Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Long Earth, by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett


This is not the Terry Pratchett book you are looking for.

Sure it's got some of the famous touches--the beginning of the book starts almost exactly the same way Going Postal does, Launching into several scenes in medias res that are explained much later. The first few pages have that deeply humanist character that marks the best of Pratchett, where the mechanics of the "science" and the "ideas" are firmly placed in the background to the development of the characters and their reactions to the situation.

This is not the Discworld.

It is also not Good Omens the delightful collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

This is a book where the characters are basically cardboard cut outs who do what must be done to explicate the "thing" that the book is "about." And then they re-explain it, over and over, in case you weren't paying attention. 

I assume that this is actually a Stephen Baxter book, although I haven't read anything else by him.  The idea here is "long Earth"--someone has discovered how to build a "Stepper"--a simple switch device you can build yourself and power with a potato, that allows one to "step" into a parallel Earth. And there are millions of parallel Earths, with different types of animals, different evolutionary histories, some with different geologies, all empty of humans. So of course, humans move into these worlds like 19th century Sooners, staking out homesteads, trying to exploit the now infinite resources.

It's like Little House on the Prairie by way of the Boy Scout Camping Handbook.  This is like bad Robert Heinlein by way of Horatio Alger, where a can-do attitude and some elementary handyman skills makes an "ordinary" lad more qualified for the New Frontier than anyone else. However, there is a soupcon of divine gifts and magical birth as well--a boy who is also The One (Who Was Foretold even?)

This Can-Do Boy's Life Great White Hope lad is Joshua Valiante, who starts the book as a "natural stepper"--when the kids of the world find the instructions for building a Stepper on the internet, and start disappearing, Joshua has taken the time to build his perfectly. When he activates it and finds himself in a new place, he is surrounded by kids who are scared, hurt, and sick. He keeps his head and leads them back, one-by-one. Fifteen years later, he is contacted by the mysterious Black Corporation, a plot device that serves to provide unlimited funding and the latest in high-tech gadgetry, to undertake an expedition to explore the new worlds. His only other member is "Lobsang," a Tibetan monk/motorcycle repairman (is this supposed to be a joke about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Because it's not funny.) who has been reincarnated into a massive computer memory bank. So he is ostensibly both "human" and "artificial intelligence." Lobsang has an airship and since he's the ghost in the machine, he can step and bring the airship (and Joshua) with him.

Have you read any Jules Verne? Yes, think back that far. Traveling by airship--and not the kind of G6 leather seats kind of luxury (although there is a private Lear jet at one point). No this is an airship with the kind of Victorian design sensibility of Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Staterooms, glassed in "observation decks," a large room used as a restaurnat and a cinema. (I mean, seriously? A cinema? Even now, with the ubiquity of DVDs and home theaters, they really try to make the presence of a "cinema" seem glamorous?) It's straight out of Around the World in 80 Days

Issac Asimov did this story in 1972 with The Gods Themselves where the discovery of a parallel universe offered the promise of unlimited energy. As I recall, the politicians were giddy with the idea that "Water runs downhill both ways!" The promise of unlimited resources was gobbled up uncritically, but then it was ultimately discovered that continued contact with the paraverse would cause the sun to supernova. Which is bad for humans, but we were already so addicted to the unlimited energy. . . .

You know what? I'm not going to try to trace the heritage of all the ideas in this book. Suffice it to say, it's a disappointment. It's fine, it's a nice idea and all, but it's undercooked. Under-populated. There is too little actual, believable humanity in this book, and so it's just a travelogue to an imaginary world. There are some hints--the British Cabinet meeting where the Prime Minister tries to figure out how to manage this new situation, for example--where you see some Preatchett-ness, some attempt to look at the human response to this incredible reordering of our idea of the universe. But it's too little, too underplayed, too quickly discarded for "oh look, giant jawed thing rising out of the ocean and almost eating Our Hero!"

It's basically boring, spiced with some clunky bits that bring the book nearly down to a one star. (Oh yeah, in this case, two stars is generous.) Behold my bitching:

