Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

As my readers are no doubt well-aware, I am a huge fan of the writings of Terry Pratchett, specifically his much-acclaimed Discworld series. When I heard that he had written a new book called The Long Earth I was very interested. Furthermore this was an introduction to the science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter who has collaborated with giants such as Arthur C. Clarke in the past and he may show up again on the blog. (We'll see when I work through my backlog, which is huge!) Anyway, although The Long Earth starts out with a lot of promise, it ended up being rather disappointing with a lackluster ending.

I actually discussed this book with a friend who actually introduced me to Terry Pratchett and we agreed that the problem with The Long Earth is that it starts with an excellent premise with a lot of potential, but that potential is never really fully developed in the novel. In 2015 the schematics for a device known as a "stepper" appear on the internet, which consists of easy-to-find circuitry and is powered by a potato. The stepper allows people to travel to parallel earths which are very similar to our own earth but are entirely devoid of people. Despite limitations such as the inability to carry iron or steel across worlds, people quickly expand across the alternate earths to set up vacation communities, harvest resources now scarce on the original earth (now called Datum), or even leave Datum entirely to settle. The opportunities for adventure and exploration are literally limitless in the world Pratchett and Baxter have created.

The main plot centers around Joshua Valiente, a member of the roughly fifth of the population who can step between worlds without the aid of a stepper. Joshua is recruited by the powerful Black Company. Joshua will accompany Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as an artificial intelligence, on a journey across the Long Earth to see what's out there. Meanwhile problems occur back home on Datum as well as across the Long Earth as humanity adapts to infinite resources and space.

I think the weakest thing about this book is that the majority of its focus becomes uninteresting. Most of the book follows the travels of Joshua and Lobsang as they go further into the Long Earth to discover what's out there. While it's cool to see all the different earths with distinct animal life and geographies, it gets extremely tedious after a while. Eventually I got utterly bored with the adventures of Lobsang and Joshua and I was more interested in the secondary plots happening on Datum. You see, along with a fifth of the human population being able to step between world without a stepper, another fifth of the population are unable to step between worlds even with a stepper. At best they can be physically carried by another person across worlds, but the process makes them violently ill and the majority of them are stranded on Datum. I ended up being more interested in the fate of Datum and the people who were unwilling, or unable, to travel the Long Earth.

The book also mentions the repercussions of the opening of the Long Earth, with significant portions of country's populations just leaving Datum, and causing a major world-wide economic recession. I think it would be really great to explore the consequences of a significant portion of the population just leaving and how humanity would cope. Furthermore, once-valuable metals like gold and platinum become worthless on Datum because almost anyone can step to an alternate world and bring back enough gold to crash the market. Perhaps what I found most interesting was the resentment of the "phobics", the 20% of the population that can't leave Datum, and their embrace of radical ideologies and hatred of steppers. Unfortunately, what I considered to be the most interesting aspects of the world Baxter and Pratchett have created remain largely out of focus for the majority of the novel and the focus is instead on the increasingly tedious Joshua/Lobsang exploration mission.

Overall I was fairly disappointed with this novel, despite the stellar work from one of the contributors in the past. Pratchett and Baxter set up a fascinating premise with literally infinite possibilities, but it ends up being executed in a rather tedious and boring manner. I may read the explicitly planned sequel to this book, but I'm don't have rather high expectations. I'd suggest at best waiting on this book until the sequel comes out and then maybe taking them both together. Otherwise, you can probably leave this one.

- Kalpar

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