The problem with creating a science fiction "opportunity" such as the one The Long Earth presents is that you need a space opera to do it justice. When The Long Earth came out with its Pratchett notion of a potato inspired device (quickly forgotten in this latest because it was a tad too ridiculous) that gave rise to an infinite series of Earths for humanity to expand into, it created a vast series of options for the authors to explore. So vast, in fact, they've fallen short with this latest, directionless effort. All it has done, in truth, is show the brilliance of the idea (though rehashed somewhat - see Greg Bear's 'Eon') and the incapacity of the authors to deal with it. The reality is the concept needs Peter F Hamilton to do it justice. The vastness of the new world of Datum East/West requires more words than these authors are prepared to throw at it and this sequel flounders in a mire of nothingness.
Part of the problem is Joshua Valienté's weary inclusion - it's almost as though the character isn't interested; part of the problem is the character of Sally - she's intensely dislikeable; part of the problem is that Lobsang's not in it enough; the whole of the problem is nothing gets the detail it deserves. We've too many threads fighting for four hundred pages of large print space and no one's a winner. As a reader I want to investigate more about the culture of Trolls, of Kobolds, of Beagles; I want a thorough story following Capt. Maggie on her personal starship Enterprise with the Cat; I need Joshua to be kicked in the backside to show some enthusiasm; I want the gifted Roberta and her Chinese expedition to get ten times the airtime. The whole East twenty million voyage is begging for a juicy hook to yank the reader. The disappearance of the Trolls (yet they are too easy to find) is casually handled; the chewing off of Joshua's appendage unexplained; the "war" that is the title is merely an apologetic after-note of vapid inconsequentialness scrawled in the final chapters. I've seen more fight in the Norse Sagas on Valhalla than I saw in this book.
I was disappointed. The concept of stepping into an alternative reality is handled better by the likes of S. M. Stirling. He devotes a trilogy to just one "step" and you can see why. The creation of four million worlds needs four million pages, in truth. Pratchett and Baxter have created something too big to handle - and this is coming from two of the very best authors out there. I've read nearly everything these two authors have ever produced. They have all the kudos they deserve for they are very, very good at what they do. But... it's possible for even the very best to produce a poor book... and this might just well be a nadir for them. I hope the next is better. In summary... The Long Earth was great; The Long War... disappointing.
There is a fundamental fear when reviewing a book by a famous author, especially if said author is someone you have previously lavished praise upon. Questions are asked: Were you wrong before? Has the author’s talent disappeared? Had it ever existed? It is a tricky proposition, and I feel a certain measure of responsibility to process my thoughts carefully when stepping into this territory. How much influence I have is a matter for debate, but the answer is somewhat immaterial; regardless of how much influence I have or do not have, I need to be careful in how I treat authors.
So when I say that ‘The Long War’ by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter does not live up to the combined excellence of both authors (or, realistically, even one), I do so very hesitantly and with the hope that it will not always be the case.
The Long War is the second book in the series between collaborators Pratchett and Baxter, and suffers, I believe, from a desire to set up a world in which the authors will be able to continue writing in. The cache that is contained within even one of their names is enough to secure a successful completion to the series, but this book definitely hurts the level of excitement I’ll be hoarding next year when we expect to see the third book in the series.
This book appears, on the surface, to contain very little input by Terry Pratchett. I consider myself a relatively decent judge of Pratchett’s work, and feel that it is very ‘unlike’ his writing. The imagination and morale-compass that backs this book is very evidently Pratchett’s (and presumably also Baxter’s) but it feels as if his ability to pour his own creative genius into the formation of this book was restricted somehow.
Instead of a story which pulls the reader along page by page, The Long War is a mish-mash of stories haphazardly joined together, like a ransom note drafted by a high school dropout: each part is inherently interesting, but its execution fails to capture the imagination. The world of the Long Earth is intrinsically fascinating, and the concepts and morality upon which these books will hinge are brilliant and true – like much of Pratchett’s work they provide a mirror to humanity which forces the reader to examine their beliefs, to their own benefit. The manner in which the pieces – morality, imagination, conceptual design, literary talent – are combined, however, is rushed at best, mediocre at worst.
No part of this story is well fleshed out, while being so close it is continually tantalising, right up until the conclusion of this part of the story. There are beautiful scenes – the final one comes to mind as a perfect example of great storytelling – but there are also scenes which shift perspective with no perceptible notification and others which feel like documentary-style news pieces dropped into the middle of a movie. There is an overall sense of discordant storytelling which leaves the reader feeling disjointed and unfulfilled.
Many will still enjoy this book, extracting their own points in favour, while struggling with an overall disappointment. Characters that we love return but are unfulfilled, and concepts that once stretched the imagination fail to grow, stagnating as the authors return over and over to the same now-tired ideas. I don’t suggest skipping this book, and I even suggest buying it (preferably on special) so that you don’t miss out on what parts of the story this book does move forward. However I do so with a warning; this isn’t the Pratchett or Baxter you wanted.
Joshua S Hill, 6/10
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