Book Review: The Long Mars, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

cover of The Long MarsThe Long Mars is the third book in the Long Earth series, a series with five planned books (total).  This series has always worked more as a conceptual experiment than as series of novels, and The Long Mars is the most glaring example of this in the series to date.  The concepts remain engaging but the story does not.

In The Long Earth, humans became able to “step” across parallel worlds.  They travelled as individual explorers and as pioneering groups who set up homesteads.  They mined new lands for resources and hid in them for refuge.  The economic, theological, social, and political ramifications of this are explored in The Long War and The Long Mars.

These ramifications are truly fascinating.  Pages and pages are devoted to nothing but descriptions of one world following another as airships step across them.  In The Long Mars, there’s an earth where jellyfish are the dominant life form and another one in which tiny crabs build tiny but elaborate cities in the sand.  There are boring earths consisting of endless fields or grass or algae.  There are worlds that are barren.  The book does a great job of conveying the diversity of the earths, and the combination of wonder and boredom that people experience when the take long journeys across thousands of earths in a year.

The problem with this installment is that, even more than in the past books, the story is too disjointed to make any cohesive or compelling narrative.  I skimmed a lot – and so did the authors, who often start paragraphs with “Four years later…”  The characters are engaging but there’s no time to build a relationship with them because the narrative keeps jumping around.  At this point in the series, they are barely characters at all – they function as plot propellent.  And the idea that living on one of the Long Earths caused the creation of a new human species is far less believable or interesting than the previous books’ depiction of how humans would struggle with this new technology.

The Long Mars isn’t terrible overall.  As a collection of concepts it’s wonderful.  But it was very easy to pick it up and put it down and skim over it.  It’s a great thought experiment but a fractured, disappointing novel.  I’m still looking forward to the next books, though, because I want to see what’s on the next Earth and the next Mars.  The thoughts stay compelling even when the characters and plot don’t.

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Sir Terry Pratchett

tumblr_mzcolqBAfe1qe712jo1_1280Terry Pratchett’s new Discworld book, Raising Steam, has been out in the UK for months.  Finally US readers get a crack at it as it is officially released in the US today.  Run to your bookstore!  Run, I say!

Raising Steam takes place in the fantasy world called Discworld.  This is part of a huge series of more or less stand alone books.  In each book, Pratchett takes a satirical, usually hilarious, look at some element of modern life.  My personal favorite, Maskerade, makes affectionate fun of opera and of the Phantom of the Opera.  The Truth sees Discworld get its very first newspaper.  Guards!  Guards! introduces us to the police force…and so on.  My advice on where to start is to see where your passions lie and follow that trail, although I’ve listed some specific suggestions at the end of this review.

Raising Steam sees the invention of the first locomotive.  Lord Ventari is, of course, anxious that this new invention not destabilize his realm, and he puts Moist Von Lipvig, a reformed con man who has already fixed up the postal service (Going Postal) and the bank (Making Money), in charge of making sure the railway is built, and that the railway is built in such a way as will work to the advantage of Lord Ventari.  Meanwhile, the dwarfs are experiencing civil unrest over the fact that dwarves are leaving the mines for the big city, and working with and even marrying trolls and humans.  Most of the social commentary in the book comes from the sections regarding dwarves.

I loved this book, but its tone is a little different from the earlier Discworld books, including those featuring Moist.  The humor is sharp but less laugh-out-loud in nature.  In fact there are very few sections during which I whooped with laughter, or rushed to quote a passage.  The Discworld books have always had some serious points to make, and my sense with this book and the previous book, Snuff, is that Terry Pratchett has no interest in messing around – if he has a point to make, he’s just gonna come out and make it.

Terry Pratchett has a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s which does not affect his ability to make books although he can’t actually physically write or type (he dictates them).  I haven’t noticed any problems with his more recent books in terms of writing quality.  The only difference I observe is this switch to a more serious, pointed tone – which is saying a lot, since the Discworld books have always been pointed and often quite dark, despite an overall sense that goodness and hope struggle to persist, no matter how mad the world may be.   This sense continues to pervade Raising Steam.  Pratchett’s writing seems more urgent to me in his last couple of books, but that may be less a matter of what’s happening with him and more a matter of what’s happening with me, a devoted reader who hears the clock ticking on a beloved series.

The dwarf plot and the train plot go together in a way that feels less like a natural progression of the story and more like someone trying to figure out how to connect two completely different plots and saying, “Well, we could always do this”.  Toward the end a whole new dwarf thing is introduced, which means we get all our social metaphors packaged together.  I’d sum it up as a message that inclusion and diversity are good things.  This didn’t bother me too much because as messages go I’m quite fond of the messages involved in the dwarf storyline, but it the message was a bit heavy-handed even by Discworld standards.  If you are deeply opposed to things like legalizing gay marriage, or equal opportunities for women, or racial and ethnic diversity, then you won’t like this book although I’d argue that you certainly ought to be reading it.

I don’t recommend Raising Steam as the first Discworld book you should read but I do highly recommend it overall, and if you haven’t read other Discworld books, don’t worry, you’ll catch up just fine.  I loved this book even though I missed the madcap feel of earlier installments.  If you are new to Discworld, here’s some suggestions on where to dive in:

The Color of Magic:  The very first Discworld book!  This one introduces the wizards.

