The Long Earth (Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter)

The Long Earth is the first in a series of books (three so far!) by renowned British fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, and British science fiction author Stephen Baxter. It is anticipated that there will be five books in the The Long … series.

Author bio stuff: I’ve reviewed one of Terry Pratchett’s books previously. He really is one of my most adored authors, and I cannot help but love the vast majority of the Discworld novels. I was quite surprised to see him venturing into Science Fiction territory, though he’s dabbled in it previously. I have, however, found the last few Discworld to lack the sparkle and magic that I had come to expect. This is almost certainly because “Pratchett was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease called posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) in 2007, a condition where the symptoms root themselves more in the physical rather than cognitive.” (Source) The following quote is from Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s collaborator on Good Omens, one of my beloved books: “Terry still has all of his faculties. He’s fighting Alzheimer’s, but he has a rare kind of Alzheimer’s which means physical objects no longer make sense to him, but he still has memory, and he still has a mind, and he’s still very much the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he couldn’t read the script, so I had to give him his lines. … And it was this very strange, sad, sweet, funny, odd moment, as the two of us sat in the car with Dirk’s lines inspired by a line that one of us had written 26 years earlier. With me saying my line first and then Terry’s line. And then Terry echoing his lines. It was a little moment for me and Terry. I don’t know if we’re acting terribly well, but it’s a moment that made me extra happy.” (Source) Given that, it was quite surprising to me that Pratchett was collaborating on a new series.

Stephen Baxter, Wikipedia page and Amazon page. I will admit to not having heard of Baxter prior to this collaboration. He writes hard science fiction (emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail), and has been quite prolific over the past two decades.

The basis for the story was from an unpublished short story by Pratchett, The High Meggas, details of which can be found in a collection of his short stories, A Blink of the Screen. The Discworld series took off, and the story was never pursued.

The Long Earth is a (potentially infinite) series of parallel worlds similar to Earth that can be reached by almost anyone who has build a “Stepper” device, the plans for which were released anonymously on the internet. It is believed that each of these worlds are present on some probability tree, with the defining changes occurring longer ago as a person travels further from the original Earth (or “datum” Earth). Humans in the form of homo sapiens appear to be unique amongst the Earths, though not the only form of sapient life. The story primarily follows Joshua Valienté, a level-headed young man who is a natural stepper–that is, he can step between worlds without the use of a stepper box. He is co-opted to an exploratory journey by Lonsang, an artificial intelligence who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. (I’m sure that there are references there to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values that I’m missing.) As they explore more than a million parallel Earths they encounter other sapient humanoids (the peaceful “trolls” who carry their history through song, and the violent “elves”), as well as humans who discovered that they were natural steppers prior to “step day”, and an extinct race of dinosaur descendants. There is plenty of political commentary and social and scientific speculation on how humanity would act and develop if freed from the constraints of limited land and resources.

The book is good. Fantastically good. And I’m surprised. As I mentioned in my author bio section, Pratchett is sick, and his writing has been suffering badly as a result of that (in my opinion). But this book is strong! The pacing is good, the story is well-crafted, there are sufficiently many storylines interweaving with each other, and there is a good overall arc to the narrative. I’m sure that a lot of that is due to the strong influence of Stephen Baxter as a coauthor.

I really hope that Terry Pratchett remains healthy enough to finish the series. At the moment it is at three books: The Long Earth, The Long War, The Long Mars. The Long Utopia is scheduled for release mid-2015. The novels have been released on a fairly strict yearly schedule (second week of June each year). With Pratchett’s failing health, I don’t hold out too much hope, sadly.

Of course, the book is available on Amazon: (I read it on Kindle, but Amazon is still refusing Affiliate links to Kindle titles):

Thursday Next 1: The Jane Eyre Affair — Jasper Fforde

Alright, I know, these are out of order. There is a reason, but it’s not actually all that exciting. Now that I know that the readership of this blog is actually not zero, I’m far more wary of the conversational tone that has crept into these posts. Oh, whatever. The 7th Thursday Next novel (in fact, the first book I actually reviewed) was on my Kindle. I had just finished The Magician by Raymond Feist (review to come), which was an absolute tome of a book. Great book (well, there’s a spoiler for the review!) but it was long, so I wanted something familiar. So I re-read The Woman Who Died A Lot, and then wanted some more Fforde-ian hi-jinks, so grabbed First Among Sequels from my Calibre library, as it was the only other Thursday Next book I had in an appropriate eBook format. Unfortunately, the formatting was atrocious, and whoever had constructed the eBook file should be ashamed. So, I sought a better copy, which was promptly provided by someone who doesn’t have a public blog, and hence I cannot link to, and they threw in a few other things for good measure, and that’s an incredibly roundabout way of getting to the fact that I’m now reading through what they delivered, which includes The Jane Eyre Affair. (Note, I own the dead-tree editions of all of these books, I’m just not sure where they’ve got to.)

