The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Stepper-Diagram

You too can construct a magical potato box.

The Long Earth is special, and I don’t say that just because it opens with a diagram of a potato in a box of electrical components.  It reminds me of Pandora’s Star, but without the epic not-exactly-space opera and intricate plotting.  They’re actually very different books, and The Long Earth requires nowhere near as much investment of time and energy as Peter F. Hamilton‘s sprawling story… but there is a crucial way in which they are the same: unlike with most books, I’m not angry when these two finish with a teaser rather than a conclusion.  Somehow, as with Pandora’s Star, when this happens in The Long Earth I simply take it in stride and look for the next book.

Maybe I’m tolerant of The Long Earth’s odd ending because I’m so partial to its strange mix of writing styles?  Pratchett‘s almost flippant whimsey leavens the still-serious storyline that he and Baxter have put together, and their look at the ramifications of partially accessible parallel Earths is engrossing.  The fact that they know how to establish a good set-up for future conflict (and how to pull you into reading about that) only makes things better.  I certainly plan to pick up the next book as soon as I go back to the library.

So what sort of book is this, if it’s like Pandora’s Star, but not?  And what if you haven’t read Pandora’s Star to know what I’m talking about?

Ok, so, Pandora’s Star is a long and complicated interlocking series of stories in which we are given hints about a number of different contemporaneous events which all funnel towards a growing sense of impending doom and confrontation.  There are a series of separate incidents and exciting bits to keep the pace going (we’re talking about a very large book, after all), and the story is nowhere near finished by the end of the first book; several storylines have been well explored, but nearly all of them feel like they’re at a jumping off point and are ready to spawn something even more complicated, exciting, and grandiose.

The Long Earth is much shorter and easier to read and follow, though it also embraces multiple storylines and perspectives in its attempt to convey the breadth of its story.  This book will probably not require you to keep records on all the different people who have been mentioned, since there simply aren’t too many of them in the first place.  That said, it does do an excellent job of giving you a sufficient number of perspectives to notice how the wider world is progressing, with better comprehension than that available to any one character.

Like Pandora’s Star, the story of The Long Earth is not finished by the end of the book, even though our erstwhile heroes have clearly had an adventure.  I’m glad that I waited until now to read the book, since I’d be disappointed if I had to wait for the next installment.  That’s a bit telling, in and of itself: were it not for the fact that I know another book awaits me, I’d be a bit disappointed.  The story is very clearly not finished, and it doesn’t really feel like it’s resolved any of the rising tension that was established earlier on.  If anything, it leaves us frustratingly in media res.

Yet, as I mentioned above, I’m won over by the writing.  The style which Pratchett and Baxter have cobbled together here feels almost warm and friendly, if not quite as bumblingly charming as the style which Pratchett and Gaiman used for their book Good Omens.  A different combination of authors offers a different combination of flavors, but in both cases those little chunks of Pratchett-nougat serve to remind me of why I like his work so much in the first place.

All in all, I’d still say that The Long Earth is a good book.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that it’s decent book, and I can call it a good one if the second half is as good as the first and manages to finish up the storylines that feel like they’ve been left hanging at the end of this first one.  Even if the sequel(s) aren’t good, I’d still recommend looking at this book if you have any interest in the ramifications of widely accessible parallel worlds, or in Terry Pratchett’s writing style.  It’s good stuff.

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