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I love seeing Terry Pratchett’s name on a new book. I know much less about Stephen Baxter. I’ve only read a few short stories by Baxter and most of what I remember of them is that they were concept-heavy and a bit dry elsewhere. I doubt that my sample was representative of his work. What I remember of Baxter’s work I’m okay with, but it didn’t have the playfulness that I seem to require to become hooked.

I’m a sucker for anything with Pratchett’s name on it, even if I might expect less of his usual playfulness in a work that shares another name. It isn’t just a way to salve my profound sadness over his slow exit from his working life. We are all slowly exiting our lives, so I’ll celebrate anything Terry Pratchett does until his final trip to Switzerland

The Science and the Really-Realness

Stephen Baxter is known as a hard sci-fi writer. Hard sci-fi doesn’t necessarily mean realistic. Hard sci-fi has a long history of unrealistic premises involving faster-than-light travel, time travel, travel between realities and extra-sensory remote perception of other locations and other minds.

Travel and cultural exploration is the major part of the appeal of hard science fiction. They are travelogues of the mind, reports from many varying experiments in society which we cannot duplicate in the really-real world. All of the Grand Old Men of sci-fi did it. I’m sure that somewhere in the more speculative realm of fantasy fiction, bees and educated fleas are doing it, composing their own fantasies that pit their worlds against each other in what-if scenarios of honeycomb-versus-hair or honeycomb-from-roses versus honeycomb-from-slightly-different-roses.

That said, I have some trouble getting through most books without mulling over the really-realness (or lack thereof) in a story’s mechanics and psychology. For me, only the most carefully realistic literary writers (Woolf or Ian McEwan) or the most heavily lamp-shaded speculative writers (Terry Pratchett) seem to escape this. With neither extreme do I stop occasionally and go for agitated walks around the block, chattering to myself about how “the fake world I’m reading about wouldn’t work like that at all,” and craving a cigarette.

Terry’s participation in The Long Earth is clear in the gag-like mechanics of the least really-real aspects of the premise. For me this silliness succeeds in taking the burr off the rough edges of Baxter’s really-realness. Importantly, Pratchett seems to have had a strong influence in enhancing the really-real psychology of the characters as they respond to the slightly cockeyed economics and improbably stable celestial dynamics of the Long Earth. I could go off on a tangent detailing my quibbles, but that would just be a list of spoilers. If anyone actually reads this and comments, I’ll be happy to discuss it there.

Suffice it to say that Terry Pratchett’s name is NOT just along for a ride on the cover. While he doesn’t seem to have written a large portion of the text, he’s made significant contributions to the premise and making the premise work. Also some of the jokes. Perhaps all the jokes.

The Characters

Even the throwaway characters have the kind of touches that Pratchett is known for. Entire lives are hinted at and remembered in the style of the Discworld vagrant who went to sea and had a number of adventures before dying of “stepping on a tiger”. It is Pratchett’s concern for these characters that bring much of his work to life and it works to good effect here as well.

Unfortunately, Terry’s limited contribution to the writing has left the latter part of the book with significant action of the major characters which is listed more than conveyed. In particular, the female characters have an important role but their action, conflicts, and motivations seem to parallel the story without ever becoming integrated. This is not Witches Abroad.

I know Stephen Baxter has been in this game, successfully, for a few decades, while I’m just an infrequent blogger that no one reads, but let’s just say that he has some great opportunities for improvement. Or he needs to push harder for more time to blend things together or a bit more word count to flesh things out. As it stands, the characterizations are a little bit of a letdown. It takes away the possibility of an enthusiastic Pratchett-fan-gives-it-five-stars-! and puts it down into an-entertaining-three-stars-and-a-bit.

The Potential for a Series

Given that Sir Terry’s involvement is probably only going to wane, the only strong hope I have for this series is if the strength of Baxter’s characterizations wax considerably. A more robustly human touch is needed.

It’s Not At All Bad

It’s a very entertaining read that will get you thinking about exactly the kinds of things sci-fi is supposed to. It’s also amusing, quirky, and has all the touches you might ask for from a story from these experienced authors.

 

See also Josh Roseman’s review on escapepod.org.