Yesterday, I finished reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. I’m a huge Pratchett fan, and was really looking forward to reading this, but it’s left me with mixed feelings. I don’t know how much that stems from my experience of writing, or how much I just understand it better because of that.
First up, all the good stuff. This is a great piece of world building. Or worlds building, given that it’s a story about travel across multiple worlds. We get flashes of exotic settings, chases with boar-riding chimps, forests as vast as the imagination. The social and economic consequences are well thought through – of course large parts of England would become depopulated if you could just step into another world. Who’d choose Hackney over Eden?
There are some interesting characters – Lobsang the computer reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist being the stand-out example. The writing is clear and un-fussy, really letting the story flow, though that does make the occasional Pratchettism feel out of place.
But the bit I struggled with was the plot. After the initial set-up, not a huge amount seemed to change. Different worlds and places were introduced, but they didn’t significantly shape events. The main character, Joshua, went along for the ride with Lobsang but lacked any sense of purpose himself. They seldom seemed in real danger of being thwarted in their mission of exploration.
Meanwhile small sub-plots popped up in the background, almost entirely detached from the main story. And while they came together in the end it was in a fairly token way, with the three strands not affecting each others’ outcomes.
The end result was a pleasant read, but one that left me feeling dissatisfied. This is clearly set-up for a series, but 350 pages is a long time to spend on set-up. I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequel that’s out this year, but I wouldn’t re-read it, unlike most of Pratchett’s other books.
What I don’t know is how much my response to this is shaped by writing plot. If I’d read this five years ago would I have thought it was brilliant? Or would I have had the same feeling of dissatisfaction, but been unable to articulate where it came from? I don’t know, and I’m curious about that.
So if you’re reading this, and you’ve also read The Long Earth, let me know what you think. It may help me disentangle my own thoughts.