There and back again

Jun 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Long EarthThe Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Pub Doubleday ISBN 9780857520098
Hardback £11.39 ($15.41)
Kindle £7.64 ($12.99)

Synopsis: Our hero embarks on an epic journey through an infinite chain of alternate earths, accompanied by an annoying computer. Then he comes back.

That’s it. There’s no story to speak of. Plenty of incident, but this is a Gulliver’s Travels voyage of wonder rather than a closely-plotted adventure. There are long static passages in which one of the characters (usually the computer) explains to the others what is going on. Fortunately for the authors nobody in the book ever figures out how the alternate earths work, so there is plenty of scope for marvels. Think Discworld magic with extra quantum.

More Pratchett than Baxter, full of the dry absurdities one looks forward to – the machine that allows nearly everyone to travel between worlds is powered by a potato; the computer is the reincarnation of a Tibetan car mechanic named Lobsang. Characters combine eccentricity and common sense in about the same proportion as the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – Sister Agnes is a nun who rides a Harley and has a poster of Meat Loaf on her wall next to the Sacred Heart. Hermione Dawes is the British Prime Minister’s secretary. She also owns every single track ever cut by Bob Dylan.

Some of the ideas are a little derivative. The AI, which controls everything down to the drinks machine, is a touch Ian M Banks. The alternate earth theme has a respectable history, although Pratchett and Baxter give it a new twist. The steam-punk airship in which the adventurers travel could have come from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

There are elves and trolls, of a sort, but the book has more in common with the Johnny Maxwell trilogy than the Discworld. This is not simply because most of the characters are contemporary and human. As occasionally happens in Pratchettt’s books, he seems uncertain about the age group he is pitching to. Characters first encountered aged 10 never quite grow up even though some of them grow older.

Pratchett and Baxter fans will enjoy this, though perhaps not to the extent of shelling out for the hardback. The authors clearly had a great time, so that’s all right.

The Long Earth Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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The strangeness of libraries

Jul 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The CornerstoneThe Cornerstone – Nick Spalding
Pub. Racket Publishing
Paperback £10.13 ($13.99) ISBN 9781461198215
Kindle £0.49 ($2.99)

Books are weird, have you noticed? That’s what makes booksellers a bit odd.

Fortunately Max has only read three in his entire life, not counting the Haynes Austin Montego Workshop Manual. Then the bored teenage hero of Nick Spalding’s engaging fantasy takes shelter from the rain in his local library, where he discovers that some books are doorways into other worlds. No, this is not a metaphor.

I would put money on Spalding being a Terry Pratchett fan. He scoops up several key ideas from Discworld metaphysics – the multiverse, the trouser legs of time, the essential strangeness of libraries – and puts them to good use. But he successfully avoids any suggestion that he is copying the Master. Spalding’s Chapter Lands are a long way from Ankh-Morpork. There are no dwarves or trolls, and while there is a slight air of mediaevalism about them, the furniture comes from Ikea.

The Cornerstone has more in common with Pratchett’s series for younger readers (Johnny and the Bomb, Johnny and the Dead, Only You can Save the World). Spalding is interested in the same surreal collision of fantasy with the down-to-earth demands of life in a modern provincial town. What is likely to happen when the showdown between the leather-clad, demon-possessed warrior and the librarian-guardian of Earth takes place in your mum’s back garden? The answer involves rotary clothes lines.

A thoroughly enjoyable book. Not long – I read it at a sitting, but that speaks for itself.

Quibbles? Very few, and all trivial.

I did think that the age given for Max (17) was about three years too old, both for the character and for the readers who are likely to enjoy this book most. Do 17-year-olds blush when they kiss the damsel in distress? Not any more, I suspect. As far as I remember, Pratchett wisely avoids mentioning exactly how old Johnny is – along with Max he occupies a no-man’s-land: old enough for insight, young enough to be bossed around.

If Spalding writes a sequel – as I hope he will – he might be a little more severe in cutting the colloquialism of the narrative style. The opening sentence is a good example:

It was, for all intents and purposes, the perfect day to visit the library.

You can see the tone he is aiming at, but for all intents and purposes is a bit of flannel which adds nothing. This sort of thing can easily become an irritating habit.

And please, please do something about the greengrocer’s apostrophe’s.

The Cornerstone Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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