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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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Review: “The Ferguson Rifle” by Louis L’Amour

I actually read The Ferguson Rifle (*****) for the first time years ago* and loved it, but I recently won the audiobook from Goodreads via their FirstReads program. (My review is not influenced by this fact, for the record.) This lined up nicely with a road trip my wife and I had to take, and so the adventure began anew….

I don’t usually do audiobooks, as I have little time for them. I don’t have copious amounts of driving built into my day (if this ever changes, I likely will start consuming larger quantities), I can’t listen at work, and frankly given the choice I would rather actually read the book myself. All that said, this was an excellent production. The reader, Brian D’Arcy James, has a marvelous command of accents, be they British, Scottish or Irish, and this book allowed him to showcase them to great effect. My wife and I both loved it, so I am reasonably sure this book will please both Louis L’Amour fanatics and newcomers.

It is no real secret that given how many novels L’Amour wrote that were set in the old west, sometimes they tend to run together in your memory. This, however, is one of those especially excellent entries in his bibliography that stand out in your memory both from sheer uniqueness and from persistent quality. Unlike most of Louis L’Amour’s bibliography, this book is not a “western” in the classical sense. It is set on America’s frontier around the year 1800, meaning the northerly Great Plains–the Dakotas, Montana, that area. In another sense, however, this is very much a western. That was “the west” at the time being described, just as what we now think of as the “east coast” was at one point the western frontier of exploration. It is into this territory, newly bought from France through the Louisiana Purchase, that Ronan Chantry rides. His old life is dead, all he loves burned up in a tragic fire. Now all he has is his experience on the frontier as a boy, his education in Europe as a man, his horse, and the extraordinary rifle he was given as a boy. He rides with a company of trappers into a new land, nearly unexplored, in search of a new start. When he discovers the trail of a woman and boy alone, being ruthlessly hunted by unsavory men, Ronan feels called to help. But when there is a fabled fortune of gold in the offering, men are not likely to give up its pursuit easily….

I’m a known Louis L’Amour devotee, so I absolutely loved this. No one crafts an adventure like Louis L’Amour, and few writers I’ve found have his appreciation for the scope of human history and the persistent force of western movement, while still retaining an appreciation for the contributions of the individual to history’s march. This is one of those books that, while reading, makes you yearn to look out across the unspoiled territory this country once was, to stand where his characters stand and see what they see. There’s a beauty to it, and you can hear in L’Amour’s writing a lilting note of mourning for what we have lost. He does not blame the pioneers and the farmers for what has happened, he understands history too well for that, and appreciates the inevitability of the march of “progress.” That doesn’t mean he (or his characters) have to like it. Ditto for the Indians, and you see that here as well. There are several sequences where the Indian is discussed, his character, his future, and his habits. Again, L’Amour understands why things happened as they did, but it still saddens him. Longtime Louis L’Amour readers will know what to expect in terms of characters and character development–there’s not usually a whole lot of moral ambiguity to a L’Amour adventure, there are good guys and bad guys, and they know their roles. Is that a problem? Not so far as I’m concerned. We need stories like that just as much as we need the other kind, maybe more. And this day and age, that type of story is harder to find.

CONTENT: Mild language, some violence, little to no sexual content.

*I’ve read most of Louis L’Amour’s books, but I can’t always remember which ones. This is fine–I’m totally up for reading a lot of them again. Probably going to go questing to read the entire bibliography at some point.

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