Jun 20, 2012

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The premise of The Long Earth, the first novel in a new sci-fi series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, is that humankind has discovered that there are innumerable alternative Earths and that we have the ability to “step” into them with the aid of a simple potato-powered device. Step Day, the day when millions of children around the world assembled their steppers by following instructions posted anonymously online, changed the course of history. The Long Earth explores the impact of this discovery, and follows Joshua Valient√© (who is a “natural stepper”; someone with the ability to step without a device) and his AI friend Lobsang in a journey to the farthest reaches of the Long Earth.

This is a very clumsy summary of what is in fact a very intricate (and sometimes a little meandering) plot, but I thought I’d tell you about the premise of The Long Earth and let you find out the details for yourselves. I have a soft spot for alternative Earth stories (I was a big fan of the early seasons of Sliders back in the day), so the premise was more than enough to get me excited. I read The Long Earth with Kelly from The Written World, and we each came up with four questions about the novel. I answer all eight below, and Kelly does the same over at her blog.

I’ll start with a pretty unimaginative question - how do you think this book compares to the rest of Terry Pratchett’s work? (I won’t ask about Stephen Baxter because I think that like me you hadn’t read him before. Do you want to now, though?)
I wouldn’t say that The Long Earth is exactly Pratchett at his best, but it’s a solid science fiction novel, and it was fun to see him explore new territory. The tone, for example, is pretty different from what most readers have come to expect from him. As for Stephen Baxter, I’m definitely interested in reading more of his work. I read somewhere that the integration of evolutionary biology into the plot is very typical of his novels; this piqued my curiosity quite a bit as I thought that was one of the most interesting aspects of The Long Earth.

Kelly: If you had never read Pratchett before, would you consider this a good starting point?
Not really, no – not only because he has better novels, but also because it might give new readers a skewed idea of what to expect from him (then again, I often say the same about The Colour of Magic, which people often do pick as their starting point). Having said that, I think The Long Earth is likely to introduce Pratchett to an audience who might not have considered reading him before, and this makes me happy. If these new readers do go on to read Discworld because they enjoyed this, they’ll likely find some of the same elements that appealed to them here: the combination of humour and darkness, the political aspects, the big questions about what it means to be human, the fascination with science and history, etc. These are all things he incorporates into his novels pretty regularly.

What was your favourite thing about the concept of The Long Earth? Was there anything about all those possible worlds that you found particularly exciting?
My favourite thing was the fact that all those alternate Earths functioned as a series of evolutionary “what ifs” – they gave Pratchett and Baxter room to speculate about what things might have been like in our planet if this or that seemingly small detail had been different. And they write about this with a delight fuelled by intellectual curiosity and a genuine sense of awe. As Joshua and Lobsang travel through the Long Earth, they find far more worlds without sentient species than worlds with them; it soon becomes very clear that not all of these evolutionary possibilities are consciousness-friendly. But The Long Earth doesn’t treat this as a reason for existential despair. The sensibility behind the novel is one that really speaks to me personally – it responds to the improbability of our existence with genuine appreciation for the fact that we’re here at all rather than with angst.

Kelly: What did you think of the characters? Did any stand out for you? Did any bother you?
I quite liked the characters, particularly police officer Monica Jansson, but it took me a long time to get truly attached to any of them because the cast is just too large. The first half of The Long Earth is full of short sections about several different characters, and just when things are starting to get interesting for one of them we move on to someone else. Pratchett often does the same in Discworld, but there it actually works because it’s a long series and we often have the context we need for that particular character from a previous novel. In the case of The Long Earth, though, I found this approach pretty frustrating at times.

Did the consequences of the discovery of the Stepper ring true to you? Do you think that’s how human beings would react if they were given the opportunity to explore other worlds?
Yes, the consequences did ring true to me. But one of the most remarkable things about The Long Earth is that it doesn’t make any sweeping generalisations about how people would react based on “human nature” – instead, it contextualises their reactions and ties them to social, political, and economic factors. Things are different for different people depending on how much they have to lose or gain; how privileged and secure their place in the world is; how scared or lost they are. The novel is actually very overtly political at times, which I thought was fabulous.

