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Leaving a sense of wonder – The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (Doubleday, UK, 2012)
The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (Doubleday, UK, 2012)

Terry Pratchett (Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE) died on 12 March 2015. Last week Thursday. He was only 66 years old, much too young to die, and much too early a death for his fans the world over, who were left gasping for just one more Discworld novel. He had written 40 Discworld novels, the first, The Colour of Magic, published in 1983, and the last, the 40th, Raising Steam, was published in 2013. The 41st, The Shepherd’s Crown, is due to be published posthumously in late 2015, by his daughter, Rhianna. His 2011 Discworld novel, Snuff, was, at the time of its release, the third-fastest-selling hardback adult-audience novel since records began in the UK, selling 55,000 copies in the first three days. Terry Pratchett gave the world the gift of his imagining, Discworld and his many other creations, and he exited this world graciously, trying to the last to do good. More so the pity then, that I did not enjoy his collaboration with Stephen Baxter in The Long Earth half as much as any of his solo novels.

Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s

In December 2007, Pratchett announced that he had been newly diagnosed with a very rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), in which areas at the back of the brain begin to shrink and shrivel. Describing it as an “embuggerance” in a radio interview, from then on Pratchett used his fame to support research into Alzheimer’s and educate people about the disease and about assisted suicide (his expressed preference). This included being the subject of a documentary, the BAFTA-award winning, two-part Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer’s. Part 1 drew a whopping 2.6 million (million!) viewers and a 10.4% audience share, and part 2 drew 1.72 million viewers and a 6.8% audience share. In July 2014 he cancelled his appearance at the biennial International Discworld Convention, saying: “the Embuggerance is finally catching up with me, along with other age-related ailments”. Pratchett died a natural death at his home, according to his publisher. After his death, Rhianna tweeted from her father’s Twitter account:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The End.”

For those who know Discworld, Death, him of the bones and black gown, always speaks in capital letters, and always comes to get – and perhaps comfort with understanding – those who die. (While the Death of Rats – a small skeletal rat – speaks in squeaks.)

Reasons to love Pratchett

For all these reasons, and because I know it’s “vampyres”, not “vampires”; that ants have something to do with how the computer in the basement of the Unseen University works; that Lady Sybil breeds dragons; that Lord Vimes is just a plain policeman, but a very clever one, at heart; that Ankh-Morpork’s river is so filthy it’s solid; that you should never use anything invented by Bloody Stupid Johnson; that Lord Vetinari knows EVERYTHING; and that Susan Sto Helit takes after her grandfather, Death himself, and is a meaner nanny than Mary Poppins – for all these reasons, I have loved Terry Pratchett’ s writings and the worlds he has created for years.

I caught on late – about 8 years ago the delinquent teenage son of an acquaintance lent me his copy. I was wondering why a boy who showed so little academic potential would be wading his way through all the Discworld novels. I found out why. And I realized the kid might not be as green as he was cabbage-looking. As recently as last week I had been rereading my ratty old copy of The Hogfather (1977), drawn at random from the stack in the bookshelf. My favourites are still Carpe Jugulum, 1998 (what’s not love about vampyres trying temperance?), The Wee Free Men, 2003 (lovely, wicked, Scottish-sounding little men) and Going Postal, 2004 (which finally convinced me that I’m not the only one who thinks post offices are odd).

Lord Vetinari, one of the many memorable characters in Discworld.
Lord Vetinari, one of the many memorable characters in Discworld. (Illustration by Paul Kidby)

Reading the Discworld books is like being dunked headlong into a dense and roiling whirlpool of imagery, philosophy and humour. A bit like swimming in Smarties. Yet, there was always a serious undertone – it might be fantasy, but like Star Trek, at the core were philosophical arguments to which Pratchett took a liberal stance.

“Discworld is based on a slew of old myths, which reach their most ‘refined’ form in Hindu mythology, which in turn of course derived from the original Star Trek episode ‘Planet of Wobbly Rocks where the Security Guard Got Shot’” – Terry Pratchett

For instance, The Hogfather – the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas – is actually about people’s need to believe in something fantastical. As Susan Sto Helit explains to the children in her care:

“Wherever people are obtuse and absurd…and wherever they have, even by the most generous standard, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach…and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the realities of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering…yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.’” (p. 41-42)

This sort of nonsense-busting common-sense peppering all the Discworld novels appeals to me enormously, as do the whacky comparisons, which Pratchett strings together like fresh lemons on a skewer.

