Audiobook Review: The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

5 08 2013

The Long War (The Long Earth, Book 2) by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Read by Michael Fenton Stevens

Harper Audio

Length: 13 Hrs 51 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: While I enjoyed listening to The Long War, I found myself often frustrated along the way.The Long War tried too hard to be something it wasn’t, a plot driven science fiction novel, when there was nothing wrong with what it actually was, a concept driven novel of exploration.

Grade: B

I was a bit skeptical about The Long War, the sequel to last years multi-earth science fiction tale, The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I loved The Long Earth. It was a brilliant concept and tapped that little inkling inside of everyone for the opportunity to just start over on a new adventure. The concept was simple, on one day it was discovered that there were multiple versions of Earth, and with one simple, easy to manufacture tool, almost anyone could take off and start over. It was fun tale of exploration, and the implications that multiple easily accessible earths would have on the original Datum Earth. The worlds that Pratchett and Baxter created opened what seemed like a playground for authors, an infinite amount of worlds for an infinite amount of stories. Yet, I sort of felt like I felt about Eric Flint’s 1632 series, It’s a great place for stories, but attempting to push that story, and those characters beyond the first few novels just felt like a misuse of potential. In The Long Earth, I felt that story was told. Those characters explored in full, and attempting to extrapolate more plot points set up in The Long Earth may ruin the original concept of the novel. Because, a sequel isn’t about further exploration of a writer’s world, but the progression of the story. I would have been down with more books within those worlds, in fact, I think that would be awesome. I think there was ways to explore the occurrences of The Long Earth, without focusing the book on them. Yet, it was called The Long War. The idea of an interdimensional war intrigued me. How would you handle logistics? How exactly do you deal with species with natural abilities to step between worlds when the majority of humanity depended on a device, and suffered physical ailments when stepping. This convinced me. A Long Earth War was a brilliant idea, and one that I would be fascinated to see executed by these two talented writers. Yet, I forgot a lesson I learned long ago when reading SM Stirling’s The Protector’s War, just because the title implies battles, or at least skirmishes of a military nature, it don’t make it true.

In the years since Joshua teamed up with the artificial intelligence Lopsang to explore the long earth, tensions between the Datum Earth United States and its interdimensional colonies have increased. Joshua, now married, has settled into a comfortable life as a mayor of a small colony town. Yet, when the often abused Trolls, sub-human sentients who are natural steppers and spread the history of the long earth through song, begin disappearing, old friends convince Joshua to use his celebrity to take up their cause. Meanwhile, a Chinese expedition travels in a revolutionary airship takes them further into the long earth than even Lopsang achieved. While much of what I loved about The Long Earth exists in The Long War, much of the spit and polish has worn off the fresh premise. I enjoyed The Long War, but at the same time was a bit let down by it. Like The Long Earth, there is a bare bones plot used to justify the themes of exploring cool new worlds. This plot includes some cool things like a look at a Sentient Canine Community, a cool almost Vonnegutesque scene involving a "First Person Singular" like collective and a Datum Earth Protection Force who gets changed by their interactions with the locals and the Trolls during their journey. It all sort of ties together loosely, and gives enough to call this a novel, instead of a collection of brilliant fictional concepts. Barely. I actually don’t mind the loose collection of concepts part. In fact, it was what I loved about The Long Earth. My favorite part of this novel was the Chinese exploration of the deepest earths, yet, that story, sort of fell by the wayside as the "plot" part of the book took over. I found a frustrating lack of any form of war, other than of words and symbolic gestures. The ideas of a Long Earth War where touched on, but this novel was more focused on what could cause a long earth war than on any actual military action. I think part of the problem with this novel was that it was partially written by Terry Pratchett. OK, not that it was written by him, but the people, including myself, came in with certain expectations of levity and lightheartedness that was often missing in this book. There is definitely some Pratchett moments but this series falls more solidly into Baster’s hard science fiction camp. This was a hard one for me. I really liked some aspects, and will definitely pick up the third novel in the series. The ending offered some interesting directions for the series. My major problems was the book tried too hard to be something it wasn’t, a plot driven science fiction novel, when there was nothing wrong with what it actually was, a concept driven novel of exploration.

Michael Fenton Stevens continues on with his narration of this series. I actually think his performance was better than the last novel, and may have kept me more interested in the happenings than the novel actually deserved. I do find it interesting that they cast a British narrator for a novel that is focused more on the issues between Datum America and it‘s colonies, but there is enough international feel where it works. I think he has a tendency to use a very Gary Cooper stereotypical American accent, with a real cowboy swagger. This may have gotten annoying in a more contemporary tale, but there is a real Western feel to the novel, so it works. Where I think he really improved was his female characterizations. I didn’t have as many cringe worthy moments in this audiobook as I did in the first when it came to the female characters. Where Stevens excels is in the more esoteric conceptual moments of the book. He captures an almost poetic rhythm to the discovery of new worlds, pacing these parts of the novel perfectly. All in All it was a fun performance and one that actually enhanced the experience of listening to this novel.