  • Kids don't build things anymore. They just don't. Plans for something called "A Stepper" show up on the internet, and do you know what happens? Nothing. Kids don't keep copper wire and transducers and shit like that around. They post cat videos, they rip music from YouTube onto their iPods, they go play Angry Birds. They do NOT build stupid "Steppers" out of parts found lying around the house, ESPECIALLY if there is no reason to do this. Honestly--build this thing, it's run by a potato, but what does it do? Just build it and find out? Nuh-uh. I don't buy it for a minute.
  • Does Joshua HAVE to be the coming of the next Jesus Christ? No known father, mother a young (very young) teen, who steps to the next world while in labor? Joshua has "special gifts" for world stepping? Are we going to have him played by Keanu Reeve in the TV adaptation?
  • Except, what is Joshua's "special gift?" Turns out that about 20% of the population can step without a box. For nearly the last third of the book, Joshua travels with Sally Linsey, the daughter of the man who invented the Stepper, and apparently most of her family, dating back to great-grandma or something have always been able to step. Plus Sally knows about "soft spots" that let her step across multiple worlds at once. So why is Joshua the Big Hairy Deal?
  • Lobsang--what a disaster. Pratchett has a character named Lobsang Ludd, from Thief of Time. That is a character with an interesting arc, who becomes quite complex and wise by the end of the story. This is not that character, and has nothing to do with that character, except the coincidence of the name. This Lobsang is never believably human, not remotely believably Buddhist, and is not even a very believable AI.(As well as not believable as a motorcycle repairman.) He is kind of an ass, frankly, given to pontificating smugly about everything that he can access in his memory banks, while simultaneously betraying any possible humanity, since he repeatedly reports that he is adopting voices and tics in order to seem more trustworthy and human. I might have believed something like that if he was supposed to be born an android, but as a reincarnated Buddhist? The whole point of that was to make this scary robt thing more human, so why throw that out the window for a couple of feeble "jokes" about imitating actors in order to appear to be empathetic? Inconsistent with his own backstory, and obnoxious to boot. 
  • The Big Bad is. . .so what? It's a blob, from outer space or something. Supposedly, it's such a horrible oncoming thing that it is driving other life forms in front of it, as they flee it's inexorable progress toward Our Earth. Joshua senses it, like a giant migraine before a thunderstorm, or something, from thousands of worlds away. Yet when they encounter it--so what? He doesn't have any noticeable discomfort in its presence, there is no real threat to it. It's a lonely blob looking for interaction. It "talks" to Joshua, Sally and Lobsang, and then swims away. This is the big scary monster? Hell, the Abzorbaloff from Doctor Who was much scarier than that!
  • Lobsang decides to just go join the blob, fully merge his consciousness with hers--why? Why not send a portion of that consciousness and have it report back, so the scope of the threat can be communicated? This is where the lack of any believable characterization for Lobsang is the most devastating. I don't believe there is any motivation for this decision that arises from the character: not religious belief, not intellectual curiosity, not a mission imperative. Furthermore, it's handled in a single conversation with Joshua and Sally, like "oh, by the way, you are over 2 million worlds away from home, and I've been the program that ran the entire airship and you've never seen any of the controls, but hey! It'll be a fun challenge for you to get yourselves home! I've decided to join the blob and I'll probably never come back again because I am fully committed." The end. Turn the page and Joshua and Sally are towing the damn airship by hand. Why did this happen? Is it just a sloppy replication of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Because that's what it feels like. Sloppy and derivative and pointless.
  • We Need To Talk About Tilda. Dr. Tilda Lang Green is a problem, but part of a larger problem of the women in this book.  This is a bullet point, but the discussion is pretty long, so I'm going to break it up into paragraphs.
The story of the Greens is that Dr. Green decides that the best way to procure their children's financial future is to hop a Conestoga wagon train (literally!) and homestead some land in one of the new Earths, out past Old 100 K. This requires a 9-10 month journey through the other Earths, after putting together a team of people who have all the skills needed. It's like playing Oregon Trail! So Dr. Tilda browbeats her husband into setting out for the new frontier. But see, the reason Husband doesn't want to go is because they have a son who can't step. (In classic bell curve fashion, about 1/5 of the population can't step at all, even with a Stepper, while about 1/5 don't need the Stepper.) So Dad kind of posts a mild objection along the lines of "Um, Honey bun? What about our 13 year old son who can't Step and so can't come with us?" Dr. Tilda for some reason isn't deterred in any way, and palms her son off on a relative so she and the rest of the family can go play Laura Ingalls Wilder or something. They go ahead, they homestead far away, daughter Helen Green becomes the Laura Ingalls Wilder by blogging on the radio by reading from her paper journal, they write letters back to Abandoned Son but they never hear back.