The Long Earth – An uneasy partnership?

Death in the Discworld by Paul Kidby (Official Ilustrator)
“Death” in the Discworld series, as illustrated by Paul Kidby (Official Ilustrator)

This is why I approached the team effort of Pratchett and Baxter in The Long Earth with trepidation. I have never read Stephen Baxter’s books. I did not particularly enjoy Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens – I thought it was a bit like Douglas Adams’s Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, which I wasn’t crazy about (other than the title). These collaborations seem to me to be a conscious effort to groom a successor for Pratchett.

After Ian Fleming, the original author of the James Bond novels, died in 1964 after twelve novels and two short-story collections, eight other authors wrote authorized Bond novels or novelizations: Kingsley Amis, Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz.

There have been similar attempts to keep popular literary “institutions” alive, for instance Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. The Looking Glass Wars, and its follow-up novel, Seeing Redd (2007), written by Frank Beddor, stand out from the crowd and have been filmed. There have been sequels to Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre sequels, retellings and prequels, notably 1966’s Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Not to mention any variety of retellings of all of Jane Austen’s novels. Another famous fictional world was Dune (the Dune Universe), by Frank Herbert. Herbert wrote a series of five books, and after he died in 1986, his son Brian Herbert and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson published a number of prequel novels, as well as two which complete the original Dune series—Hunters of Dune (2006) and Sandworms of Dune (2007). From 1988 to 1992 Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R., published the surviving drafts of The Lord of The Rings, chronicling and illuminating with commentary the stages of the text’s development, in volumes 6–9 of his History of Middle-earth series.

Name me a famous fictional creation, and a dead author, I can guarantee you someone would have tried to keep the creation alive with more novels. I’ve read many. I’ve cared for few. To match or emulate such distinctive voices as Pratchett, Herbert, or the  Brontës, takes not only intrinsic talent but also an almost chameleon–like ability to segue into the style, mannerisms, and mental quirks of the other author. Writing is simply a direct expression of one’s thoughts. Authors writing in partnership have to be incredibly in sync, mentally, to produce a novel together, of which the parts are not only on par with each author’s best, but the final product is better than the sum of the parts.

A successor in the making

The Mac Nac Feegles in The Wee Free Men (Illustration by Bruna Brito)

Which brings me to The Long Earth. Knowing Pratchett would soon not be writing any more, like Iain Banks, last year, I have tried to wean myself off Discworld. I knew Pratchett’s writing style so well, I knew I would be trying to pick his voice from the narrative. Pratchett is immediately recognizable. His style is typified by his use of footnotes, departures or asides from the narrative with humorous or quirky details and puns, strange invented new idiolects like the language of the golems, the “Wee Free Men” or the “Igors”. (Yeth, Mathter.) His novels are spoofs of major milestones in history, from the invention of money, to the postal system, industrialization and even opera. For instance:

“I must confess the activities of the UK governments for the past couple of years have been watched with frank admiration and amazement by Lord Vetinari. Outright theft as a policy had never occurred to him.” – Terry Pratchett

That being said, how would Stephen Baxter step into these giant shoes, even though The Last Earth is not a Discworld novel? Well, my guess is he did all the “bits inbetween” – the neutral, bulky bits. (I do wonder how much of it is his, and how much is Pratchett’s.) It is OK. Let’s put it that way. The premise is interesting: someone discovers that there is not one Earth, in one galaxy, but countless millions of Earths, a long line of Earths, and, with the aid of a small device (or without), some humans could step from world to world, ending up the same place, or a different place, and a different time. This gives the authors the option of introducing various scenarios – keep the new earth clean, make wars, or not, flee from persecution, or not, live free, or not. It also leaves a lot of room for descriptions of how people settled into new “worlds” at various times in history –walking, wagon trails, by ship, etc. The Tibetan reincarnated as an AI, called “Lobsang”, is a device to introduce many short lectures on geologic periods and systems, history and politics. It gets didactic.

Character development

But ultimately, even the main characters are bored by the endless worlds passing by them. The plot, such as it is, is very plain. The people left behind on the original earth because they cannot step, blow up the town, Madison, Wisconsin, US, in which the original stepper was found, with a nuclear bomb. Sort of cutting your nose to spite your face. There is an aside of an ancient being (“First Person Singular”) killing off creatures on the new Earths because it/she is lonely.

