Book Review of:
‘THE LONG EARTH’
TERRY PRATCHETT &
(Doubleday June 2012, then
Corgi paperback 2013 ISBN: 978-0-552-16408-5)
It’s that Lennon-McCartney thing. In any collaboration there’s the tendency to tease out the who wrote what conundrum. Using your skill and judgement. On the face of it there can hardly be two more dissimilar writers operating within the admittedly flexible confines of the same genre as Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, almost. Pratchett with his whimsical humour, amusing witty satires and sometimes tedious jokiness. Baxter with his eternity-spanning quantum speculations, taking SF out into newer realms of wonder just when the it’s getting a bit stylistically predictable. Where is the common ground there? It’s difficult to see. Which makes it all the more amazing that this collaborative novel hangs together so well. Almost seamlessly. More serious than Pratchett. More playful than Baxter. An intriguingly episodic centre-ground combining the essential uniqueness of each.
Pratchett’s undeveloped manuscript ‘The High Meggas’ was the ignition event from which the ideas grew. The concept of multiple Earth’s stretching away east and west to an infinity of probability-space is hardly new to SF. It’s been frequently used as a vehicle to explore alternate histories in which events turned out slightly differently. Worlds where the Nazis won World War II, the Spanish Armada succeeded in invading England, Christianity failed to replace the pagan gods ensuring the Roman Empire survives to the present day. That kind of thing. Even the 1995-1999 TV-series ‘Sliders’ sets a group-jeopardy of characters lost in a blur of multiple alternate Earths. The fact that the endless sequence of adjacent Earth’s in the Baxter-Pratchett continuum are uninhabited, forest-worlds populated only by a variety of fauna, ‘both unfamiliar and familiar’, including some geologically-extinct species, provides ‘The Long Earth’s essential point of difference.
To me it seems to be making a similar point to the one Baxter makes in an earlier brilliant sequence, in which a multitude of primal ‘Big Bang’s misfire until our eventual stable cosmos stumbles into existence. The point being that there’s nothing inevitable or predetermined about the viable universe happening. Its existence is due to a one-in-several-million random chances in relativistic flux. The same with ‘the Long Earths’. There’s nothing inevitable, no manifest destiny about the evolution of homo sapiens, their civilisation and culture. Rather, that such an outcome is a freak one-in-several-million outcome of infinite other possibilities. This seems more to be a Baxter theme than a Pratchett one. But, once established, it allows a weave of separate tales to ramble across the never-ending new frontiers featuring a variety of characters, some of whom appear briefly and are then left to their own devices, others who interlink and reconnect into each other at a later point. Allowing both writers space to stretch out and follow their whims across the shared territory of ‘Earths, untold Earths. More Earths than could be counted.’
The ‘stepper’ device that initially allows people to reach the other Earths, powered by a potato, as the prefacing diagram illustrates, seems very much to be a Terry Pratchett invention. Credited to a reclusive ‘hippie born of generations of hippies’, Willis Linsay anonymously posts his invention on the internet as a kind of contra-corporate hippie-gesture, so that ‘Step Day’ happens simultaneously beyond government or entrepreneurial control. The idea that the ability to ‘step’ from world to world is also innate, and all that is required is the correct thought-signature – a mental state that tuning the device induces, is maybe a Baxter development. A kind of Zen discipline in which the device functions as a variety of techno-mandala. Although it’s as deceptive to attribute all humour-content to one writer and all seriousness to the other as it is to assign all the Beatles’ grit to John Lennon and their fluff to Paul McCartney. Collaborations are more complex organisms than that. Haggling over input-percentage is a pointless exercise.
There’s a tradition in, especially American SF, of pioneers opening up new frontiers. Not for nothing is space the ‘final frontier’. Nuclear apocalypse has been used as a convenient device to return the world to a kind a renewed revitalised pre-Columbian wilderness. The Long Earths are very much part of this. Our familiar Earth becomes Datum-Earth (as it was Earth-prime for ‘Sliders’). And just as global population-levels tip over into an unsustainable nine-billion, limitless new step-wise Earths become accessible. Enabling a whole new ‘go west young man’ flood of colonists opening up new continents. Worlds that unfold for steppers ‘like a Ray Harryhausen show-reel’ (for this book is very postmodern-aware of the Sc-Fi tradition in which it operates).
