Monday, June 30, 2014

The Long -- Boring -- Earth

Authors strive for that signature style: That voice that helps them stand out from the crowd and that screams out “THIS IS ME” to their readers.

So should it concern me that I got to page 128 of “The Long Earth” by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett before I encountered the first real thing I thought was Terry Pratchettesque?

Maybe not concern me. But it should concern Terry Pratchett.

Now, I don’t know how involved Baxter and Pratchett were in their collaboration on this book (part of a series, I understand). Maybe Pratchett was more of a consultant? That’s certainly what it feels like, because there’s little of the Pratchett wit or style in this rather dull tome. Round about page 128, we run into an old war veteran who wounds vaguely like Sergeant Jackrum from Pratchett’s “Monstrous Regiment,” and there for a moment I had hope about this novel. But I’ve read on and the hope has faded quite a bit.

Again, I don’t know how this collaboration worked. But given that Pratchett has top billing on the book’s cover, I was hopeful. Maybe my warning should have been that the book came from the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. The only more telling spot this book could have come from would have been Dollar Tree (though to be fair I have found some well-written books there, so location isn’t everything).

But here’s a more important question: Is an author with a voice as unique as Pratchett’s doomed to having to inject that voice into everything he writes? Perhaps it’s too much for a fanboy like me to ask that everything with the Pratchett name have that same Pratchett signature. Maybe Sir Terry decided he wanted to take his writing down a different road – The Long Earth is science fiction, not fantasy, after all. Perhaps he decided the genre and the idea contained in sci-fi called for a different writing style?

Yet I wonder.

John Steinbeck, another favorite author, kept his voice consistent throughout his major works. Even in my least-favorite Steinbeck book – Travels with Charly – it’s clear as you read that the book, a travelogue, is written by Steinbeck. Anyone familiar with Steinbeck’s style could pick up a copy of Travels, read it, and without glancing at the cover, know it was Steinbeck. The same can be said for the likes of Hemingway.

So it’s a bit of a letdown, even allowing for a writer’s freedom, that The Long Earth feels so unpratchettesque. And that’s a problem. Many people picking up this book with Pratchett’s name displayed on the cover so prominently are bound to be disappointed – particularly as, contrary to what the SFReader reviewer says – the story is particularly dull and far, far away from the vividness of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to which the reviewer compares this novel.

I think where the greatest disappointment lies is in the characters themselves. They’re dull, interchangeable, and rather forgettable. There is ample room to make the main characters – the artificial intelligence Lobsang – a reincarnation of a Tibetian motorcycle mechanic; and Joshua, a natural “Stepper” able to visit the parallel earths without aid of technology, potato-powered or not – far more interesting than they are. As it is, they’re set aside and left rather one-dimensional in favor of the idea of having unlimited Earths to explore. Even the magnificent airship Lobsang creates to accomplish the journey is dull where in Pratchett’s hands alone it would have been more magnificent. And we’d have a memorable explanation as to why the ship is called The Mark Twain.

Pratchett’s strength as an author is what he shares with Charles Dickens: An inexhaustible capacity for creating characters that compel the story. There is a reason, for example, that every Watch novel in Pratchett’s Discworld series becomes a Sam Vimes novel – because it’s the character of Sir Samuel that makes up the Watch and everything about the watch, with lots of interesting characters along for the ride. Each subplot of a Watch novel is character-driven, but driven in a way that keeps the overall story going.

There is no such thing in The Long Earth. And it’s clear I’m not the only one bothered by that.

So this is a good cautionary tale for me as a writer – again, clear evidence why writers who want to be good ought to be voracious and observant readers, ready to deconstruct what they like and don’t like about what they read. As I re-read my own work, I have to take into consideration: Where am I failing my own potential audience? And where am I failing myself as a writer as I analyze the writing of others?

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