Okay, there are lots of things wrong with this story. I'll start enumerating them here:
  1. It is NOT AT ALL CLEAR how this homesteading is supposed to be securing anybody's future, either the pioneers themselves or those they have left behind. Since when is subsistence farming a dynamic economic future for anybody? What are the economics of this new frontier anyway? I mean, it's not like they are creating gentrified neighborhoods and can reap the benefits of increased property values. We are told there are enough new worlds that everybody could have their own planet--what's the financial plan here?
  2. Did any of these people have ANY plan for handling dangers--for example, weird animals, like the scary differently evolved animals Joshua and Lobsang keep coming across--or the murderous baboons Joshua ran into on a Congressional tour that killed everybody in his party? The whole process of finding a team and a leader and a plan for settlement was handled like a Airport Holiday Inn seminar on Time Shares and Limited Partnerships. There were absolutely NO stakes or risks conveyed in this story--it was more like a decision to take a vacation on safari in Kenya versus going to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. Can't take the kid, because he's got soccer camp and can't miss that many practices. 
  3. What is Dr. Tilda's story that she is so eager to be on the economic and geographic frontier? What is the appeal for such an upper middle class couple anyway? After all, the economic point of colonialism was that the people who stayed behind in the mother country benefited from the new resources/raw materials imported from the colonies. In the Gold Rush, the people who made money were the ones who sold things to the miners, not so much the miners themselves. There is absolutely no convincing story about why a doctor would abandon her own child--just sort of a vague conversation about "securing financial future" and "the best thing for all of our children." 
  4. The emotionally resonant and powerful story was completely shoved off the page. Why did Dr. Tilda want to leave so badly? What was she thinking to leave her son behind--was it really as cavalierly as represented? How did she tell him. What was his reaction? What did the aunt think? How, in a 21st century culture, can this just happen? Maybe (and only maybe) back in the middle of the 19th century this kind of thing happened, where families would head west, and leave some members behind. But it's pretty clear that this kid resented being left behind, that this was a case of the mother being at best indifferent to the emotional damage she was inflicting on a kid. That relationship is the interesting one, not the banal diaries of the sister describing their journey. We get a lot of pages from the sister, we even get some entries from the dad. Nothing from the mother, and nothing from the kid left behind until the end, when he's roped into some reactionary political protests that end up planting a nuclear bomb to discourage Stepping. Is this believable? Well, I imagine that a kid left behind like that would be pretty pissed off. But that's all I have--what I imagine the story might be. Baxter and Pratchett never actually tell this story.
  5. This is an example of the kind of gender awkwardness of this book. If Baxter and Pratchett are re-spinning stories of the Great Westward Expansion of the mid-19th century, then the gender politics were very clear. The man decided to move west, and the wife and kids went along with it. It wasn't like there was any social support system for a woman who wanted to stay behind: when Pa Ingalls was ready to move further west, Ma packed the wagon and went too. This is not a story that can be simply transplanted into the 21st century--women's equality has made too many strides for that. But even less believable is that we can take that 19th century narrative, plus switch the gender roles and accept it. I certainly expect that a mother will care about a child beyond mere financial stability. The book doesn't show us a world where gender dynamics have changed so much that women are now the equivalent of Victorian men, unilaterally deciding these things for their families. It's not supportable socially, the personalities of the characters can't support it because we don't see them handling this situation, and so it's just weird. Similarly, there are a couple of references in the book to national figures--I believe both the British Prime Minister and the American President--who are off-handedly referred to as "she." Again--awkwardly handled. They seem to be only mentioned in order to make a point of their gender, without actually doing anything within the action of the story to demonstrate gender equity or female dominance. It's like some editor somewhere mentioned that the story was very male-centric, and suggested they add a strong female character or two. So they did. Sort of. But didn't really get the thinking right at all.
Maybe it's unfair to pick on the story of the Greens, since almost none of this book is well thought out or well written. One of the Pratchett-y elements is the periodic interlude with a character who makes a cameo appearance to illustrate a different angle on the main plot, and then generally disappears. In the Discworld books, these are often just introduced with a new paragraph, along the lines of "Sergeant Pepper hated walking the portion of his beat that took him past. . . ." The in medias res thing again. In this book, however, too often the cameo is preceeded with a clunky exposition introduction--usually by Lobsang--along the lines of "I don't think this is the first time humans have encountered this phenomenon. There is a story about [fill in name here]. Sit down and let me tell you all about it."

The effect of this construction is to distance the anecdote. It's not happening, it's being told. And it's being told by Lobsang, who usually has a blindingly obvious point to make about the story, which he then exposits to Joshua, thus increasing the awkwardness of the whole narrative.

There is also a glaring disconnect between the Joshua/Lobsang story and the experience of the rest of the pioneers. Every time--every single time--Josshua and Lobsang stop on a planet, they have a near-fatal adventure. Malevolent humanoids, enormous predator carnivores, toxic insects, radiation poisoning--disaster after disaster. Meanwhile, 20% of the earth's population has wandered off to homestead or just be itinerants, and there is no panic. Even in 19th century Manifest Destiny, there were stories about Indian attacks. People died before reaching their destinations. Diseases, hunger, hostile natives, dangerous animals--these were all real problems for pioneers, and they knew it. There were also dangerous people who wandered west to evade criminal prosecutions, and who were desperate types who would steal, rape and murder homesteaders for what they could take.