There’s a leisurely meandering pace to the novel, untypical of Baxter, taking diversions around aspects of this newly-revealed ‘multiverse’, meeting characters who sometimes recur, others who appear as one-offs. Private Percy Blakeney, the First World War soldier who is shocked into the company of what he mistakenly believes to be hairy Russians, is a natural accidental stepper. While the main thrust clarifies around ‘antisocial weirdo’ Joshua Valientè, brought up by Nuns, who has more conscious control of the same ability, and listens to its ‘silence’. He encounters Lobsang, who first appears as a Coca-Cola dispenser. He might be an AI or equally the downloaded soul of a Tibetan motorcycle-repairman mystic (his name recalling Lobsang Ludd of Pratchett’s 2001 novel ‘Thief Of Time’). Under the guise of the transEarth Institute, as a self-styled Jules Verne-ian ‘Robur The Conqueror’, he leads the unlikely pair in a phantasmagorical airship ‘The Mark Twain’, to step millions of Earths – counted off by an ‘Earthomenter’, in a bid to explore the farthest reaches of the Long Earth. Capable of downloading himself into ambulant units, Lobsang can also adopt the warm and amiable voice of David Kossoff, in a bid to humanise himself. Only to reappear as Indiana Jones to explore an extinct civilisation where ‘nothing had happened for a very long time, and went on not happening now’. Sally, daughter of the Stepper’s inventor joins the team, alongside an electro-cat called Shi-mi.
As they step they discover no other human worlds. But there are trolls, and elves who ride pig-mounts, who correspond to the Kromaggs of ‘Sliders’, humanoids on forked evolutionary paths. Some of them step worlds with ease, migrating across countless Earths to escape a terrible something encroaching across the gulf of worlds. But just as anticipations accelerate towards a climax-confrontation, there are new byways to distract the attention into new sub-themes. Speculations about, if every step-Earth has its own variant step-solar system, just possibly there’s an inhabited step-Mars out there? While governments extend their jurisdiction over their counterpart territories on adjacent Earths, to reap tax and material resources, as their claims become more tenuous and unenforceable the further they extend from Datum-Earth. But even the novel’s final resolution, meeting the mega-massive being called First Person Singular, is inconclusive. Without revealing any massive plot-secrets, there’s no real closure either. The open-ended inconclusive wanderings are obviously intended to travelogue on into the sequel – ‘The Long War’ (June 2013), and the series-novels beyond.
Terry Pratchett’s writing career had begun as a thirteen-year-old with a short story called “The Hades Business” in ‘The Technical Cygnet’, The High Wycombe Technical High School magazine. And there’s a clearly recognisable jokiness to this tale of Crucible who is recruited by Nicholas Lucifer as spin-doctor for his rebranded hell, installing Fun-Fair, Coffee Bar, Bowling Alley and a Jazz Band to make it a more attractive proposition. ‘Imagine the interior of a storm cloud’ he writes, ‘sprinkle liberally with ash and garnish with sulphur to taste.’ Pratchett’s ‘little satire’ was promptly reprinted in John Carnell’s ‘Science Fantasy no.60’ (August 1963), in the esteemed company of Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock and Thomas Burnett Swann. Carnell claiming this first as ‘one of those little touches an editor seldom gets the opportunity of doing’, adding that the precociously-talented schoolboy ‘shows great promise for the future.’ There was a second short fiction tale – “Night Dweller” in ‘New Worlds no.156’ (November 1965) which, according to editor Michael Moorcock ‘describes outer space in a new a somewhat poetic light.’ Very different, an impressionistic mood-piece about a dark ‘something that howled at the stars’, it indicates that the now-sixteen-year-old Pratchett had other gears, and possible other directions to follow. Instead, he advanced swiftly into establishing his own genre-defying ‘Discworld’ mythos, establishing a dedicated cult of followers.
