Monday, 10 September 2012
"The Long Earth," by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
I should confess my bias by confessing straight away that I really enjoy Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. As "The Long Earth" isn't Discworld and is based on a more sci-fi than fantasy premise, I was initially less sure about whether I would enjoy this novel.
In "The Long Earth," our whole concept of the planet we live on is changed in a day. The blueprint for a gadget called a stepper is released on the internet. The stepper, which can be made by all and is available to all regardless of wealth or status, allows the user to move from our earth to a string of parallel variations that are waiting to be explored. There are a small number of natural steppers, like our hero Joshua Valiente, who can step from world to world without a stepper box, and a small number of phobics who cannot move between earths even with a stepper. Joshua, as a natural stepper, is recruited by Lobsang - an artificial intelligence which claims to be a reincarnation of a Tibetan monk - for a journey to explore all the variants or our planet.
This is a high concept novel. My natural inclination is to compare it to the Discworld, but I think to do so does this novel a disservice. This doesn't have the same level of humour and word-play as Pratchett's Discworld novels - although there are humorous moments - and you might be disappointed if that is what you expect. It is, however, very inventive and should be judged on its own merits.
In my mind, to call something high concept can have negative connotations: it implies for me that a novel has a tricksy idea at its core, often at the expense of character. A high concept novel can risk having a brain with no heart. Thankfully, this is not the case with this book. The character of Lobsang is my personal favourite, from whom much of the humour stems; a capricious artificial intelligence with an oddly big ego for a monk. His character - oddly the most human in the novel, with all the connotations of frailty, hubris, curiosity and foolishness that the word "human" can entail - almost alone makes the novel worth reading.
When I began reading this book, I had assumed that it was a stand-alone novel. It was only when I was part way through that I heard an interview in which this book was spoken of as the first in a series. My first thought was dismay; it took me a while to get into the world(s) of this novel, and I already feel that I have too many series that I follow. However, I had changed my mind by the end of "The Long Earth," as it feels like there is a lot left in the central conceit of parallel earths that can be explored in future novels. I am looking forward to finding out where they take the idea and the characters next.