Monday, 23 January 2017

Book Review - 'The Long Earth', by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

It all begins when the blue-prints to a mysterious device are put up online. It is a device that can be constructed from easily obtainable parts - and, seems to be powered by a single potato, of all things. It has all the makings of an elaborate joke, of some sort - but, it is still intriguing enough to attract attention.

Within hours of these plans being put up online, curious kids all over the world had constructed their own copies of this device, called a Stepper, in order to see what would happen. The results of their efforts later came to be referred to as Step Day - as children all over the world suddenly found themselves stranded in parallel worlds on each side of our own. There was panic, of course - but, this panic eventually died down. In the years that followed Step Day, though, the existence of these alternate worlds has become common knowledge. People quickly came to see the potential of this new discovery - which came to be called the Long Earth. The population of our own Earth, now referred to as the Datum, suddenly finds itself at the centre of a long line of parallel worlds stretching off in either direction, and open to exploration. And, as it seems that the Datum may be the only version of Earth to have evolved intelligent life, also free to be claimed.

Step Day was different for Joshua Valiente, though. While Stepping for most people requires possession of the device, and results in a feeling in intense nausea for anything up to an hour afterward, Joshua quickly learns that he was born with the ability to Step naturally. On Step Day, Joshua devoted himself to helping other lost children find their way home. And, in the years that followed, he has become something of a folk hero - his own explorations making him into something of the Long Earth's version of Daniel Boone. It's for this reason that Joshua is called back to take part in a long-distance exploration of the Long Earth, funded by the mysterious Black Corporation.

Joshua is paired up with Lobsang, a highly sophisticated A.I. program who managed to claim legal status as a living person by declaring that he was, in fact, the reincarnation of a Tibetan repairman. Travelling aboard the Mark Twain, a specially designed air-ship capable of Stepping, the two set out on a voyage that will take them to further into the Long Earth than any other travellers have ever gone.

The main problem that I had while reading this novel is one that tends to crop up often when you have a work of fiction devoted to exploring some sort of 'big idea'. The Long Earth is a fascinating concept, of course - and, the wide variety of both short-term, and long-term, consequences that this discovery will have on society as a whole are explored in detail. But, it is this same broad focus that sometimes gives the novel a disjointed feeling. Characters often don't tend to receive the attention that they deserve, and come across as a little bland as a result, some of the more interesting ideas are hinted at but left largely unexplored - and, most importantly, the central plot-line of the novel (that being Joshua and Lobsang's journey to the outer limits of the Long Earth) suffers by simply not being as interesting as it should be.

There are many elements at work here that I would have loved to have seen explored in more detail. There was the resurgence of the frontier spirit among those who first set off to explore the Long Earth. There was the consequences for the nations of Datum Earth - some of which were practically bled dry as more and more of their population left. There was the growing tension and resentment felt by those who lacked the ability to Step. There was the particular tragedy of the 'home-alones' - children who could not Step who were practically abandoned by families who could. There was the bizarre issue of crime in the Long Earth, and the increasing complexity of attempts at policing it. And, of course, there were the long-term, economic, consequences for the Datum Earth now that land and natural resources came in a seemingly infinite supply. All of this was fascinating - and, the fact that I genuinely wanted to know how it would play out is something I take to be one of the novel's greatest strengths.

By contrast, the journey of the Mark Twain had a tendency to drag, especially throughout the middle section of the novel. A recurring thought, for me, while reading through the sections devoted to Joshua and Lobsang is that I really wanted to know what was happening with all of the other characters that the reader meets along the way. Especially unhelpful, here, is the simple fact that Joshua Valiente makes for a particularly bland hero. It may be that he's a victim of the novels lack of focus - but, the reader simply isn't given enough of an idea of who he actually is to feel any sort of connection to him. There may be a perfectly likable, and fascinating, character buried in there somewhere - but, if so, the reader doesn't really get much chance to see it.

There are pay-offs throughout their journey, of course - particularly when they reach their destination. When these come, they do an impressive job of making the whole thing seem worthwhile. But, there were it all seemed like a bit of a struggle to get to those points. Any encounter with a 'Joker' Earth, for example (the term given to those alternate Earths which deviated wildly from our own), is a definite highlight. Also, while Joshua may be the blandest character in the novel, he has the good fortune of being paired with Lobsang - who is easily its most interesting.

In the end, it seems that the main problem was that there was simply too much to be properly explored within the pages of a single novel. Of course, with this being only the first in a series of novels, there is definitely cause for hope that at least some of these issues will be resolved as the story continues.

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