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!