Not in the Long Earth. In fact, we are assured (too many times) that once people are away from overcrowded cities, they all behave decently--no need for police or courts. With enough room and natural resources, people all live in harmony! Just like in Deadwood, right?

At the same time, there is a town far off the grid called "Happy Landings" which seems to be a place where inadvertent Steppers throughout human history have ended up. There are hints of Greek or Roman foundations underlying the buildings, an oral history of residents that predate the current colonization of the Long Earth. As described, it's like a sci-fi Lake Woebegon--practical people who behave well, don't call attention to themselves, are strong, good looking, and all above average. Yet Joshua doesn't like it. No reason why, beyond a form of "It's quiet here. Too quiet." So--no explanation for the inconsistencies. It's like Baxter (who I am blaming, since none of this is apparent in Pratchett's books) just tells us, so it must be so.

A lot of this book is like that--telling, not showing. Joshua has "special powers" and is "legendary" for his ability to step without a Stepper. But then it turns out that over one billion people on earth can also do the same thing (based on current population)--so how special is he? What can he do that Sally didn't do earlier and better? Baxter never tells us.

What is wrong at Happy Landings? What are the signs that Joshua sees that make him uneasy? Baxter never tells us. We just know that he does, and Sally confirms it--"You noticed it too?" Noticed WHAT??? I yell at the book, but I never get an answer.

Then there is the finale. We get one scene of a spittle-flecked power-hungry reactionary political wannabe, who objects to "your tax dollars" being used to support pioneers, and suddenly there's a nuclear bomb planted in Madison Wisconsin as--what? Domestic terrorism? A plan to end Stepping by destroying the supposed hub? Who is involved and why did they do it? How did they do it? What are the resentments that built up to lead to that sort of action--which is more a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face than any kind of savvy political move.

After all, what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off? Radiation. Who can easily escape radioactive fall-out? People who can step to another Earth. Who has to live (or die, really) of radiation poisoning? People who can't step. Why was this any kind of a good idea?

It wasn't. It wasn't set up well, it wasn't explained at all, and then it was stupidly executed as a storytelling device. And then--THEN what happens? Oh, well, Joshua and Sally hear about it from frickin' Helen Green, the Laura Ingalls Wilder of the 101K Earth. And then they panic, and have to quick-step all the way back to Earth because---

Now stop for a second and think about this. A nuclear bomb has been detonated near your home, where you haven't been for months and months. How did you hear about it--from somebody a long long way away from the bomb site. How did she hear about it? Well--we know that it takes 9-10 months for ordinary people to travel that far away, so can we assume that there was mail? Or maybe a messenger? So this bomb must have gone off more than 9 months ago. What the hell do you think you could possibly do, Joshua and Sally, once you got there, to handle a disaster that had to have happened the better part of a year ago?

Who would be left to save? Nobody--they all would have left or died by then, dontcha think? But of course, the J&S Brain Trust scurry back to view the wreckage, because there isn't any other character with a point of view who could show this to us. Because radiation poisoning is no big deal when you are the Hero and Sidekick--much more important to go see the emptiness with your own eyes. Instead of, for example, checking some of the surrounding areas for your family and friends to see if they survived.

And then--AND THEN--we just stick a period on the end of the sentence and pretend that this is the ending. At least, as much of an ending as readers have come to expect from a planned trilogy/quadrology/as-many-books-as-we-can-possibly-squeeze-out-ogy.

Honestly. How many Discworld books has Pratchett given us? Something like 35 already, and each one is complete in itself. Each one has a beginning, a middle and a frickin' END.

Look, I get the appeal of a travelogue--Pratchett did it with the Rincewind books, mostly, sending his terrible wizzard on tours through Discworld. I get the appeal of a "build a new world with only the most rudimentary of supplies." Pratchett did it with Nation. I get the appeal of an evolving story. Pratchett has done it in spades with his City Watch novels--the maturation of Sam Vines. He also included a lot of other things that this book is missing--plot, characters, humor, big ideas expressed thoughtfully and well.

This book has Terry Pratchett's name on it, but it is not a Terry Pratchett novel. Read it if you must, but you have been warned.

3 comments:

MorningAJ said...

I took a look at it in Tesco last week and decided against it. Sadly, the Terry Pratchett we all love is running out of time. I hoped he'd not fade before he went. But I suspect he is fading.

Cate Ross said...

I too am saddened by the limited time TPratchett has left. I am an incurable optimist, however, and so in my head I have decided that Baxter wrote this book, and Pratchett gave it a quick once over--maybe a week's worth of effort? There is some stuff that reads very Pratchett-y, and that part is delightful. I also have decided that Pratchett is busy writing his own stuff, and that we will get at least one or two more pure books from him before he hangs up his pen.

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