Jumping Off the Planet concerns the Dingillian family, which is dysfunctional in a ridiculously predictable fashion. The narrator is a teenage boy named Charles Dingillian, whose nickname is "Chigger." The word "chigger" which has the misfortune of being one of my least favorite words, thanks to its similarity to a certain other word that starts with N and also has unpleasant connotations.
Charles has an older brother who he has nicknamed Weird, and a younger brother who he has nicknamed Stinky. This brings us to my first problem with the story: the narrator is openly bratty. He is unpleasant and bitter in a sour, undifferentiated sort of way. It's as if the book was written by someone who had only observed teenagers from the outside, and didn't remember what it was like to actually be one.
Their father is cartoonishly doofy, just like the dad in every commercial for a household product since the dawn of television. When the book opens, their dad is taking them on a vacation as part of his custody visit. (Surely a custody dispute as hotly contested as that of the Dingillian parents would include a rider that the children not be allowed to leave the state. But I digress.) It soon becomes apparent that he is in fact kidnapping them. They appear not to have much of an opinion on this, although they find it interesting in an intellectual sort of way, it doesn't seem to upset them much.
The Dingillian foursome travel to Ecuador, and head into outer space up a beanstalk. At this point the plot and action, thin as they are, are burdened with a truly preposterous amount of exposition. Gerrold brings the science from every corner. Every page or so, the entire thing grinds to a halt so that a random stranger can pop his head into the room and digress at length upon the physics of moving a large load up a cable into space.
I completely lost patience about halfway through, when a glimmer of interest is sparked by Charles' new friendship with a fellow passenger. I literally groaned out loud when it turns out that the boy's father is an engineer responsible for maintaining the electrical charge which builds up along the cable. (Cut to several pages of explanation on electricity and its implications for the beanstalk.)
Charles allows himself to be shuttled passively from one situation to another, showing neither creativity nor resourcefulness. His gripes are commonplace; his vexation with the world unremitting. Many authors have managed to take this basic character (the disaffected teenage boy) and make something interesting of him. The characters in Stephen King's Christine come to mind, as do those in Neil Gaiman's Stardust. But as for Chigger, I was more than happy to leave him to his misery.