Stephen Baxter is one of my favorite authors. He does a wonderful job dreaming up new technologies and stories to go with them. While his latest novel doesn't necessarily disappoint, I don't think I'd call it is finest work. In the past, Baxter has teamed up with science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke to produce several excellent titles. But in the case of The Long Earth, Baxter's hard sci-fi background seems to clash jarringly with Pratchett's propensity for fantasy. The result is a book that struggles with its credulity.
The book is set in a world where an enigmatic (and disappointingly absent) college professor invents a device that allows nearly anyone to "step" between adjacent versions of Earth (think "Sliders" -- the TV series). Unlike with Sliders, the parallel Earths are not inhabited by humans, leaving them open for colonization. The only catch is that iron cannot be moved between worlds, and everything else must be "carried" by a sentient being.
As I read through the book, I felt much like I did when watching Ridley Scott's recent not-an-Alien-prequel, Prometheus. There's even an AI that provides us with one of the most compelling and "human" performances. And in the tradition of Prometheus reviews, let me share some of the frustrating plot holes from The Long Earth.
WARNING: The following contains things that might be considered spoilers (not that there's much to spoil). Skip to "END SPOILERS" if you want to avoid them.
- Even though humans have obviously developed iron-free computers and electronics, few of these devices seem to be carried between worlds. Many people even complain about the "unavailability" of technology.
- Speaking of lack of technology, one major aspect glossed over in the novel is communication between worlds. On the one hand, no one tries to build inter-world communications systems (which would be enormously useful), but on the other hand, communication between worlds seems to be well within the realm of possibility. At the end of the novel, a Geiger counter in one world appears to register a nuclear reaction in an adjacent world. Also, the AI appears to be able to "detect" incoming creatures from "nearby" worlds. Both of these appear to be methods for establishing at least rudimentary communications, something that would have solved about half the problems the book's characters face. Heck, even hiring some kids to walk back and forth between worlds with portable electronic storage devices would allow for a sneaker-net-style link which could be used to provide a high-latency internet link.
- Even though complex life develops on nearly every iteration of Earth, humans only develop in one. This is a stretch because other creatures that co-evolved with Humans seem to show up readily.
- Speaking of evolution, the book takes a very ignorant approach to the whole subject. Many times it's implied (even by apparently super-intelligent folks) that evolution is some sort of progression that begins with "simple" things and ends with intelligent humans or Trolls or Elves. This is actually a pretty creationist view of evolution ("those 'Darwinists' think we evolved from monkeys!", and one that left me often frustrated.
- At one point, our protagonists find themselves on an Earth that lacks a moon. This could have been on of the most fascinating parts of the book, but turned out to be one of the most irritating parts. At this point, the authors explore in-depth a couple interesting bits of fallout from the lack of a moon, but skip over those that would throw a huge wrench in the story. For instance, they discuss how gravity is higher because the Earth is more massive, but fail to note the diameter of the Earth would be significantly greater, requiring them to ascend to very high altitudes before stepping into that version of Earth to avoid stepping in a few hundred miles beneath the surface (which they don't).
- Also (in a very Prometheus-like moment) our protagonists march right out onto the moon-less Earth without regard for the breath-ability of the atmosphere. Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere is the result of biological events occurring approximately 2.4 billion years ago -- long after the formation of the moon. What's to say there's any free oxygen at all in a moonless world?
- Finally, in a very frustrating moment towards the end of the book, two of our protagonists discover that they can game the "everything must be carried between worlds" system by holding a tether attached to a floating dirigible. This trick could easily be used to solve about 80% of the "problems" faced by the world:
-- Trade is uneconomical because "everything must be carried"
-- A portion of the population can't step without being indignantly "carried" (no one feels indignant being "carried" by a blimp, do they?)
-- Technology must be re-built from scratch because things like forges must be recreated from scratch on each world. One can only assume this is because a concrete and titanium forge would be "too heavy to carry"
-- Long trips across many worlds are arduous because all supplies must be carried (I assume they'd be more pleasant in a climate-controlled airship).
-- Long trips WITHIN remote worlds are arduous because there is no air travel (I really can't figure out why no one bothers to bring a blimp with aluminum or titanium infrastructure).
Note: Titanium seems like a pretty obvious alternative to iron-based stuff. You'd think it wouldn't be practical because it's so rare and expensive. But in the infinity of similar Earths in the Long Earth, you only need to find one deposit. Then just "find" it again in the next world over. This is discussed at length in the book, but only as it applies to gold.
Now that I'm done ripping hole after hole in the plot, I'd like to express one final gripe: The story just gets started as it ends. Nothing is actually resolved in this book. I understand that it's the first in a series, but all it does is open a bunch of doors and close none of them.