So, Jasper Fforde is a living British novelist with an interesting background, and you’ve read all of this before. I’ve reviewed three of his other books. He writes intelligent books that mean that you have an internet browser open to look things up. My range of knowledge is pretty eclectic, but getting in-jokes about classical authors is sometimes a bit of a stretch for me.

We meet Thursday Next, an accomplished LiterTech agent as part of SpecOps living and working in London. She is temporarily transferred to a classified division whose only purpose is the apprehension of Archeron Hades, a criminal of supernatural powers. Needless to say, things go terribly wrong. Next is hospitalised and blamed for the fiasco. A woman, in a rainbow-painted sports car, appears in her hospital room and insists that she returns to her birthtown of Swindon, and takes a job there. After doing so, her uncle Mycroft demonstrates a way of jumping in and out of the written page, a technology much sought after for profit and mayhem by the Goliath Corporation. (The hint is in the name, guys!) At this point, I’m wanting to just leave it with: “and hijinks ensue”. However, Next and Hades end up trapped in the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, much to the consternation of the reading public.

There is a great deal more detail to the world than the brief synopsis above indicates. There are ongoing discussions about the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, a topic upon which everyone seems to have an opinion. There is Next’s father, a rogue Chronoguard agent, who is constantly tweaking time to get history back onto the course that it should be on. There are dodos, part of the home-cloning fad of the 70s. It seems familiar, but it’s only an illusion. You’re transported to a world where books are everything, and the written word is the most important thing. (This is not a state of affairs that persists. It is fascinating to watch, over the course of the series, the change in the world that Fforde creates. It is spoiling future plot points, but the idea of people’s investment in time, and the eradication of the Now and how it relates to people’s attention spans, is some of the most biting satire that Fforde creates.)

Oh, and a tip? Read the names out loud. It took me absolutely forever to work out that Thursday’s love from the Crimean war (still going!) named Landen with surname Parke-Laine was a terrible, terrible pun.

A definite recommendation on this book, and the entire series. (Most of which I suspect that I’ll be writing about in the next few weeks.)

Obligatory links. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and so by buying things through my links, I earn a fraction of a fraction of a cent. If you want to buy a bunch of stuff from Amazon, then let me know, and I can set up some Affiliate links :)

You can purchase the novel in many formats from that link, including paperback and Kindle.

Thursday Next 5: First Among Sequels — Jasper Fforde

Arghh, I have updated in ages. So, in the spirit of actually writing something down, and hopefully getting the feel for things, I’m going to dash off a quick (ha!) post today, and try to find some momentum.

I’ve talked about Jasper Fforde previously. He’s an author of alternate history, comic fantasy, surrealist humour fiction, and is incredibly talented. One of my favourite authors.

First Among Sequels was the first of the Thursday Next books that I read. I picked it up from a counter display at the library, liked the cover, and my fate was sealed. It is the fifth book in the series, and did a reasonably good job of introducing the first-time reader to the world in which the story is set. Or world, more accurately. Thursday Next is now middle-aged, happily married, with three children (only two of whom actually exist), and with the disbandment of the SpecOps groups, has taken a job fitting carpets. This is however just a cover for her illicit SpecOps work as a Literary Detective. Which is, in turn, a cover for her work as a Jurisfiction agent–she is one of the very few people who are able to make the jump from our world to Bookworld; the world of the written page. She is tasked with training two recruits–Thursday5, a fictional copy of herself from the 5th Thursday Next book, the Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco (astute readers will at this point pause, and go back and check the “works by the same author page”. Doing so will find a list of six Thursday Next books, with the fifth one crossed out), and Thursday1-4, the Thursday Next from the first four Thursday Next books. Thursday5 is a tie-dyed hemp-wearing yoga-performing pacifist who is utterly failing to perform her duties as a Jurisfiction trainee. Thursday1-4 is a gun-toting violent sex-driven maniac, who cannot take instruction, and feels that she is destined for greater things. The real Thursday Next feels that neither truly represent who she really is.

