“The Long Earth,” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Overview
Mediocre.  It was so mediocre that I’m not sure what to say; it’s hard for me to believe that Terry Pratchett had a hand in this.  The extent of the mediocrity gives me the impression that Baxter guided Pratchett along, keeping up the writing skills of a once-great writer who’s characters the latter has recently been mistaking long-lost relatives.  The authors’ dichotomy was so apparent that I could have highlighted who wrote what, split the sections out, and written two different books.  Baxter may be a good writer, but this is his only work that I’ve ever written, so I don’t know.
It’s a third-rate Robinson Scenario.  In 2006, Spider Robinson expanded on an 8-page abstract of a posthumous Robert Heinlein archive, published as Variable Star.  Robinson loved Heinlein and wanted to do the man proud; it was definitely a Robinson book and not a Heinlein book, though – the plot points were all Heinlein, but the writing was all Robinson.  I was impressed by Variable Star because I was already familiar with Robinson.  As for The Long Earth, some of it was interesting, but the formula was mind-numbing formula fiction and name-dropped other science fiction so much I felt like I was watching a mash-up on Youtube.

The Story
Middle-aged Joshua goes on an adventure with a super-smart computer (Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), who seems to be computer-bound, but then pops up out of a closet in an android body (Asimov), through multiple dimensions (Sliders and Quantum Leap) and finds a mysterious woman along the way (all formula fiction).  The wanted-by-the-feds, motorcycle-riding nuns who guide Joshua along the beginning of his journey (The Sound of Music) are written with the traditional Pratchett style, the first thought of First Person Plural (Douglas Adams’ sperm whale falling, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) will make your right eye twitch, and Shi-Mi is your typical cat (Robinson’s Heinlein’s [not a typo] Pixel, the cat who walks through walls, the Callaghan’s series).  There are more references, but they’re spelled out for you, mostly.  Feel free to tell me if I missed any.

The Incongruities and Nonsense  (Incongruously Written)
During the first quarter of the book I was full of questions, but, like a child that needs to be shushed until the teacher has finished her thought, Baxter and Pratchett pwnd all of the questions that I had.  The regional dialect was a little weird.  You’ll notice it if you read it, but I didn’t take the time to highlight it all.  Supposedly, this story mostly takes place in America, but every once in a while they use some British idioms that kind of throw you off.  Maybe they won’t throw you off if you haven’t read a lot of Pratchett’s writing, but I had an aneurism every time I read it.
-       The mysterious woman, whose name I can’t even remember an hour after I finished the book, sounds bipolar occasionally because somebody forgot to give her a personality.
-       P. 25, Officer Morris thinks that the Long Earth air feels rich, even though most people who are transported quickly from a high-smog atmosphere to an oxygen-rich atmosphere become incredibly ill (which would explain why steppers puke in transit, but not why Morris is right as rain).
-       P. 27, “You’re a regular catcher in the rye.”  Did you reference this book just to prove that you had read it?  This isn’t an English test.  On a deeper note, the kid from Catcher in the Rye dreamed of being the savior, but would never attain it.  Joshua was the savior, but didn’t want to be.  There is a connection, but it’s thin.
-       P. 88, “… as the never-never began to become the ever-ever…”  Ok, Peter Pan reference, got it, but what exactly does that mean?  Never-Never Land was an imaginary place that became real, so the Long Earth, in this case “Ever-Ever Land” is a real place that becomes imaginary?  I could see “Ever-Ever” as meaning infinite Earths, group memory-history, etc., if the reference wasn’t so heavy.
-       P. 103, “Animals that step.”  This is not an incongruity.  This is foreshadowing.  Pwnd again.
-       P. 192, “… except for shitting in your stereo headphones – a common complaint, I’m told.”  Excuse me?  I’ve heard of cats eating headphone wires, but shitting in your headphones?  You’ve never actually met a cat, have you?
-       P. 110, “… Joshua awoke feeling full of diamonds.”  How in the world is this a good thing?  If I was full of diamonds I’d probably go get them removed before they did permanent damage.
-       P. 130, INCONGRUOUS!!!  (Nicki, if it didn’t absolutely merit three exclamation points I wouldn’t have put them!)  “And what about his weapons?  He checked the pistol at his belt.  All that was left of that was the wooden stock.  Again, why?  Steal a pistol, yes, but you would have a devil of a job to use it without the stock.”  I see you there, trying to make that funny.  Reference Officer Morris’ first few steps; iron falls apart, it doesn’t disappear (I’m not going back to check this, because I have a life.  If you find me wrong, I’ll pay you in cheese sammiches).
-       P. 155, “And, heading steadily geographical west…” You just need to see this.  English majors will have strokes.  Word counts (and yes, the wildcard is a wildcard): “*West*” = 100 matches found.  Did you write this whole entire book based on an acid-induced dream that you had after listening to a Stabbing Westward album?
-       P. 187, “mould” is a British term for “mold.”  Are you British or American?  Are you sure?
-       P. 291, “… much to the apparent terror of Shi-mi the cat…” Yes, ok, I get it.  Shi-mi is not a real cat.  Thank you for wedging the context in there just in case we forgot.  You’re like a drunk guy screaming at bar patrons, “THIS CAT IS NOT A CAT.”
-       P. 302, not really a reference, but this immediately came to mind: “You speak good English.” = Tokyo Police Club’s Your English is Good.