The last 30 minutes of the audio book start to ramp up the excitement, but then the book just ends. Abruptly. With no real conclusion, climax, or denouement. Nothing feels resolved. Even the narrator (who, I should say does a fine job) seems surprised at the abrupt ending. The inflection of his voice for the final sentence implies there's more. But there's not. It's over. If the Audible folks hadn't jumped in to thank me for listening, I would have sworn the file was incomplete.
This book is less of a complete novel then the first part of a larger story. There's a lot of hope for it yet. But it just doesn't stand well on its own. I would have hoped for more from two such prolific authors working together on such a novel and fascinating concept as travel to parallel Earths. There's a lot of promise in this series, but the first part doesn't really deliver.
If you are a fan of Isaac Asimov's deep thinking, or Larry Niven and his habit of making the reader do math, then this book is a welcome mental relief. Another reviewer referred to it as "sci-fi easy listening" and I think he hit the nail right on the head. Much like a Michael Bay film, if you start thinking too hard, you just ruin it for yourself. But that's not to say it can't be entertaining. To understand what I mean, simply read the following (spoiler free) synopsis:
Computer Science professor Kyle Riggs is abducted by an artificially intelligent alien spacecraft. With occasional interjections from his stunningly beautiful consensually captive co-ed companion he must make clever use of programming, hacking, strategy, logic, and knowledge of powers of two to save Earth from merciless robotic aliens.
At several points throughout the novel I considered how it might have made a good story line for a real-time strategy computer game (a la Starcraft). I must say, the book is massively entertaining. Listening to it is akin to having testosterone injected through your ears. Mark Boyett captures the different characters exactly as you would expect with all the seriousness that is required. The book skates a fine line between easy to take in and outright melodrama. It does a pretty good job at staying this side of melodrama (most of the time).
I feel I must give a disclaimer that, as a computer science graduate myself, I think there is a certain draw to a book featuring a computer science professor as a protagonist. Especially one that gets the girl and saves the world. It's not really the kind of thing one would expect out of someone in my field.
To sum things up: The characters aren't deep and neither is the plot, the action is enjoyable and constant, the hacking is surprisingly realistic (5 points for executing a privilege escalation exploit on an alien ship), and I think I'm going to pick up the next one.
Evan Currie represents a growing new species of author, one who transitions into a "traditional" publishing model after self-publishing several titles in eBook format. "Into The Black" is Currie's first novel to be recorded as an audio book and it leaves me itching for more.
Currie presents two "alien" races, one that is reminiscent of the bugs found in novels such as Starship Troopers and Ender's Game (though, as one of Currie's characters humorously points out in the book: all exo-armor ultimately comes across as bug-like because, "God just got it right with those guys"), and another that appears to be human. This gives the reader no room to wonder who the "good guys" are and who the "bad guys" are and comes across as just shy of contrived. However, the characters acknowledge this stretch of believability, at one point even joking about how much their situation compares to stereotypical science fiction plots.
The two major Earth-human advancements presented to the user are "CM" technology, allowing for the manipulation of apparent mass or inertia of objects big and small, and a faster than light drive called a "Transition Drive," a form of intersteller quasi-teleportation achieved by temporarily converting matter to super-luminous Tachyons. The Odyssey is Earth's first faster-than-light starship, while CM technology has been in use for some time. This is pretty obvious even without being told. The characters are distrustful and even disturbed by the effects of the Transition Drive, but demonstrate many ingenious uses for the CM technology that would be expected from decades of military use.
However, one thing that bothered me while reading this novel is that most characters display only token cultural resistance to each other before falling right into place as allies. Having just finished Stephen King's "11-22-63," which displays the vast cultural distance between 21st century New England and the 1950's American deep south, I found myself struggling to accept that two groups of humans separated by thousands of years of cultural divergence and a computer-translated language barrier would find each other's subtle jokes to be funny. But if Star Trek's William T. Kirk's good looks and charm transcend the lightyears, I think we can give Currie similar artistic license.
Currie is obviously a developing author, and with widespread availability of his works and the associated feedback, I have no doubt he will develop quickly. He does many things right. The technology he presents the reader with is believable and intriguing. There is room for improvement when it comes to character conflict, but Currie seems to acknowledge this fact, especially towards the end of the book. Here's to hoping the next book provides us with a bit more internal conflict among allies.
This book is available in many formats at a reasonable price and is a very quick read. I finished it in a single weekend without difficulty. Overall, despite it's few shortcomings, I found the book to be very intriguing and hard to put down. It's crammed with exciting space and futuristic ground battles and a few interesting characters. Like the first couple seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's obvious the characters need to grow into their own a bit. But the book is far from a waste of time. It plants the seeds for a long and exciting series and I'm certainly looking forward to the next book in the series ("Hear of Matter"), due out in late 2012.
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