Friday, 22 June 2012

Book Review | The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The possibilities are endless. Just be careful what you wish for...

1916: The Western Front. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong and the wind in the leaves. Where have the mud, blood, and blasted landscape of no-man's-land gone? For that matter, where has Percy gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Police officer Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive—some say mad, others allege dangerous—scientist who seems to have vanished. Sifting through the wreckage, Jansson find a curious gadget: a box containing some rudimentary wiring, a three-way switch, and... a potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way humankind views the world forever.

The first novel in an exciting new collaboration between Discworld creator Terry Pratchett and the acclaimed SF writer Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth transports readers to the ends of the earth—and far beyond. All it takes is a single step.


There is something to be said for accessible sf like The Long Earth.

Exactly what slips my mind at the moment, but I'm sure it's perfectly profound... unlike The Long Earth. In the main, this playful collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is more interested in absurdities, such as the potato which powers the invention which changes everything, as per the elevator pitch.

Folks come to call this ungodly gizmo a Stepper: a simple name for a simple bit of kit. It's a box which, in addition to the aforementioned power supply, contains some wires and a switch — and that's it! Anyone can make one. Almost everyone does. And when they do, they disappear.

But only from our Earth, because beyond the initial panic, Steppers don't seem to be dangerous. Perhaps the prominence of potatoes in the tech spec gave the game away? In any event, all they do is transport their users into a parallel universe — or rather, one of an apparent infinity of planets like yet in the very same second utterly unlike our own.

This, of course, is the answer to many people's prayers:
"That was the main thing about the Long Earth. [...] It offered room. It offered you a place to escape — a place to run, endlessly as far as anybody knew. All over the world there was a trickle of people just walking away, with no plan, no preparation, just walking off into the green." (p.55)
Not everyone is so freed by this pivotal discovery, however. You see, amongst the majority who can and do investigate the worlds notionally to the East and West of what becomes known as Datum Earth, even if only to carve out a second garden, or pan for gold - a currency which soon loses its value entirely - amongst this majority, then, there exists a disenfranchised minority "who can't step at all. They resent the Long Earth, and those who travel it, and all that this great opening-up has brought." (p.233)

One can only imagine we'll hear more from these people in subsequent volumes of this promising series-to-be, because their presence is only felt towards the cataclysmic conclusion of The Long Earth. That goes for Madison County police officer Monica Jansson too, whom the blurb paints as a protagonist, when it fact she's a recurring character at best.

Instead, our main man is Joshua Valienté, a Long Earth orphan who's spent his whole life stepping. Without the aid of a Stepper, even! An indeterminate twenty-something when the bulk of the narrative occurs - though he comes across somewhat younger, as if he had been a teen in a past draft - Joshua is blackmailed by the dastardly Black corporation into an airship-aided quest to the ends of the Long Earth... mostly to see if such a thing exists.

His only companion on this fantastic voyage is Lobsang, an ostensibly artificial intelligence that the courts have famously declared human. He, or else it, is funny and friendly: an invaluable aid to both the reader and the read — though Joshua has a hard time figuring out where he stands with regards to this synthetic person, and so, equally, do we.

Thus, the larger part of The Long Earth involves Joshua and Lobsang getting to grips with one another, as beneath them a vast tapestry of alternate Earths scroll past. Worlds that could have been; worlds that would have been, if this or that climate crisis or asteroid impact had happened differently; worlds, perhaps, that should have been. However, as one fellow pilgrim so memorably puts it, whilst "rattling along in [their] great big penis in the sky," (p.243) they take precious little in; they learn almost nothing new, except about themselves.

This is certainly the biggest issue with Pratchett and Baxter's book, for though at the outset we experience the Long Earth from a variety of incidental perspectives, these recede into the middle distance the moment the Mark Twain sets sail. Thereafter the reader is so removed from it all that this fantastic voyage feels oddly... normal. Once the initial wonder of The Long Earth wears off, I'm afraid there's not much more to it than a robot and a boy trading barbs in a ship in the sky.

Not until the Earth-shattering last act, that is, when Pratchett and Baxter double down on their deeply appealing premise, revealing - not before time - the infinite possibilities of The Long Earth as a setting and indeed a series. I won't give the game away, except to say that there's no going back now — and how!

On the whole, The Long Earth is a little more frivolous than I might have liked, and the middle section sags to the point of distraction, but thanks to Baxter the science in solid, and overall the fiction is fantastic fun — that'll be Pratchett. Whatever their respective roles, between the pair of them they get it together when it matters most: the beginning is brilliant, and the end - a cliff-hanger of course - is epic. Considering the mind-boggling possibilities of a milieu wherein "the next world is [but] the thickness of a thought away," (p.123) The Long Earth stands as a measured success: initially exciting, ultimately awesome, and eminently accessible to any and all comers, be you a fan of one co-author or the other. Or both.

Or even neither.


The Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

UK Publication: June 2012, Doubleday
US Publication: June 2012, Harper

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1 comment:

  1. You know...I love Pratchett...but absolutely hated this one. I missed something! I wonder if I should give it a second look..