Friday, September 28, 2012

The Long Earth

The Long Earth. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. 2012. HarperCollins. 352 pages.

In a forest glade: Private Percy woke up to birdsong. It was a long time since he had heard birdsong, the guns saw to that. For a while he was content to lie there in the blissful quiet.

There's a very good chance you'll like this one more than I did. Why? Well, let's just say that by the end of this one, we were not on good terms. I ended up hating this one. I didn't start out hating it, mind you. The first third--perhaps the first half--of the novel I thought the novel had potential to be for me. The good news is that the issues I had with the book are probably not going to be your issues. This book just happens to fall into the not-for-me category. I prefer those categories--a book being either for me or not for me--as opposed to saying that a book is either good or bad. The very qualities that make one person love a book, may make another hate a book. (My big issue with the book has more to do with ideology, philosophy, etc. I didn't find this one faith friendly in the slightest.)

So what can I say about this one? Well, the last part reminded me of the later Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. In particular, the last novel of the Foundation series, the book that I've spent years trying to forget. I can't talk about details, obviously, without spoiling The Long Earth.

Characters and Pacing. This novel has SO MANY characters, so many points of views, so many story lines. And the book isn't always clear on chronology, meaning, as a reader I was always a bit unsure about how much time has passed. Has it been a year from step day, five years from step day, ten years from step day, twenty years from step day, etc. By just barely getting to know characters and just following their story for a chapter or two or three, one doesn't get a clear glimpse of how much time has passed, and how things are going--or not going--on Datum Earth.  The narrative gives us extremely brief, extremely limited "flashes" of what life is like on probably a dozen or so different Earths--maybe even a hundred--but no framework, no context is given to really grasp everything going on. Perhaps we're never meant to understand, perhaps it's beyond comprehension, perhaps that is the point--that endless earths with endless possibilities with endless variables is too much of a riddle to be solved by humanity. Pacing does become a slight issue at least because the moment the story begins to gain momentum and focus on something interesting and compelling, we're sent down another path. I felt, in some cases, there were characters/stories introduced that we never went back to.

The book that would have proved most interesting to me would have chosen a small handful of characters that we would follow as they pioneered across the Long Earth trying to find the right Earth for them as settlers. The book would have focused on new beginnings, establishing settlements, creating civilizations, facing unknown dangers, dealt with homesickness, etc. The book could have even focused on several settlements on several different Earths showing the differences in how societies, civilizations, governments, communities are set up, allowing for differences in politics, ideology, philosophy, etc. Perhaps showing the struggle between the new "earth" they were claiming as home, and the old earth with all its problems, etc. But The Long Earth does none of those things.

It is a science fiction adventure story. And it has many, many characters. And a few of these seem to be main character material. But I didn't particularly like the ones I was supposed to like most of all. I found myself more interested in the characters that were with us for five or six or maybe even twenty pages.

The book does start with an interesting premise, but, I ended up disappointed in the direction this one went. A good reminder, to me, that premise isn't everything.

Read The Long Earth
  • If the premise of having endless alternate Earths that you can 'step' between intrigues you
  • If the premise of each Earth having evolved differently based on small and large variables appeals to you; each Earth represents one "what if"
  • If the premise of humans exploring and settling these Earths fascinates you (just don't expect this to be a book about settling and establishing)
  • If you like science fiction adventure stories with a blend of human characters and artificial intelligence
© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I didn't have the same problems, but still found myself disappointed with the book. I haven't read any Stephen Baxter books, though I have read The Light of Other Days, which he co-wrote with Arthur C Clarke. Knowiing Clarke's work, I got a strong feeling that that book was Clarke's ideas and Baxter's writing ('cos Clarke was never that good at the writing, though he had great ideas).

I got the same kind of feeling from this, which is where the problems came in. Baxter may be a much better writer than Clarke, but he isn't better than Pratchett. In fact, he isn't nearly as good. That really isn't to say the book is rubbish; he's not bad, he's just not Terry Pratchett.
What you wind up with then is something which is very recognisably a Pratchett story, with fairly pedestrian writing. Which, when you're used to absolute genius, is a let down.
I actually like the many characters, multiple locations aspect. It's fun playing the jigsaw puzzle of putting it together.
The ideas are also very interesting and I'd probably read another in the series when it's done, even though I don't think it will get better in any significant way. Shame that.