Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long War – a problem with expectations

I just finished reading Terry Prachett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long War, their sequel to The Long Earth. It’s fair to say that, while there’s a lot to enjoy in this book, I wound up as ambivalent about it as I was about its predecessor. This time though I think there was a clearer, more definite problem, and it’s one that interests me as a writer – it’s the problem of expectations.

The Long War is set in the Long Earth, a series of millions of parallel Earths between which people travel. Over a decade has passed since the events of the first book, and humans are settling more and more into the parallel worlds. But there are conflicts brewing, as social and political change disrupt the status quo.

As with The Long Earth, this is well written. It flows easily, the characters are likeable and interesting, and the world that’s being built is fascinating. I had the same problem with the narrative’s ambling nature as I had with the previous book, but that’s a matter of personal taste – I prefer my stories with a bit more focus, a bit more intensity to them.

But this book had a problem its predecessor didn’t, and that’s in the expectations it set. Both the book’s title and its blurb implied a racheting up of the conflicts that were stirring in the previous book. There’s talk of how war is coming, and it’ll be unlike wars that have come before. It got me all ready for an exciting tale of action, in which the military implications of flitting between different worlds would be explored. That sounded exciting.

And that’s not this book. It’s clear from the ending that there’s a reason why Pratchett and Baxter chose the name they did, and that the more low-key resolution is there to make a point. It’s an interesting point. It’s an optimistic one for human nature. It even says something about the nature of the Long Earth. But it wasn’t what I’d been led to expect. There’s wasn’t a big build-up of tension. There wasn’t a feeling that things could go violent at any minute. And there really wasn’t a war. In fact, if not for a single reference near the end, the book’s title would have seemed to be completely cheating.

The thing is, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if it hadn’t set those expectations. I’d have known from the first book what I was getting into. I’d have settled in for more well-written ramblings through a well developed world. But that Wasn’t what I was led to expect, and as I read I found myself increasingly disappointed as that promise wasn’t fulfilled.

The writers on the Writing Excuses podcast often talk about the need to end a story by fulfilling the promises you make at the start, the things you’re implying it will be about. A book’s title and blurb are part of that start, and The Long War didn’t live up to its promises. As a writer, I’ve made a mental note not to make that mistake myself, to consider what my titles are telling the reader.

Have you read The Long War? What did you think? And can you think of other examples where books don’t deliver on their promise, or deliver something completely different, for better or worse?

Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth

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.

Pratchett’s voice and losing the flow

We’re told that bad writing can knock a reader out of the text, spoiling the flow of a story. But I realised this week that good writing, if it’s not consistent, can do the same thing.

I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. As you’d expect, it’s really rather good, with an intriguing premise, engaging characters, and flowing prose. But there were a couple of points early on when that prose took a strongly Pratchett turn, where his authorial voice took over for a paragraph, and it jolted me right out of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Terry Pratchett. I have nearly all his books, even the couple of sci-fi ones he did before the Discworld. I enjoy his whimsical authorial voice – one of the most distinctive in modern writing. But that’s the problem, it’s very distinctive. When you’re reading a book that’s just by Pratchett, that voice is there the whole time, its wit and wonder woven through the story. It makes you more aware of the author on your shoulder, pointing out the absurdities of the world, but that’s part of the ride.

Most of the prose in The Long Earth is more transparent. It’s well written in the way that makes you forget it’s there, letting you be completely absorbed by the story. So when I hit a Pratchettism, even an excellent one, the sudden authorial presence comes as a shock, and a reminder that, to point out the obvious, someone wrote this.

It’s the same problem I had with one of the stories in Joumana Haddad’s Madinah collection. Except there the author made himself so prominent, and there was so little story, that it was just a dozen pages of irredeemable annoyance. At least in The Long Earth it’s a piece of something good that, by being unexpected, unfortunately disrupts the flow of the other good stuff.

I’m still loving The Long Earth, but we often learn from flaws. I guess my take-away from this is to aim for consistency. Also to go back and read some more Pratchett, because wow but Pyramids was awesome.

Has anyone else come across examples of this? Are there other authors where you’re very aware of their distinctive voice? What effect does that have on your reading experience? And am I right about Pyramids or what? Share some thoughts below – I know my opinion, I want to hear yours.