Awesome
-       P. 155, “They paused at a couple of Corn-Belt-worlds to listen, one being West 101,754, where they got a long and chatty news update from a colony in a stepwise New England: some kid, originally from Madison as it happened, blogging by reading from her journal.”  A re-enactment of the history of blogging in reverse chronological order.
-       P. 294, I had never heard the word “soughing” before.  I like this word.
-       P. 302, also “numinous.”
-       P. 306, if this isn’t an allegory for ‘Murica I don’t know what is: “Of course there is the question of why she hasn’t already reached the inhabited worlds.  Why she has not already consumed the Earth.  Destroyed it, with curiosity and love.”
-       P. 310, “Lots of people know Keats, my grandfather often recited Keats.  Although he always used to spoil it by saying afterwards that he loved Keats but had never actually seen a keat.”  How is this not hilarious to you?  It may be the only funny English humor in the whole book; it’s like finding a smoked salmon and caviar stand between the hotdog stands at an unsponsored hockey game.
-       P. 316, “…human, but somehow suggestive of cat,” and yet no sense of catiness.

Quotable
-       P. 32, “But I suppose every person’s first step is the start, for them…”
-       P. 316, “And the rubbish we speak is like froth on the water; actions are drops of gold.”
-       P. 316, “The cat looked up from licking her paw.  ‘No.  Although I too am a gel-based personality.  Adapted for light conversation, proverbs, rodent securement and incidental chit-chat with a thirty-one per cent bias towards cynicism.  I am of course a prototype, but will shortly be one of a new line of pets available from Black Corporation.  Tell your friends.  And now if you will excuse me, my work is as yet incomplete.’ The cat walked out”

Summary
3/5. I recommend it for people who aren’t so jaded by formula scifi that they’d rather jump legs-first into a stump grinder than read more trash.  I recommend it for those people, too, but with the caveat that you put on blinders and use it as down-time reading so that it doesn’t become toilet paper.  It’s not for noobs, either, or you’ll miss some references that would make you pee-pants excited if you were more literate.  This is in the range of “you just took off your sci-fi floaties for the first time and are swimming into the deep end while your mom gossips with her friends.”  The good ‘ole Googs will pull you back just in time if you start to get in over your head.  Hey dream team, you’re on notice; I read the end of the book.  If you’re going to set up for a series, that means you have to write more than one book.  I’ll be waiting.

About kmzphoto

Paula Kamysz. Sensational. Snarky. All that you need.
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4 Responses to “The Long Earth,” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

  1. bichonfrise says:

    Excellent review of a far less than excellent book that should have been so much better. I agree with your cavils but would have to say I am pretty sure the real villain in this writing team was Baxter – the man is a study in the sort of flat, lifeless, cardboard-character-populated mediocrity that marks most science fiction, abetted by Terry Pratchett’s daft desire to write in a field that doesn’t suit him. – bichonfrise

    • kmzphoto says:

      Agreed. I don’t have anything against a writer trying to branch out of their field (Pratchett), but Baxter’s been doing this long enough that I expected a much, much better book.

  2. =Tamar says:

    Re: p.155, “geographical west” – that is, as opposed to Stepping West. Makes perfect sense.

    • kmzphoto says:

      It does make perfect sense. My argument is that the word “west,” on its own or in a combination of words, appears one hundred times in the text. Nothing like beating a dead horse.

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