“‘So’, he said, ‘supposing you’re successful , and you get her to stop eating worlds. What then, Lobsang?’ ‘Then, together, we will continue the search for the truth behind the universe.’ ‘That sounds so inhuman,’ said Sally. ‘On the contrary, Sally, it is extremely human.’ (p. 397)

This is an example of how the two writing styles often do not quite hang together – there are too many uses of people’s names in the conversations. In one paragraph, the main protagonist, “Joshua”, was used four times – that is four too many (p. 264, 265). Occasionally, the voice of Pratchett emerges with his love of cultural and literary references, having fun with English, making the tone even more uneven:

“‘You can get some R&R, and I will start work on the Mark Trine, trusting that the shade of Mr. Clemens will forgive me.’ He looked at Joshua’s puzzled expression and relented. ‘In the dialect that gives us “twain”, meaning the number two, “trine” means three.” (p. 214)

“‘She opined, ‘Oh’. This response seemed inadequate in itself. After some consideration, she added, ‘My’. And she concluded, although in the process she was denying a lifelong belief system of agnosticism shading to outright atheism, ‘God.’” (p. 40)

Pratchett’s penchant for names with double meanings come through in the main character, “Joshua Valienté” (valiente in Spanish means brave, valiant); and “Lobsang” (in Tibetan/Sherpa meaning The Kindhearted One or The Disciple.) And of course the stepper itself is a bit of Pratchettism – a time-travelling device powered not by some space age energy source, but by a potato. There is a diagram of it in the front of the book, with the note saying “the publisher accepts no responsibility for the inappropriate use of this diagram or the technology it represents”. Wanna bet whole hordes of people are going to try and build it? But only following the instructions makes it work. And those are missing.

At the end of 424 pages, I was kind of disappointed. I was hoping there was more to it, more of a revelation, a twist in the tale, a surprise. Like “Nucky Thompson” in Boardwalk Empire disappointingly gets done in by the kid he betrayed years ago, the inhabitants of Madison get done in by the kid who got left behind on Datum Earth by his stepping parents. Oh, there is that traditional theme of parricide again.

Is there a deeper meaning?

Perhaps the meaning of The Long Earth lies in this quote, by poet John Keats, on p. 148:

“Then I felt…like stout Cortés when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise – / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

These words are from On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, a sonnet written by the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) in October 1816. It tells of his astonishment while reading the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer as freely translated by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman. The full text is:

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Hernan Cortéz
Hernan Cortés

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

When you read this poem, you realize the authors had extracted the less important part of the poem – there is a direct reference to gazing upon a planet, the way Joshua can. When Keats read this work by Chapman, he felt like a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken (or awareness) – amazement, breathless wonder. The “new planet” was Uranus, discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, the first planet that was unknown to astronomers of Antiquity. It was a new world in the heavens. “Darien”, stared at in silence by Cortez, refers to the Darién province of Panama.  Hernán Cortés was not the first European to see this New World, but Keats had been reading William Robertson’s History of America and refers to Cortés’s first view of the Valley of Mexico.

"The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp.” ~ The Light Fantastic (Photo of Terry Pratchett by Luigi Novi)
“The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp.” ~ The Light Fantastic (Photo of Terry Pratchett by Luigi Novi)

Stepping in an airship, Joshua was looking down at landscapes no one had ever seen before, like Herschel discovering Uranus. Joshua and the other steppers are pioneers, the first people in new worlds, seeing thousands of new Earths, driven by inquisitiveness. The book reads like a road trip – people step, they land somewhere, they observe, settle, or travel on – it is a multi-galactic road novel. The details of the worlds, the varieties of life, the possibilities, are what make the trip, and the reading of it, entertaining.


Pratchett could be trying to tell his readers in this novel: Don’t lose your sense of wonder. See the world like Cortez and Herschel did. And as it turns out, the Joshua’s trip is only the beginning. There are other books in this series, also co-written with Stephen Baxter, The Long War (2013), The Long Mars (2014), The Long Utopia (due July 2015). Indeed, the series has been hailed as ”sense-of-wonder SF at its best.” (Independent on Sunday).

I doubt Pratchett ever lost his sense of wonder. After all, he said: “Imagination, not intelligence, made us human.”

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