For example, I was interested in the section that explored the profile of the Long Earth pioneers and linked them to their past counterparts:
It struck Jack, on this first glance at his new companions, that they were mostly like him and Tilda. A mix of ethnicities, but they all looked prosperous enough, earnest, a little anxious – middle class types setting off into the unknown. That was the classic profile of the Long Earth pioneer, just as, according to Tilda, it had been in the old West. The very rich wouldn’t travel, for they were too comfortable back on the Datum to give it all up. And nor would the very poor, at least not in an organized party like this, for they didn’t have the means to pay for the trek itself. No, it was the middle classes who were heading off into the far West, especially those distressed in difficult economic times.
They were all people with a certain degree of economic privilege, but they were pushed further by the desire, or necessity, of becoming more successful. Of course, this socioeconomic context doesn’t erase the fact that their settlements had serious consequences for the species that already inhabited these worlds. I wish the novel had done more with this, but perhaps this is something that will be explored in more detail as the series progresses. Something I really appreciated, though, was the fact that there was no doom and gloom prediction about the past always repeating itself and pioneers with more resources and access to technology inevitably slaughtering however happens to be in the lands they want for themselves. No, people can respect one another, and there’s nothing inevitable or “natural” about our past mistakes.

Another thing I found really interesting was the exploration of how the people who lacked the ability to step even with the device became increasingly alienated and radicalised. They make some pretty poor choices, but these choices are always placed in a context and therefore humanised.

Kelly: Do you think the ‘real’ world and the ‘stepper’ world combined well? What did you think of the mention of things like WWI? Did it make it seem more or less legitimate?
I thought the historical aspects were well integrated into the worldbuilding, and that’s really all I ask. The story of Private Percy Blakeney, which opens the novel, was actually quite moving, especially when we find out what happened to him in the end.

What did you think about the ties Pratchett and Baxter established between scientific concepts and world mythologies? I'm not alone in finding that kind of thing incredibly cool, right?
No, dear self, you’re certainly not alone. To give you all a bit of context here, I should explain that the other sentient species that inhabit the Long Earth, some of whom are natural steppers, are linked to our folk tales about elves, trolls, dwarves, and so on. I kind of love stories that combine science fiction with elements of folklore and mythology (also a big Stargate fan back in the day), so this aspect of the novel was pretty exciting for me.

Kelly: Did you think this book worked as a standalone, or did you finish wanting more?
It could have worked as a standalone if not for the abrupt ending. I actually wasn’t aware this was going to be a series until I got there, so you can imagine my frustration. I guess the conclusion could work in an ambiguous, open-ended sort of way, but more than the plot not being wrapped up neatly, I was frustrated by the fact that some of the questions posed by the novel about what it means to have consciousness aren’t taken to their full consequences. I wanted more from The Long Earth ideas-wise, and I’m really hoping that the sequel will give us that.

But occasional frustration aside, The Long Earth was a great read: it may not give us all the answers, but the questions it raises are worthwhile in and of themselves.

They read it too: The Written World, 1330V, The Literary Omnivore, We Be Reading

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received a free copy of this book for review.

19 comments:

chasingbawa.com said...

I'm really looking forward to reading this. The idea of multiple earths on an evolutionary gradation sounds fascinating. I just finished reading Snuff and am already missing Pratchett's fictional worlds!

Marg said...

As a big Pratchett fan I feel a bit bad that I haven't read the galley I got of it yet, but I will! Soon...hopefully!

Carl V. said...

I read a really nice review yesterday and the two of you echo much of what I read there that made me want to add this to my 'to be read' list. I did hear that the cast of characters is pretty large and that the ending does have a big cliffhanger.

I had only read the Pratchett/Gaiman book Good Omens before a few weeks back but now I've read (and LOVED) Thud! and am reading Snuff, so I'm interested in exploring this collaboration as well as more of TP's Discworld stuff.

I have to admit that seeing him doing a collaboration makes me sad only because it reminds me of his Alzheimer's battle. I hope and pray that he is doing well and continues to do so for a very, very long time.

Larissa said...

Sliders, Stargate, Terry Pratchett, alternate earths,… You got me hooked, I now have to read this! And the questions/answers are a good idea, it gave a better perspective at what the book could be, thanks.

Heather said...

I can't wait to read this. You know I love Pratchett (haven't read Baxter) and the premise just sounds so intriguing! I'm glad you hear you and Kelly liked it. I've read a few reviews that didn't like it so much, which had me worried. I know if you and Kelly like it, I probably will too.

Chris said...

I told Kelly already that I'm skipping y'alls review because I just got this today :p But I'm SO excited to read this one!!!!

jessicabookworm said...

I'm not ruling out reading this book but right now I'm all about reading more of the Discworld series. Next up I have the Unseen Academicals!

Stephanie said...

This sounds very intriguing to me, especially the elements of alternative history and evolutionary biology. I've never read Pratchett before. Which of his novels would you recommend that I try first?

Aarti said...