Equal Rites:  Introduces my very favorite characters – the witches.

Guards!  Guards!  Meet the City Watch!

Reaper Man:  Hello, Death.

Going Postal:  Moist von Lipvig is introduced and stamp collecting is born.

My personal favorites:  Maskerade, Lords and Ladies, Carpe Jugulum, Hogsfather.  Of those four, three are about the witches so I guess there’s some bias there.  I did not read the series in order and you don’t have to either.  Just have fun with it!

Book Review: The Long War, By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

cover of The Long War

full cover (front and back)

The Long War is fascinating, but not engrossing.  The premise is an interesting one, but the story is so fragmented and slow-paced that it never seems to go anywhere.  From a cerebral standpoint, the book is a triumph.  From a story-telling standpoint, it tries to do so much that it doesn’t fully succeed with anything.

Here’s the premise of the series, as described in Chapter Three:

The Long Earth: suddenly, on Step Day, twenty-five years before, mankind had found itself with the ability to step sideways, simply to walk into an infinite corridor of planet Earths, one after the next and the next.  No spaceships required: each Earth was just a walk away.  And every Earth was like the original, more or less, save for a striking lack of humanity and all its works.  There was a world for everybody who wanted one, uncounted billions of worlds, if the leading theories were right.

Here are the central conflicts of The Long War:

1.  Trolls, beings who inhabit most of the Earths, are leaving those Earths that are settled by humans.  The trolls are frequently abused by humans and the question of what they are, in terms of their relationship to humanity, is controversial.

2.  Lobsang, an artificial intelligence, is manipulating many people who don’t want to be manipulated.  He has essentially brought Sister Agnes back from the dead so that she will keep him in line with her own strong personality.

3.  Back on Datum Earth, Yellowstone is behaving in a strange and ominous fashion.

4.  While Datum Earth is eager to solidify its control over the Long Earth communities, they are eager for more independence.

That’s a lot of plot for  a 420 page book, and as you can imagine, none of it really solidifies into a detailed story.  I do have a bias against books that jump from plot to plot, but I’m pretty sure even more flexible readers will find it frustrating that each plot line deserves its own book, and all of them get short shrift.  I love it that the authors try to figure out all the implications of stepping, but I think the book would have more emotional impact if it stuck to one or two implications and looked at them in closer detail.

Fans of Terry Pratchett should know that this book doesn’t have the zany quality of the Discworld books.  It does share a certain dry wit and the general worldview is similar.  Terry Pratchett loves protagonists with good common sense, and he has several in The Long War.  Readers should also know that although there are many characters, and most of them are enjoyable to spend time with, this isn’t a character-driven novel.  That’s not a criticism, just a fact.

The most emotionally involving storyline involves the fate of the trolls.  But the message of tolerance and acceptance is undercut by the fact that while many of the characters see the trolls and sentient individuals, the three characters who are most involved in reaching out to the trolls have no problem treating kobolds, who are clearly sentient individuals, with utter contempt.  And they don’t just show contempt for one kobold – they show contempt for the entire species.  I’m puzzled by this discrepancy.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Long War.  I like the idea that the authors take a concept and really examine all the permutations of that concept.  But it wasn’t what I’d call a page-turner.  I cared about the characters, but mostly in a perfunctory way, because there wasn’t time to get to know them.  I never felt invested in what happened.  But I did enjoy watching two brilliant people throw ideas around on the page, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.  So far, counting The Long War, there are two books in the series, and I recommend starting with the first one (The Long Earth).

cover of The Long Earth

The series begins with The Long Earth

Library Quotes from Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s library week here at Geek Girl In Love, and here’s ten quotes about libraries in science fiction and fantasy.  I meant to make this a list of quotes by fictional characters, but the authors had such great things to say in their own voices that I let them have a say, too.

1. “She sounds like someone who spends a lot of time in libraries, which are the best sorts of people.”

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

2. “I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a

Ray Bradbury and cat

Ray Bradbury

six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.”

– Ray Bradbury

3. “Rule number one: Don’t fuck with librarians.”

Neil Gaiman

4. “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.”

book cover

Among Others

Jo Walton, Among Others

5. “I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.”

Patrick Ness

6. “…bookstores, libraries… they’re the closest thing I have to a church.”

Jim C. Hines, Libriomancer

7. “We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of this memory is called the library”

Carl Sagan

8. “Once again I’m banished to the demon section of the card catalog.”

Willow and giles

“If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um… smelly.”

– Willow, Buffy The Vampire Slayer

9. “The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned by no later than the date shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality.”

– Terry Pratchett, Guards, Guards

10.  And the most Badassas of them all:

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner,

Let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him.

Let him be struck with palsy and all his members blasted.

Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy,

Let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink in dissolution.

Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the worm that dieth not.

When at last he goeth to his final punishment,

Let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

Soooo…okay then.  I guess I better go turn in that overdue book that I just found under the couch.  Thanks to Good Reads for the quotes!