July 05, 2012
(++) ONE GIANT LEAP?
The Long Earth. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.95.
It is difficult to communicate just how deep a disappointment The Long Earth is. It is not really a bad book – someone reading it without knowing who wrote it would give it a (+++) rating as a fairly ordinary piece of fantasy attempting to pretend to be science fiction, a book with little character development and little of the sense of wonder that true SF, at its best, produces. A book, perhaps, by a journeyman writer or one just starting out.
But this is a Terry Pratchett book, or a half-Pratchett one, anyway, and as a Pratchett book, it barely even deserves a (++) rating. Dull, plodding, formulaic, filled with types rather than characters, with leaden writing and predictable dialogue, The Long Earth – which, heaven help us, is the start of a series – is simply a miserable excuse for a book with the name of Pratchett on its cover. It is the equivalent in novels of Cars 2 in Pixar movies: a work apparently inspired (and that is the wrong word) by commercial reasons rather than by any sense of fun, of intimacy, of pushing the boundaries of its medium, of entertaining.
The book seems to be loosely based on Neil Armstrong’s words when setting foot on the Moon, about “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It seems that one small step for a man (or woman or child) in an appropriate direction becomes a giant leap for all of humanity, because in fact Earth is not alone…or not singular, anyway. There are millions of Earths, some nearly identical to the one we know (which is called the Datum) and some very, very different. But there are, conveniently and quite unbelievably, exactly zero Earths other than the Datum on which human beings exist, although there are quite a few on which humanlike bipeds have evolved (some of them called “trolls,” others called “elves,” neither species matching traditional descriptions of those beings). There is no rationale whatsoever for the notion of what has or has not evolved where – not in terms of intelligent beings, not in terms of animals.
Nor is there any rationale for how many Earths there are or what their relative importance or meaning is compared with the Datum. The use of precise numbers is frequent and totally meaningless – a bit of amateurishness as surprising from Stephen Baxter as from Pratchett, both these writers being experienced authors. One world that is settled, for example, is number 101,754. It just is. And one passage about the “friendly, companionable” beings called trolls mentions that “they would get nervous if there were more than one thousand, eight hundred and ninety humans in the immediate vicinity.” Why that number? Just because.
Very few of the characters have any character. The primary protagonists are Joshua Valienté, the circumstances of whose birth are such that he is a natural “stepper” (able to travel among the Earths without use of a simple device that most people need in order to do so); Lobsang, a gigantic distributed computer mind with many human characteristics, both ambulatory and contained within a variety of structures and locations (about as unoriginal a concept as it is possible to create nowadays); and Sally Linsay, another natural stepper, daughter of the man who gave the stepper box to the world by anonymously posting the plans for building it online. Like the rest of the thoroughly nonscientific plot, the stepper box is fantasy, not science fiction, since it turns out that it works only if an individual assembles it, or at least completes it, himself or herself – it cannot be mass-manufactured. Why not? Just because.
There are a few – very few – vestiges of Pratchett’s wit in the otherwise humorless The Long Earth, passages either written by him or somehow emerging from this sorry collaboration. The stepper box itself is one of them: it is powered by a potato. Then there is a comment that “the central Australian sky was so full of stars that some had to wait their turn to twinkle,” and another about a bookseller so in love with his wares that, if he had his way, “every book ever written would be treasured, at least one copy bound in sheepskin and illuminated by monks (or specifically by naked nuns, his predilection being somewhat biased in that direction).” And there is a marvelous speech by a robot cat “with a thirty-one percent bias toward cynicism” that is the single most amusing paragraph in the book.
But most of The Long Earth is both earnest and grindingly dull. It is basically a quest story (oh, that’s original) in which Joshua and Lobsang set out to find how far the Earths stretch and what the whole set of them could be for (yawn). Along the way, many senseless things happen. When the two meet Sally, for example, she adamantly and absolutely refuses to go aboard their airship (which is powered by Lobsang and actually is Lobsang, or one aspect of him). A few pages later, she is aboard, without struggle, argument or explanation. Then there is the community called Happy Landings on one faraway Earth, where humans and trolls live together in perfect harmony (trolls communicate through music, so “harmony” is the right word). It’s a Noble Savage area on steroids, except that there are no steroids, and it is absolutely, unequivocally creepy, but about all that Joshua and Sally feel is a mild sense of oddity. “There was a certain contented aura about Mrs. Montecute [one of the residents with an almost-apt name, just like “Valienté”], and it seemed to Joshua that everyone in Happy Landings shared it, to some extent. It was hard to pin down. Sally said when he tried to express this, ‘I know what you mean. Everybody seems so, well, sensible. I have come here many times and it’s always the same. You never get complaints, or competitiveness. They don’t need government, not really. You could say that Mayor Spencer is the first among equals. When there is any big project to be undertaken, they just knuckle down and get on with it.’” Clearly this is either a prototype of a perfect civilization or a place where something evil lurks, right? Not in The Long Earth, where it is neither; it just is. Nothing is made of the whole thing.
There are a few subplots that are not handled very well – again, very surprising from these experienced authors. One involves humans on the Datum who are unable, for some genetic reason, to step at all, even with devices, and who therefore all seem to become homicidal maniacs who think that if they kill lots of people on the Datum it will somehow affect the other worlds. Another involves a mysterious malevolent force that, in a grand anticlimax, turns out to be nothing much. And then there is “first contact” (yes, another old, old idea) – which ought to be climactic but is simply pedestrian here. The book ends with an attempt at excitement that re-involves a couple of fairly peripheral characters, and then a very obvious setup of the next book in the series – a conclusion that is utterly predictable and ordinary, like so much that has gone before. It seems likely that Baxter rather than Pratchett is the driving force behind the book’s structure – for one thing, the chapters are numbered, a style that Pratchett opposes and does not use in his own novels. But Baxter himself is no tyro and could surely do better than this. As for Pratchett – who, despite the fact that he an unusual form of Alzheimer’s disease, has shown no diminution in the quality of his plotting, pacing, satirical bite or utterly wonderful sense of humor in his Discworld novels – the best that can be said is that The Long Earth would be a sorry legacy indeed if it were to be his last book. That is another reason, one among many, to hope that there will be much more writing from Pratchett in the future.