Audiobook Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

12 07 2012

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Read by Michael Fenton-Stevens

Harper Audio

Length: 11 Hrs 30 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: The Long Earth is a wonderful tale of exploration and discovery by two authors that blend their styles so seamlessly that it becomes something unexpected. Some readers, those expecting something decidedly in the styles of the individual authors, or those looking for a concisely plotted tale, may be disappointed, but those going in looking for the exploration of almost infinite  potentialities should have a whole lot of fun.

Grade: A-

I really love books about exploration. I think that, more than any other aspect is what has influenced me as a speculative fiction reader. Exploration and discovery is the root that runs through many of my favorite SFF subgenres. I love portal fantasy, space exploration, post apocalyptic, time displacement, and anything centering on the concepts of the multiverse. I love when an author takes recognizable characters and puts them in whole new situations. Whether its SM Stirling opening untouched America in Conquistador or Gordon R. Dickinson’s metaphysical travels through time in Time Storms, I long to be along for the ride on these thought experiments that are as much a journey through probability as they are through new or altered worlds. This was the mindset I had going into The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I chose this novel not because I am a huge fan of either author but because the concepts of traveling through a multitude of different versions of Earth fascinated me. Yes, I am familiar with the works of both authors. I have read the first Discworld novel, and Good Omens which Pratchett cowrote with Neil Gaiman, and have read a few Stephen Baxter novels including Flood, Time, Moonseed and the Time Odyssey series he cowrote with Arthur C. Clark. Terry Pratchett is known for his comic fantasy, outrageous characters and wry wit. In some ways, Baxter is his stylistic opposite, with slow boil narratives, and a straight forward style of high concept science fiction that takes an idea and pushes it slowly to its extreme. While The Long Earth has stylistic elements of both authors, going in expecting a Terry Pratchett or Stephen Baxter novel would be a mistake. Luckily, I didn’t make this mistake, instead hoping for a novel of discovery that contained a touch of both authors. In the end, I think this is exactly what I got.

Since Step Day, when a scientist posted a design for a device allowing interdimencional travel easy enough for children to make, Joshua Valiente has never felt comfortable unless he was out in The Long Earth, stepping from one alternate America to the next. When hired by a sentient AI named Lobsang to accompany him on a voyage to the furthest ends of The Long Earth, Joshua reluctantly accepts beginning a fascinating journey through the millions of probable earths, experiencing new life, strange alterations and a force that may explain the essence of who Joshua is. Pratchett and Baxter have created a huge world to play in and play they do. The Long Earth is less of a plot based novel, than a look at what infinite alternate Earths these two minds can create. While the journey is the major part of the story, the authors also examine the many political, social and economic issues that the opening of new worlds creates, adding an interesting limitation by not allowing iron to travel between worlds. While stepping through the multiverse is probably the ultimate MacGuffin, it’s one that taps into our innate desire for something new. The world the authors have created often seems too big and you feel that you are only scratching the surface of potentiality, while still going on a very, very long ride. This novel is less about what happens, and more about what can happen, so readers looking for lots of action and plotting may be disappointed. Pratchett and Baxter use the two main characters to filter the experience of these worlds to the individual authors taste. Joshua is a kind of dull, plodding boyscout, who always is prepared and always follows directions, while Lobsang is an over the top combination of shifting perceptions and manipulations whose hidden agenda is always pushing things in new directions frustrating Joshua.  The writing itself is crisp and witty, full of pop culture illusions and high concept exposition elegantly handled. Don‘t expect laugh out loud moments but plenty of clever moments played out for good effect. My only true complaint was that with a world so large, there was no true way to end the tale except for a sudden stop that leaves you reeling a bit.  Yet, The Long Earth is a wonderful tale of exploration and discovery by two authors that blend their styles so seamlessly that it becomes something unexpected. Some readers, those expecting something decidedly in the styles of the individual authors, or those looking for a concisely plotted tale, may be disappointed, but those going in looking for the exploration of almost infinite  potentialities should have a whole lot of fun.

I always question the decision to use a British narrator for an audiobook that takes place mostly in America with the majority of the characters being American, but in this instance it actually works well. I think the reason it works is that much of the exposition and worlds-building takes place through the filter of Lobsang, who in some ways acts as the avatar for Pratchett. Sure, Lobsang isn’t British, but instead a Tibetan reincarnated as an Artificial Intelligence, but his character is so exotic that the tone that narrator Michael Fenton-Stevens uses to portray him is totally fitting. I enjoyed many aspects of Steven’s narration, particularly his use of affectations, like sighs and soft chuckles to capture individual characters. He has an excellent sense of pacing, and gives some of the long flowing segments of Joshua and Lobsang’s journey an almost stream of consciousness feel. His portrayal of some of the women characters was on the rougher side, but I think he knew this and tried his best to understate his female voices. My other small problems were that he seemed to be channeling a stereotypical, Gary Cooperesqe tone for many of his American male characters, and occasionally would slip a bit in his consistent transition between British and American pronunciations. Yet, other than these small quibbles I felt he gave an excellent performance in The Long Earth, and effectively captures the feel the authors were trying to achieve.

Note: A special thanks to Harper Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.