Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter: The Long Earth

-Review by Paul Ewbank-

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I don’t get along with Terry Pratchett as well as most people I know. However he is perceived in the general public domain, within my group of friends you are likely to find about ten discworld books lying about each house (with the other seven million of the damn things tucked safely away of the shelves in order of publication), the owners of which know every character and every plot and probably every word off by heart. In short, if my community weren’t so devoutly Christian, Pratchett would be god. Whereas for me, Pratchett is… quite good. At best. Ok, I unreservedly enjoyed Small Gods, and Wee Free Men or whatever its called was readable enough, but man did Thief of Time drag on and on. I think my main problem with his writing is that…what? You mean you didn’t come here to read my inane ramblings on why I don’t like a popular author? Bear with me, ok, this is relevant to my review. We’ll get there. Eventually.

SO. Problem number one is that all his works are inter-connected, meaning that to understand half of what’s going on in any given book you have to have read EVERY preceding book, and ain’t nobody got time for that. The occasional reference or nod is fine, but when two thirds of your book (possibly a slight exaggeration) is made up of in-jokes it starts to feel a tad self-satisfied. Because obviously you’ve read all the other discworld books because they’re all so gosh darned wonderful, aren’t they? Problem number two is just an overarching sense of smugness. I’ll grant that Pratchett is witty and imaginative, but boy does he know it. I’ve never seen a more self indulgent writer, or one less capable of keeping to one plot thread and not wandering off into meaningless tangents and endless witty asides. Having most of said witty asides quoted to me like scripture by every person I know probably hasn’t helped.

All of this is a long winded, petty way of saying that when I was given The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter last birthday I was really hoping that the ratio would be skewed in favour of the latter, or at least that Baxter would be able to rein Pratchett in a bit. I’ve never read any of Steven Baxter’s ultra hard, technical, theoretical science fiction but hard sci-fi as a concept isn’t something I’m opposed to, and maybe a hefty dose of reality and groundedness would be good for Terry Pratchett. At the very least it’d be a book without ten volumes of baggage to get through first. Because Practhett is a good writer, and his works often succeed almost in spite of themselves, and I was definitely interested in seeing what this collaboration ended up being like. The end result is definitely still marred by some inescapable Pratchett-ness, but despite it being a decent read overall, that’s the least of its problems.

Left: the template used to create every Physics teacher ever. Right: Santa.
Left: the template used to create every Physics teacher ever.
Right: Santa.

So in The Long Earth mankind has discovered that there are endless parallel earths which anyone can reach simply by ‘stepping’ across dimensions. As world leaders and economies try to come to grips with space and resources suddenly becoming infinite, an ultra intelligent AI named Lobsang enlists the help of a lone explorer named Joshua in travelling to the unexplored reaches of the ‘Long Earth’, travelling millions of dimensions away to observe how earth evolved under radically different conditions. Plotwise I suspect Steven Baxter was the overall architect; take a big sci-fi concept and have the main thrust of the story being just an excuse to run with all the possible outcomes and scenarios such an idea would suggest. It’s interesting stuff, and thoughtfully explored. The actual writing seems to owe a lot more to Practhett as it still bears most of his hallmarks; the only contribution Baxter made to the actual style seems to have been curbing Pratchett’s waffly prose a tad and the occasional use of the word ‘shit’. One problem that persists is Pratchett’s inability to start a book at the beginning of the story. Here we have so many false starts and prologues and set ups that by the time the very straightforward main narrative sneaks up on you and all the superfluous subplots have basically died off you wonder why it took so long to get going. Once it does pick up speed it’s actually rather good, and plays to both author’s strengths. Baxter gets to explore theories of alternate universes and possible variants of dominant life on earth, and Pratchett gets to play out the relationship between a super intelligent but slightly eccentric AI and a level headed but socially awkward lone hero. You could almost see the two main characters and their journey as analogous to Pratchett and Baxter and their attempt to fuse their two styles, though which one is which is up for debate. Either way, and much like the insufferable but somehow charming character of the robot Lobsang himself, The Long Earth grows on you no matter how much you try to dislike it.

As Lobsang and Joshua head further and further away from home they start to see signs of an impending calamity making its way in the opposite direction through the long earth and tension slowly builds to a supposed climax. I won’t spoil what that final event is (for a change), but the issue I have is that for the culmination of all their travels and the potential end to an infinite number of worlds (hence the books rather dubious inclusion on this blog), the whole thing plays out with a surprising lack of danger or energy. The final two or three discoveries Lobsang and Joshua (and Sally, a fellow explorer they pick up along the way and who is by far the most annoying person in the book) make are all extremely cool, mysterious and potentially threatening if given the due attention. And yet the authors seem content to leave them as merely discoveries- things to take notes on and discuss at length rather than to run screaming from, and it makes the ending rather flat. The concepts at play are undeniably fascinating and brought to life very well- these are clearly very imaginative guys- and perhaps the life-threatening ramifications will play out in the sequel. But then, that’s another problem, isn’t it. The Long Earth, like its titular setting, doesn’t really end. The journey ends, sure, but none of the threads are resolved and most of the big payoff seems to have been saved for book two. Which is annoying. Surely these two giants of fiction have enough money already without making me fork out for another volume just to find out how the damn thing ends.

