The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Oh, Terry. Oh, Sir Pratchett. I have read so many of your books. Sam Vimes is my very favourite character in literature. I love him indecently. I love the Discworld, and all its charming, messed-up folks. I love the subtle social commentary, the use of hard science in elaborate ways. I love the wisdom and the genuine humanism, the flavour of the characters and their adventures and trials. Your humour in the Discworld series is the kind that makes me want to phone people and read lines to them, though I can’t always finish them for the laughter.
And then, Long Earth.
I know its a co-authored work (which has been done well before with Gaiman) and I know its not Discworld. And that’s fine, because an author should always be trying something new. And I admire that, and I admired the plot of Long Earth. It involves lots of delicious what-ifs and timey-wimey stuff. Yay for that. But what happened to Pratchett?
The absence of the beloved author was made glaring by the moments in the book that were pure Pratchett, the moments that shone amongst the general pabulum of the book itself. It took me two weeks to finish this, and I had to force myself through the first 100 pages. It was like a dear friend had invited me to a party, and I was really excited to go, but then I got there and the wine was cheap, the snacks dry and the company less than stellar. And for the first two hours of the party, I wanted to fall upon a knife. But eventually it got sort of better and it didn’t feel too wasteful.
As I write this, I’m wracking my brain to try remember the names of the characters. I have since given away my proof copy (and ain’t that a sign of the times, plentiful Pratchett proofs?) and now I’m trying to remember who starred in the damn thing. It shouldn’t be this hard. Look, I think that a non-Pratchett fan might enjoy it, or a Baxter fan. He is a big-name author in his own right, though he writes in a field I generally find tedious. The thing is, this should have been the proof that Pratchett is not slipping, that he is unaffected by the onset of his Alzheimer’s (proof that there really is no god) and that he can still produce the goods.
But then, I read Snuff, and the rest of the Sam Vimes books in reverse order. And the sad part is that there is a lot of recycling going on here. The end of Snuff, with the amazing race down the river and Vimes ending up in a cave? Pretty much lifted from Thud! with Sam Vimes going crazy in a cave after being tumbled about by an underground river. That was pretty saddening. Lady Sybil is still amazing though.
But you know, even at his worst, Pratchett is still better than 90% of authors out there. I guess this is me just expecting more. Long Earth had boring characters, the female ones especially so. There’s a lesbian cop, which I thought made for a refreshing change, but she really doesn’t do much. She has a bit of a moment at the end, but she was mostly unused and ignored. The same goes for the woman who is good at stepping. (At least there wasn’t a shoehorned romance.) There’s a general menace that is explained away weirdly in something that seems suspiciously stolen from Douglas Adams (who also didn’t know when to end the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.) The ending felt rushed and a bit wobbly as well.
This really isn’t one for the fans, because fans expect more and by this point, we kind of have the right to expect that. It is hard for our favourite author to write more than 30 superb novels, and then drop this on us. I don’t even know who to recommend it to. Maybe mid to hardcore sci-fi fans? Mind you, the science isn’t really that hard and there aren’t any fantasy elements barring some interesting animals.
I know that even at my best, I can’t match Pratchett’s worst. All I’m actually saying here is that it is getting a little embarrassing being a Pratchett fan now. I will still buy every book he writes, and I will still throw my panties if he ever comes to visit here, but I am allowed to be disappointed, I think.
But! Not everyone agrees with me, so check out The Guardian’s review, The Independent’s review and what the folks at SFX.co.uk have to say.