Review: The Long Earth

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Ah, Terry Pratchett. I was first introduced to Pratchett through Good Omens. I’ve read two Discworld novels—Moving Pictures and Monstrous Regiment— and The Wee Free Men as a kid, which I enjoyed, but I haven’t read anything else by him. After his recent diagnosis of early on-set Alzheimer’s, I thought that Pratchett’s prodigious output would be slowed, but I was surprised to find him collaborating with Stephen Baxter, an author I’ve never read, in the new novel The Long Earth, based on an old abandoned concept of Pratchett’s. Huh!

In The Long Earth, the latest gadget for kids—a small box whose instructions have popped up online—zips them away to a parallel Earth. Only Joshua Valiente, a boy who can travel between worlds without the aid of the box, knows what to do, and gets the kids home. Earth will never be the same with the discovery of seemingly infinite parallel Earths; it’s the new frontier, as people set out to forge new lives in these new Earths, living those who just can’t “step” between worlds and iron (which can’t travel) behind. Flash forward a few years: The transEarth Corporation wants to see what’s at the end of the Long Earth, as it’s known, and hires Joshua to guide Lobsang, a genius robot that swears it’s a incarnated Tibetan mechanic, to the ends of the Long Earth. But the further they travel, the more Joshua suspects there’s something malevolent at the end…

As fond as I am of science fiction, I’m not really an idea-only person. Even the dumbest concept can work if the characters work. I firmly believe that good stories come from good characters. And The Long Earth is firmly an idea-only novel. Based on a wee bit of reading I did for this, Baxter is an idea man through and through; he does hard science fiction. Now, of course, there’s nothing bad about being an idea man if you can deliver on characters and it’s good to have Pratchett, who does characters well, onboard to correct if need be. But The Long Earth isn’t about a cool story; it’s about a cool concept. Much of the novel is spent on exploring the world of the Long Earth; we watch Lobsang and Joshua explore the worlds, and there are plenty of chapters just about other people exploring the Long Earth. It makes for a bit of a mess, character-wise, as you’re not sure who to pay attention to. Well, Joshua and Lobsang, naturally enough, but other characters float in and out—a few of them pop up again, but precious few make any significant contribution to the plot.

Not that there’s much of one. There’s some bother about the frightening thing at the end of the Long Earth (which turns out to be not frightening) and anti-steppers, but not much attention is really paid to it. There’s no tension and little set-up. I’ll be honest—I’m tempted to blame Baxter, because I’m more familiar with Pratchett’s writing and I’ve rarely seen this happen. But I think this is simply a case of two professionals succumbing to Worldbuilder’s in the worst way. At least it wasn’t epic fantasy; that would have taken days to wade through… Pratchett’s wit comes in when it comes to characters—Lobsang and the radical nuns that raise Joshua are my particular favorites, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a heart here. Again, there’s little stakes and tension, so it’s hard to motivate yourself to care about such slim characters.

There are some nice moments—Lobsang, who endlessly theorizes to himself and Joshua, concludes that the trolls and elves of mythology are related to creatures in other Earths who know how to step, and Lobsang’s enforced daily viewings of films to explain his own references are charming in their way. (Perhaps more charming because I’m trying to do the same at the moment this summer!) But they’re few and far between. And there’s only one really good joke in the whole thing, which I found endlessly disappointing. On top of that, precious little is actually resolved; the anti-stepping movement, which is handled clumsily but is at least promising, is kind of dropped, and the ending is pretty abrupt. Just… eh.

Bottom line: The Long Earth is an idea novel through and through—Pratchett and Baxter focus endlessly on minute episodes about how cool the setting is that the idea of a main plot is kind of forgotten. Pass.

I received this free review copy from the publisher.

The Long Earth will be released on the 19th—tomorrow!

10 thoughts on “Review: The Long Earth

  1. Well, that’s kind of disappointing. I have a soft spot for Pratchett, but without his frequent and consistently great wit to speed the pages along, I can see how this would fizzle a little. I love how Pratchett can be really thoughtful about characters and concepts…not in a Pulitzer kind of way, but always as a nice surprise in a novel that would otherwise still be a fun read. To have that replaced by so-called world-building is a bit of a sad replacement.

    I don’t know Baxter very well, but I’m always a little wary when someone raves about hard sci-fi. I love some of it – Kim Stanley Robinson might deserve a Pulitzer someday, I think. But the most archetypical hard sci-fi writers, like Larry Niven, have never really impressed me.

    • This is just sort of all over the place. And the concept is interesting, but I would have preferred sticking with, perhaps, one family pioneering while alternating with a mission to find what’s at the end. Something a little more focused.

  2. I love Terry Pratchett, so much that he’s one of my favorite authors. But … I think that Pratchett is best when he writes Discworld. I have this book on my list of interesting books to come out this year – but I have been a bit wary about it from the get-go and I think your review nails that exactly. Still, the concept of it sounds really cool – and since it is Pratchett, I might get around to it. But it’s not on the top of my list…

  3. Pingback: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth (2012) « Follow the Thread

  4. Why no use of kevlar, carbon fibre, titanium or aluminum in the year 2026. Engines, guns, electonics over a decade would be available to everyone, so why all this 19th century pioneer rubbish.

    Given that different asteroid and commet events are acknowledged in the book for different earths; there would be different orbital positions for each earth so people would step into space.

  5. Pingback: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – The Long Earth | Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book Reviews

  6. The Long Earth didn’t feel at all Pratchett to me. And I’ve read a LOT of Pratchett, not just every one of the Disc World, but the kid’s books, and Strata, and collaborations, and all. There was very little of Prachett’s great humor, and to say the ending was abrupt is like saying the surface of the sun can be warm. Unless this is Book One of a planned series, I’m deeply disappointed. If it IS the start of a series, I’m still unhappy to have spent $12.99 on what in essence is an ok chapter one. The just doesn’t stand on its own as a complete story for me.

  7. I’m almost done with this book and I LOVE IT! I completely relate to the character of Joshua, what I wouldn’t give to be a natural stepper. No, it’s not typical Pratchett, and like Kallen, I’ve read a LOT of Pratchett, but I just love it. I figured, about half way into it, that the ending would probably be abrupt, but I did read that there will at least be a 2nd book in the series, so hopefully book 2 will pick up where book 1 left off. And I for one hope there is a 3rd and 4th and…..

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