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Review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Title: The Long Earth
Authors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Series: The Long Earth #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Harper, 2012

I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s work, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m slowly working my way through his Discworld novels (find reviews for #1-5 here and #6-10 here) and Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch, cowritten with Neil Gaiman, is among my favorite books of all time.* So when I discovered The Long Earth at my local library, I was ecstatic. I’d heard good things about Stephen Baxter, but never actually read any of his material. What I found was one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

The premise here is that there are infinite worlds parallel to ours, spread out across the vast “contingency tree” of possible Earths, and in all of the Long Earth only one iteration has developed Human life–ours.  Throughout our history there have always been a few with the natural ability to “step” between worlds at will, and still others who did so unintentionally and disappeared forever, but the world at large was unaware of this phenomenon until a reclusive scientist posted the blueprint for a “stepper” device on the internet and promptly disappeared from his apartment. Suddenly, the whole of the Long Earth is opened up to humanity. Suddenly, there is no shortage of land or resources. Economies are hard hit, jobs are lost, and once again humanity’s pioneer spirit is stirred to go out into the frontier and try to make their way….

Joshua Valiente is a so-called “natural stepper,” but he is probably unique among humanity. In the stress of childbirth, his mother stepped out of her world and into a parallel forest before slipping back without him. She managed to get back and recover him pretty quickly, but nevertheless young Joshua spent the first ten minutes or so of his life completely alone in his universe. As a result, he is uniquely attuned to the Long Earth. He can step between worlds without nausea, and is keenly sensitive to the number of people around, growing intensely uncomfortable the more crowded things get. Now, fifteen years after the world learned of the Long Earth, he spends most of his time exploring where no man has gone before. Lobsang, on the other hand, is a keenly intelligent AI, who may or may not be the latest reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. In collaboration with the shadowy Black Corporation, Lobsang has conceived a plan to test just how far the Long Earth goes. And he wants Joshua to go with him….the resulting journey is as much an exploration of what may have been as it is a geographical one, with most worlds mirroring our own, but a few display the effects of a cosmic “toss of a coin” going the other way–for example, there’s one where the Earth was completely destroyed by an asteroid strike sometime in the distant past.

Put quite plainly, this was the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Very original, and to my (admittedly limited) understanding very faithful to the relevant science without losing quality of narrative or character. Pratchett’s humor and sardonic narrative voice shines through quite often in the interpersonal or introspective moments as well as those detailing more plot driven points–those scenes that would, in a film, become some form of montage showing that time is passing and this is what’s happening in the meantime. As I mentioned, I’ve never read Baxter before, so it’s harder to pick out his voice from their collaboration.

Infodumping has become something of a cardinal sin in the science fiction world, but sometimes you just have to throw some information at the reader so that he doesn’t get lost. I felt that The Long Earth handled that very well. We get our first glimpse at the long earth in montage mode, a series of vignettes that don’t make sense on their own, people popping in and out of worlds without understanding themselves what is going on. This is followed by the main story, twenty years after the discovery of the Long Earth, in which the bare bones are presented via a TV interview a character is half-watching while he waits. These bare bones of the conceptual basis of the book are then fleshed out in more detail as Joshua and Lobsang and introduced and get to know each other, discussing the various theories regarding the Long Earth at length in an effort to better understand it themselves. This is interspersed with flashbacks, sometimes Joshua recalling his experiences, sometimes Lobsang telling stories of other people based on his research into early encounters with the Long Earth. In this way Pratchett and Baxter manage to convey how humanity as a whole is dealing, not just Joshua and Lobsang. If I have one complaint with this it is not always clear why or how we are being told this–you don’t discover until the end of the chapter that Lobsang is telling this to Joshua instead of the authors just throwing in a tangential bit with no direct connection. And it is all connected–every revelation, every character you visit and then abandon early in the book will come back and have significance later on. This is perhaps not the easiest read–you do have to engage it to understand it properly–but neither is it an incomprehensible enigma. As long as you pay attention you should be fine.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, but not nearly what you could find elsewhere. Some violence, some grisly aftermath of violence. Sexual references, but nothing explicit.

*I’m frankly a little surprised I don’t have a review of that one up here, I must have reread it last just before I started doing this. I’ll have to fix that in the near future….