When it comes down to it I enjoyed Long Earth a lot more than I thought I would, and it’ll definitely appeal to fans of both authors. The book was at its best when it was describing a world figuring out what to do with millions of other worlds, and looking at how different countries and cultures addressed the issue. It’s a great concept and it was developed believably. The main story itself was decently paced and often quite funny, and Pratchett didn’t annoy me nearly as much as he normally does. Still, I wasn’t sufficiently impressed to pick up the sequel or any other book by either author any time soon. Life is short, and my list of books to read and films to see and games to play is longer than the Long Earth.

By that I mean I have, like, four books on my shelf I’d like to read sometime soon. And a couple of comics.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt says:

    A fairly good review. Though some points…

    “Because obviously you’ve read all the other discworld books because they’re all so gosh darned wonderful, aren’t they?” > Well yes, yes the are. But more importantly, you think it unreasonable if a book assumes you’re read the preceding books in the series? If an author had to write every book so that it worked as a standalone novel, literature would be a lot more limited. If you inexplicably want to read the 20th book in a series without reading the preceding 19 books first then good for you, but I don’t think you can complain when you can’t quite follow all the references to past events.

    “Plotwise I suspect Steven Baxter was the overall architect” > As it happens, the book is based on an unpublished Pratchett novel called The High Meggas. Though I’ll grant that plot and concept are not strictly the same thing.

    “Surely these two giants of fiction have enough money already without making me fork out for another volume just to find out how the damn thing ends.” > So you really do want all books to be standalone novels, and never part of a deeper more complex series? Your general point was quite valid though… the ending was a bit un-climactic.

    Finally, as someone who did have time for it, I’m happy to report that the sequel was fairly good 🙂

    1. paule42 says:

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂 I didn’t know it was based on a Pratchett novel although I do remember reading that somewhere now you mention it. From what I know of Baxter’s books they’re more about big concepts and ideas than story and characters so a plot that was just about exploration seemed more his kind of thing.
      Regarding the standalone book/series issue, I have no issue with sequels. A lot of my favourite books/films are parts of a longer series. But I DO think that a book should be able to stand on its own as well. Even if the overall plot doesn’t get finished we still need some kind of resolution at the end. For me there were so many open ends in Long Earth that it felt like half a book, not part one of a series. For me, sequels are better when they’re seperate stories that make sense on their own but are part of a bigger picture. I want to buy a sequel because I enjoyed the first book and want to read more by the author, not because I feel I HAVE to in order to get the complete story. And I don’t really agree that having to do that limits authors. The comment about them already having enough money was just a joke though.
      As to reading the preceeding 19 discworld novels, I’ll pass :p If the whole discworld series was one continuous story then reading them all in order would be reasonable to expect. But the one’s I’ve read are basically self-contained stories with some shared characters and settings, so you should be able to read them as such. A few nods to your other books for the enjoyment of the more dedicated fans is one thing, in Pratchett there’s just so much if it, especially in Thief of Time. That just makes it really hard for non-diehard fans to get into his work. And yeah, I wasn’t sufficiently inspired by the few I have read to want to trawl through all the previous installments.

      1. Stephen W says:

        Totally agree. Books should both form part of a larger series and stand on their own. Loads of perfectly good authors manage it.

        It’s one thing if books are explicitly parts or volumes of a larger story, but I’ve never got the impression discworld were written or marketed like that. Being ludicrously self-referential is not a sign of great authorship, it’s a sign of not being able to write anything new.

  2. Anna says:

    I have to say I am Pratchett fan and have been for years, but I much prefer the Commander Vimes books, as I did Raymond Chandler at Uni and really enjoy Noir. I too was not a fan of Thief of Time, I like the earlier Death books, but I don’t like Susan that much. Apparently that is inherited as my eldest, who is reading through the books for the first time in order, couldn’t be bothered with Soul Music and only got 20 pages in before giving up and moving on to the next. I think people have story arcs they prefer in Pratchett and if you read the wrong book first, then yes they are off putting. It is allowed to not like an author even if all your friends do, have fun exploding peoples’ expectations of your reading habits. My Gran was delighted to find War and Peace in a charity shop when she was 85 and read it with relish, she couldn’t be doing with being treated like a little old lady in any respect. Whereas I, an English literature graduate, have never got on with Dickens and can’t be bothered to try. Life is too short to waste persevering with books you don’t enjoy just because other people think you should.

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