While Baxter has other star-collaborations on his cv. ‘The Light Of Other Days’ (2000) is cover-credited to Baxter with Arthur C Clarke, but also carries a dedication to Bob Shaw, from whom the title is derived, as well as its concept of ‘slow glass’. The novel carries the same kind of wistful requiem for the discontinued Space Race as in ‘The Long Earth’ which laments how ‘we could have been out there, applying to join the galactic federation, not slashing and burning our way across endless copies of the same old planet.’ There’s also humour, but whether this comes from the plotline sketched out by Arthur C Clarke, or the solid textual fleshing-out of that plot by Baxter is uncertain. Britain exits the European Union, separates from Scotland, then ‘in 2019 England, with Wales, ceded Northern Ireland to Eire, packed the Royals off to Australia – where they were still welcome, and had become the fifty-second state of the United States of America.’ There are also holographic Beatles in a kind of overplayed retro-sixties nostalgia. Maybe this is the kind of teasingly provocative playfulness that might appeal to a Terry Pratchett readership?
At the novel’s focus there’s an investigative journalist called Kate Manzoni, and tele-evangelist Billybob Meeks taking advantage of an interactive virtual-reality heaven. There’s an extinction planet-sized Wormwood on collision course with Earth (Wormwood is a literal translation of the Russian Chernobyl), as global warming disrupts weather patterns. But it’s the OurWorld media corporation of Hiram Patterson (aka Hirdamani Patel) who sets up wormhole-technology as datapipe terminals. First their WormCam scanners abolish privacy in ways that Wikileaks could never envisage, then they extend out to glimpse the worlds of near star systems, and ultimately peek around the corners of time. History is revealed as a directionless patchwork of chance, opportunism, fabrication, confabulation and lie. ‘The human memory is not a passive recorder but a tool in the construction of the self, so history has never been a simple record of the past, but a means of shaping peoples.’
There’s a ‘depressing truth’ surrounding Elvis Presley, a revelation concerning Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality, Davy Crockett was a ‘self-manufactured myth’, and Betsy Ross did not design the Stars & Stripes flag. There were no Area 51 UFO’s. And despite stripping away the supernatural add-ons, Chapter 21 – ‘Behold The Man’, is kinder to the Jesus-myth than the 1969 Michael Moorcock novel (or the 1966 ‘New Worlds’ novella) from which it takes its name. The world adapts to constant surveillance either by using SmartShroud invisibility cloaks, or linking into an ‘internet of minds’. Those using worm-vision to reach the stars, as far as the Trifid Nebulae, or back down the DNA-trail to the very dawn of microbial life on Earth – and the bizarre revealed civilisation that preceded it, are named Stapledons, in a further SF reference to visionary writer Olaf Stapledon. It’s a sprawling, sometimes unsatisfying novel, alive with gimmicky techno-ideas that might belong to Clarke, and the long-range breadth of spectacle typical of both writers.
It’s not Baxter’s only collaboration with the SF master. In fact there’s a trilogy of novels dealing with the temporal ‘discontinuity’ – ‘Time’s Eye’ (2003), ‘Sunstorm’ (2005), and ‘Firstborn’ (2008) in which alien meddling has transfigured Earth into a patchwork of colliding history, with Alexander the Great facing off the Mongol hordes of Ghenghis Khan, and Rudyard Kipling on the NW Frontier startled by encounters with a primitive humanoid and 21st-century helicopter-gunships. Intended as a counterpart to the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ project, this is very much ‘Time’s Odyssey’.
Meanwhile the Terry Pratchett joint project continues with ‘The Long War’ (2013), which is set a tumultuous decade after its progenitor. Joshua and Lobsang are now caught up in new crises as fleets of world-stepping airships travel the Long Earths, the trolls become restless with their human interactions, and a new America – renamed ‘Valhalla’ is emerging to challenge the hegemony of datum-Earth. While the authorship is still as debatable. It’s that Lennon-McCartney thing.