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Mini-Reviews: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, part 2

Here’s the second round of Discworld books! (First round is here.) I started reviewing all series in this format, but have since abandoned that idea. I’m sticking with it for the Discworld novels, because I have a lot of the same things to say about them and multiple posts would get incredibly redundant.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld does for (or to) Fantasy what Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy did for science fiction–firmly sets a story within a genre, stereotypes intact, then goes to town.  He’s frequently irreverent, and it’s an absolute delight to read. Since this post is a compilation of reviews for books six through ten of the series, there are a few spoilers. Specifically, if you haven’t read Sourcery yet, my review of Eric is going to spoil the ending of that for you…..

WYRD SISTERS (****)
This sixth entry in the series stands on its own rather well, its only ties to the previous novels being the reappearance of Granny Weatherwax from Equal Rites, the cameo appearance of the Orangutan librarian from the Unseen University, and the obligatory appearance by Death (who may be the only character to appear in all of the books to date, I’ll have to check on that sometime….) This volume takes on Shakespeare, the theatre, and the power of words…..

King Verence of Lancre is dead. His cousin, Lord Felmet, very rudely stuck a dagger in his back and pushed him down the stairs. The three witches of Lancre (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and young Magrat Garlick) don’t hold with meddling in politics, but what are they to do when a servant hands them a babe and a crown before expiring from the three arrows stuck in his back?

PYRAMIDS (*****)
This time Pratchett takes on ancient Egypt. Prince Teppic is the heir to the throne of Djelibeybi, the oldest kingdom on the Disc. He’s spent the last several years being educated by the Assassins’ Guild, but now he must take the throne due to his father’s unexpected demise. But ruling the Old Kingdom is harder than it looks, especially with the High Priest Dios “interpreting” all of his orders all wrong. In addition, the massive pyramid being built for his father is acting very strangely…..

This volume stands very well on its own–the only real connections to the rest of the series thus far are the city of Ankh-Morpork, Death’s appearance, and the cameo by Unseen University’s Orangutan librarian.

GUARDS! GUARDS! (*****)
With this seventh entry, we are introduced to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. There’s Carrot Ironfoundersson, a six-foot-tall dwarf-by-adoption newly arrived in the city to seek his way in the world, while Captain Vimes serves in the role of every film-noir detective or cop ever to grace the silver screen. Along with Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs, Carrot and Vimes are going to have their work cut out for them, because Ankh-Morpork is about to discover that dragons aren’t as extinct as previously thought. But is the dragon’s arrival merely coincidence, or is there a larger, more sinister plot afoot? It is going to be up to the Watch to find out!

This volume stands on its own fairly well, at least insofar as previous books are concerned. I understand there are a number of later books also starring the Watch, but this is the first in that subseries. Recurring characters include the Librarian and Death, of course, as well as the Patrician (who I can’t help imagining as Ralph Fiennes for some reason).

FAUST ERIC (****)

When we left Rincewind at the end of Sourcery, he was running for his life through the Dungeon Dimensions, trapped there for the forseeable future. Well, it seems he’s found a way back onto our plane of existence (or whatever plane the Discworld is on, at least), but its a bit embarrassing. He’s been conjurred by a fifteen-year-old demonologist wannabe, who remains stubbornly convinced that Rincewind is a demon and demands his three wishes. Rincewind finds, much to his surprise and confusion, that he seems to actually be able to grant these wishes, which of course launches our protagonists on a comic journey of mythic proportions, literally to hell and back and to the ends of the Disc…..

Could you read this ninth entry in the Discworld series by itself? Sure, you could, but you might feel you were coming into the middle of a story. This one probably stands alone least of all the Discworld stories I’ve read so far. For my two cents, you should at least read The Colour Of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Sourcery before delving into this next installment of Rincewind’s adventures.

MOVING PICTURES (*****)

The Discworld is in peril once more, and this time it’s quite a show! When the last priest of an ancient order dies without training a successor, the spirit of Holy Wood is released once more into the world. People are called from the Disc over to come and be a part of this new phenomena–moving pictures! The only problem is that the dark Lovecraftian things from the Dungeon Dimensions still want through into the Discworld, and Holy Wood is about to make a door for them….

Moving Pictures is perhaps my favorite book in this series yet. Pratchett usually picks one idea or concept to make fun of and play with for the course of a book, and this time it was Hollywood. As such, the book is rife with references from Gone with the Wind to old Errol Flynn flicks. The plot is mostly an excuse to make all these jokes, but it’s still great fun! This one stands alone as well as any of the Discworld novels, by which I mean a lot of background characters reappear–The Librarian, Death, Detritus the Troll bouncer from the Mended Drum tavern, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler….a couple others, I think, but its not really important.

