One piece of advice that I’ve often heard writers give out is that, if you want to write, you have to read. Perhaps one reason why I don’t write is that I don’t read much*. Well, not books, at any rate – blogs, articles, tweets and webcomics, sure, but not actual novels. My usual relationship with books is as follows:
- Get given books for Xmas.
- Read those books.
- Not touch anything with a dust cover for the rest of the year.
Plot? Yeah, it’s got one of those.
And when I do read a book, it’s almost always one by an author I’m already well familiar with. Given the time investment required for the reading of a novel, I prefer to stick to known quantities, so in most cases I only go for books by people whose work I already know and like.
Although he’s only recently made the move to novels, I’ll always read anything by Warren Ellis – possibly he doesn’t count, since I followed him from comics.
I used to read Neal Stephenson until it became clear that the constant theme in all of his books is “I, Neal Stephenson, am considerably more intelligent and knowledgeable than you, the person who is reading this”. I read Cryptonomicon at University to impress a woman – totally not worth it.
So the one author I have followed since I was a teenager, whose latest release I will always seek out and read, is Terry Pratchett. My Christmas presents this year included Dodger and The Long Earth, his collaboration with Stephen Baxter.
After I finished The Long Earth, I did a bit of reading about it, and found that it’s to be the first in a series, with more books planned – after reading that, the book made a lot more sense, since my first thought on finishing it was “wow, that felt just like reading the pilot to a TV series.” Characters are introduced, settings are established and plot lines are set up, but nothing much comes of it all and not a lot is resolved. At the very end of the book, I could actually see the two lead characters looking at each other with “here we go again” expressions, followed by a cut to black, then COMING NEXT FALL – THE LONG EARTH 2: EARTH LONGER. So I guess the first thing to say is that if you go into this book knowing that there’s more to come and that this is only the beginning, you’ll have a much better experience than if you read through waiting for a payoff.
(I wish someone had told me that when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones – half a dozen episodes in and I’m thinking “OK, so they’re going to sort out the battle for the throne this season, just in time for Sean Bean to have to deal with the dragons and snow zombies next season, right?” Cut to the season finale: “Oh, so it’s just the prologue to a civil war that lasts for several more epic-length novels? No, no, that’s fine – would’ve been nice to know in advance, but whatever. Fine. Fine.”
Plot? Yeah, it’s got one of those. In the near future, a device is discovered that allows people to “step” between alternate versions of our Earth; Earth itself is revealed to be the the Long Earth of the title: a possibly infinite series of alternate planets (universes?), some very similar to ours (save for the absence of humans), some very different. The bulk of the book focusses on the implications of the Long Earth on humanity, and on individual humans. Ideas like living in a post-scarcity society (how valuable is gold now that anyone can step to a new world and dig it out of the ground?) are explored, as well as more personal issues, especially when it’s revealed that the “stepper” device apparently only enables an innate ability – some people are revealed to be “natural steppers”, while others turn out to be “phobics”, who are unable to step, even with a device, and find themselves left behind as the rest of the human race rushes off on the biggest adventure it’s ever had handed to it. The one plot thread uniting all of this concerns Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper who is chosen as the companion of a sentient AI to explore the furthest reaches of the Long Earth. A lot of the book is devoted to describing the wonders, mysteries and dangers they encounter, including bizarre landscapes, fantastical species (some able to step themselves) and a looming threat advancing downwards through the Earths towards them…
Apparently Stephen Baxter did most of the writing, based on Pratchett’s ideas, which again makes sense having read the book – it doesn’t really have Pratchett’s voice (not that that’s a problem, but it was noticeable to a Pratchett fan.) I could, however, feel his influence directly in a few places, such as the very Discworld-like references to malevolent “elves”, and in the character of Sally, who is of the same breed of sensible, forthright, unsentimental (kind of annoying) female character as Susan Sto Helit and Tiffany Aching.
All up, I enjoyed The Long Earth. There were a few aspects that felt like clichés, even to someone who reads as little science fiction as I do; for instance, the main protagonist being aided by a near omnipotent AI supercomputer and a benefactor of limitless resources (who happen to be the same character). Nevertheless, it introduces a bunch of interesting ideas and does a good job of exploring them, and while it may not have much of a “point”, being more of a travelogue than anything else, I’m definitely interested in seeing where they take it next.
*I’m not actually sure that I buy this. In general, I write the way I talk – I figure I absorb as much writing ability by listening to language as I do by reading it, if not more.