I'm bummed that this isn't Pratchett at his best, but I suppose when you are used to fantastic Discworld series, it's hard to love him trying a whole new genre. It's possible the Discworld fans are a *little* biased :-)

I like the idea of alternate universes, too! I don't understand all of string theory and all that stuff, BUT it would be cool to see how decisions made at some point in the past could totally change the course of humanity.

Trish said...

I love reading yours and Kelly's joint thoughts on books--you both ask such wonderful questions to one another. I'm still trying to get through Good Omens so I probably won't read this one for a while. I really enjoy Good Omens but I think it's one I need to read rather than listen to. I feel like I'm missing all of the treasures! From all I've read of Pratchett I do really appreciate how rich and complex (and fun!) his books are.

AML said...

Sounds really interesting!The book had open up few more possibilities and few more questions on our existence.Thanks for the post!Looking forward to read this one.

Dreamybee said...

A potato-powered device to step between worlds? I love it! I haven't read any Pratchett before, but this sounds like a great read! I love the idea of alternate evolutions and the tying in of myth and folklore. (And your summary was not at all clumsy, in fact it was the perfect amount of intriguing!) :)

Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous said...

Hmmm...intrigued, but not sure if I want to run out and get it. The potato-powered device to step between worlds sounds fantastic, the philosophy sounds fascinating...but I'm just not quite grabbed. On to the mental "must remember that" list with it.

darkorpheus said...

I am so out of touch with books these days. Thanks for this.

Catherine said...

Stephanie: I generally give people 'Mort' to read as a first introduction - others will of course have different opinions :)

Vasilly said...

As I was reading your co-review, I just kept nodding my head in agreement. There were several frustrating things about this book but there is a lot that works. Great review guys!

Nymeth said...

Sakura: I always want more too as soon as I finish a book of his. Really looking forward to Dodger later this year!

Marg: Yes, do get to it soon!

Carl: I actually don't think that Alzheimer's had anything to do with his decision to do a collaboration. He has a solo book coming in September (Dodger, which is set in the same universe as Nation) and plans for a few more. He and Baxter have said in interviews that they had the idea for The Long Earth over twenty years ago and always meant to write it together, but it was only recently that the time as right for them both. But yes, like you I really hope he'll be well and writing books for many years to come.

Larissa: I did manage to name drop quite a few awesome things, didn't I? :P The Long Earth isn't quite like any of them, but it reminded me of them all in different ways.

Heather: I hope you do! I know a lot of people had problems with the plot being a little all over the place, and while I think that's a fair point there was enough that worked for me regardless.

Chris: Happy reading!

Jessica: Enjoy! Unseen Academicals is not one of my favourites, but that isn't to say it isn't good.

Stephanie: Catherine's suggestion below is a good one. I also find this chart really helpful. You can start with any of the subseries. The Death and Witches ones are my personal favourites.

Aarti: One of the things I found interesting is that the novel didn't explore so much human decisions leading to alternate history scenarios (though I love that kind of stuff), but accidents of evolution that resulted in a completely different planet where different life forms evolved. I don't think I'd encountered a novel that conjured this kind of what if before (which just goes to show that I read a lot more fantasy than sci-fi, I guess :P).

Trish: Thank you so much! And yes, do give Good Omens a try in print if it's not working for you on audio. I know I'm a bit biased, since it's a book where my two favourite authors team up, but I think it's worth it.

AML: Hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

Dreamybee: The potato detail was such a typical Pratchett thing!

Cheryl: It's not the kind of book I'd urge anyone to run and get this very minute, but it's worth picking up at some point.

Dark Orpheus: You're welcome!

Vasilly: I kept nodding when reading yours too!

Stefanie said...

I put off reading your post since I was in the middle of the book when it went up and then put it off a little longer so i could think about the book. I really liked it and had no idea there were going to be more. I am glad because the ending left a little to be desired for a stand alone. I enjoyed the book and ideas in it and the humor was marvelous. I've not read Baxter before either but I would definitely like to now. I like the way you discussed the book. Well done!

Alex said...

As a big fan of both Pratchett and Baxter, I want to say that the pacing, the quick jumping between characters, and especially the rehashing of the same event from the point of view of several different characters is very much Baxter's style. If anyone is interested in Stephen Baxter, Manifold:Time is one of my favorite books and is very similar to The Long Earth.

Post a Comment

Thank you so much for commenting - I do my best to reply to comments, but life conspires against it more and more often these days. But even when I don't get around to replying, every comment is read and very much appreciated.

To non-blogger users: I've been told that OpenID comments have been giving people errors most of the time, for which I really, really apologise. But you could always use the name/URL option instead, which seems to work just fine.

Thank you for reading!