Content-wise, Discworld holds steady at a raucous PG or a mild PG-13. There’s mild language, comedic violence, and various raunchy jokes that never actually become explicit. If you were okay with the likes of Conan and Red Sonja you have nothing to worry about here.

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Mini-reviews: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, part 1

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld does for Fantasy what Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy did for science fiction–firmly sets a story within a genre, stereotypes intact, then goes to town.  He’s frequently irreverent, and it’s an absolute delight to read. Since this post is a compilation of reviews for the first five books in the series, (see my post on books six through ten here) there are a few spoilers. Mainly, if you care about this (Discworld isn’t really the sort of series where it matters all that much, but far be it from me to spoil a book for someone….) don’t read the review on Sourcery. That particular bit talks about the ending of The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic as it continues the story of one of the characters from the first two books. Other than that you should be okay.

CoverTHE COLOUR OF MAGIC (*****) This is the first book in the series, and therein we follow the failed wizard Rincewind as he acts as the reluctant guide for Twoflower, the Discworld’s first tourist. Taking on everything from Conan to D&D, this is definitely a series to check out if you have any interest in the fantasy genre whatsoever…..or are just in need of a good laugh for any reason whatsoever….

THE LIGHT FANTASTIC (*****) This is the second book in the series, and while you could supposedly stop reading after the first one (in which case the literal cliffhanger ending becomes just another genre-joke), you really shouldn’t read this one unless you’ve read The Colour Of Magic first. We pick up Rincewind and Twoflower where we last left them–falling off the side of the Disc. However, it seems that fate has other plans in store for them, because that single spell lodged in Rincewind’s head has just become very important to those trying to avoid the end of the Discworld…..

EQUAL RITES (****) This third instrallment is only loosely connected to the previous two, in that it features many of the same settings and a few minor characters, but you could easily read it on its own. I’m reading through the series in order because that’s how I’m wired, but you don’t need to.

A wizard is born the eighth son of an eighth son, and such a birth is at hand as a wizard nearing his end travels to the mountain village of Bad Ass to hand over his staff to the newborn lad. Only too late do they realize that he has just ordained the Disc’s first ever female wizard…..

This was good. I preferred the first two DW novels to this one, but I’m seeing in the other reviews that the opposite view is just as popular, so take that how you will.

MORT (*****) is the fourth book in the series, but stands on its own pretty well. Rincewind and the Unseen University make a minor appearance, and Death has appeared in the previous books, but other than that it’s pretty self-contained. Although the rules governing how Death operates don’t really jive with what happened in The Colour Of Mag–*Slap!* Don’t think about it!

Death comes to all men in their time, but when he comes to Mort it’s to offer him a job as his apprentice. Soon Mort is handling the collection of souls, and Death takes a much-needed break….The problem is, when the time came for Sto Lat’s Princess Keli to be assassinated, Mort found himself altering reality by saving her from the assassin. Now reality is trying to reassert itself, Mort is in over his head, and Death is nowhere to be found……

SOURCERY (****) is Pratchett’s fifth Discworld adventure, and while I am a bit of a completist it stands on its own fairly well. Kind of. Because in this installment we catch up with Rincewind once more as he is forced onto yet another adventure against his will. For that alone I recommend reading The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic before this one, but to each their own.

When we last saw Rincewind he had settled down in relative safety as the assistant librarian of Unseen University, the home of wizardry on the Disc. But even the University may no longer be safe…. The eighth son of an eighth son is destined to be a wizard; so much is common knowledge. But the eighth son of a wizard is something far more dangerous–a sourcerer, a conduit for raw and unstable new magic to enter the world. It has been eons since a sourcerer last walked the disc….wizards are celibate for this very reason, though they don’t remember that this was the original purpose. But against all odds the Disc is once more faced with the prospect of a sourcerer…..and a return to the sheer chaos of the Mage Wars as once-staid wizards are for the first time faced with power beyond their dreams. And that’s leaving aside all the discussion of the Apocralypse…..

Content-wise, Discworld holds steady at a raucous PG or a mild PG-13. There’s mild language, comedic violence, and various raunchy jokes that never actually become explicit. If you were okay with the likes of Conan and Red Sonja you have nothing to worry about here.

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