persistent and extremely one-dimensional bully with the tacit approval of an instructor).

As the training enters its latter phases, many of the other kids in the program are speculating wildly about what they are being trained for. No surprise to us: they're going into space, to work in the burgeoning colonies in the outer solar system, an independently governed area called the Outzone. Linc, with his newfound leadership skills, is offered a position in the Outzone's military and security forces.

Outward Bound is thoroughly routine in its plotting, which argues for a certain insouciance on Hogan's part. After all, I'm sure the man's read Ender's Game and Farmer in the Sky, so why would he see fit to choose such a banal framework for his own young-adult novel? It's true that, even in his best novels, Hogan can't resist spelling out his themes, but here we get such eye-rolling writing ("Yes, there was no doubt about it.... Life could be tough at times.") that you half expect there to be a pop-quiz at the end of each chapter. "Students, what has Linc learned about the value of self-respect in this chapter?" "When a female classmate offers you sex, you should a) abstain politely, b) abstain rudely, c) call her a white trash ho and slap her down."

And then there's the tiny matter of Outward Bound's barely being science fiction at all. For the first 70 or so pages, it's as if Hogan's trying to conceal anything remotely science-fictional about his story or its setting. The masta pimp Linc works for drives a whopping huge Caddy. I guess some things won't change much between 1971 and the 22nd century. All through Linc's boot camp training, the story's future time-frame is only hinted at in the tiniest ways. Then, halfway through, bang — Hogan introduces the Outzone and we're suddenly in an SF novel. The transition isn't jarring, really, but I wonder why Hogan felt he couldn't just own the tale's science-fictional status. Or perhaps, with his predilection for hard SF, he just isn't good at speculating about such mundane things as street life in the next century. Hogan's embarrassing use of some anachronistic slang here and there shows he isn't really the guy you want to see writing young-adult novels in the first place, even mainstream ones. (At least he doesn't have anyone saying "Far out!")

Hogan's story is as undemanding to read as potato chips are to eat, and yet it still has a hard time holding your interest despite its brief 220-page length. Linc may have undergone life-changing challenges herein (yes, kudos to a book championing personal responsibility), but Hogan doesn't give his readers any. Really, young readers deserve better, and for Hogan this is one valley in a career with plenty of peaks. My advice: the classics that this book was "patterned after" are still in print. Read them instead.