It is at this point, having not read the first four books, that I did not know that they weren’t the violent sex-driven crime thrillers that First Among Sequels continually made them out to be. It is all tied up neatly by the end of the novel, but it is very meta in the meantime. In fact, one of Fforde’s best characteristics is his ability to twist history, whether real or not, in very subtle ways. I found myself looking up poets and their poetry, the plots of books and the history of authors, to get some of the jokes. They can be quite sly.

The book is good. You should read it.

Can you buy this book?

There is a Kindle version, but Amazon are not letting me link to it. Bizarre. Click the paperback link below, and choose the Kindle version. I still get the fraction of a cent as a referral, I think.

The paperback version:

Thursday Next 7: The Woman Who Died A Lot — Jasper Fforde

There are links to buying this books from Amazon in either Kindle format or paperback format at the bottom of the post.

Thursday Next 7: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

This is my first write-up of a book, so I’m still trying to work out what’s going to work, and what’s not. Try not to judge me too harshly.

Brief author notes: Jasper Fforde is a living British author, quite prolific (twelve full-length novels in as many years, with at least another four in various planning stages), who writes alternate history, comic fantasy, surrealist humour fiction. He is currently working on books in four series: the Thursday Next novels, the Nursery Crime Division novels, the Shades of Grey novels, and the Dragonslayer trilogy. And yes, I’ve read all of them.

As The Woman Who Died A Lot is the seventh in the Thursday Next series, it’s bringing a reasonable amount of previous story along. Thursday Next first appeared in The Eyre Affair (via Amazon) in her mid-30s in the mid-1980s. It is twenty years later, and the superhero Thursday who could jump easily between the real world and the BookWorld (where literature is reality) where she worked for Jurisfiction, the policing agency within fiction, is long-gone. Instead, Thursday, with husband Landen Park-Laine, super-genius teenage daughter Tuesday, and moody, formerly-head-of-the-Chronoguard-but-no-longer-due-to-time-travel-never-having-been-invented son Friday, is recuperating from an debilitating injury outside of Swindon. Through political manuvering, she is made head of the Fatsos All You Can Eat Drinks Not Included Wessex Library Service (I did mention this was surreal, right?), which she is required to juggle the needs of the preservation of the world’s literary history and the desires of the Special Library Service, who wish to perform dawn raids in cases of overdue library books. Swindon is due to be smote by God at the end of the week (he has decided to take a more hands-on role with Earth, to the effect that smitings are now a regular occurence).

Good grief, I’m exhausted just trying to explain the setup. Happily, Fforde does a far better job than I am doing. The book takes place over a week, and is set solely within the real world, rather than the BookWorld. There are heavy lashing of punning, the ridiculous, and some prodding at our society.

…so I took a seat at the counter and ordered a mocha and a marmalade on white from a very intense waitress who had clearly been thoroughly indoctrinated by the hyper-efficient Yo! Toast training.
‘Butter or margarine?’ she demanded.
‘Butter.’
‘Thin or thick cut?’
‘Thick.’
‘Orange or lime?’
‘Orange.’
‘Right,’ she said, and hurried off.

My toast arrived and I took a bite. It was excellent. Perfectly toasted, a hint of al dente about the crust, and a tangy blast of marmalade on an aftertaste of melted butter. It wasn’t difficult to see why toast had become the faddy buzz food of the noughties, with TV chefs falling over themselves to write entire books dripping with pretentious toast recipes – and a legion of critics who claimed that food chains like Yo! Toast were paying their staff too much, and criticised the lack of unsaturated fat and salt on the menu.

No more attempting to tell you what the book is about, more on telling whether I liked it. I did like it. (That didn’t take as long as I expected it to.) Fforde writes well, the imagery is good, the style is inventive, his use of the actual text as the joke (less so in this one than previous books–for example, a long unattributed dialogue which ends with a query from the characters as to which of them is speaking), and he is not afraid to let the characters progress. Subplots from previous books are wrapped up and dispensed with. Change is allowed to occur: characters die, politics within the universe of the novel change, new technologies develop. The writing and the setting are not stale.

Whilst it would be terribly helpful to have read the earlier novels in the series to appreciate some of the more subtle jokes, it’s not mandatory, and just jumping in with the seventh book would do no harm at all.

The obligatory Amazon link: