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The Billion Dollar Boy
The Billion Dollar Boy by Charles Sheffield is the second book in Tor's Jupiter line, which is dedicated to resurrecting the sort of adventure SF that lured so many kids into both science and science fiction. It takes place a few centuries after the events of the first Jupiter novel, Higher Education. I thought Higher Education was dreadful, but I tried The Billion Dollar Boy anyway, hoping it would be a decent imitation of a Heinlein juvenile. To my happy surprise, it's a fun lightweight read -- not because it's a Heinlein juvenile, but because it's a Kipling juvenile: Captains Courageous in outer space.
Anyone saddled with a name like Shelby Crawford Jerome Prescott Cheever has a right to be petulant. (Sheffield is hardly the first author to claim the Very Rich are "not like us," but why do they always indicate this by giving them names that should belong to pedigreed poodles?) Shelby is also vain, pompous, and spoiled, but he can afford to be; the interest alone on his trust fund amounts to more than a billion dollars a year.
While on a luxury cruise of the solar system, bored and dead drunk, Shelby decides that an unsupervised sightseeing jaunt via an interstellar transit node would be a good idea. Instead of being transported to the expected destination out past Pluto, he pops out in the middle of the Messina Dust Cloud, twenty-seven lightyears from Earth. He is picked up by a passing mining ship, but the crew doesn't believe his ridiculous story about being fabulously wealthy, and Shelby is expected to -- horrors! -- work for his keep for a few months until the ship swings back to the solar system.
The plot of Captains Courageous has been lifted intact, with just a nip and tuck and a bit of embroidery to round out a few characters and make the ending more cheerful. Sheffield does a deft job of placing it in space. The Dust Cloud is full of wonder and beauty and danger, mysterious might-be-creatures and spectacular vistas. The miners have the sort of fiercely self-reliant but socially interdependent society that Heinlein was so fond of depicting. Sheffield also successfully emulates Heinlein in painlessly working quite a bit of basic physics and astronomy into the story.
To my vast relief, the ideological bludgeoning of the first book has been reduced to a muffled pounding here. Also unlike Higher Education, The Billion Dollar Boy has no sex and very little vulgar language or violence. I enjoyed it. It's rather predictable (even if you've never kippled), but it's a quick, fun read: a good book to give to younger readers. And while you're at it, give them the Kipling version, too.
-- Christina Schulman.
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