At 11:36pm on Monday, September 2 2013, I completed the rough draft of my second full-length novel. It is, preliminarily, 211,722 words and numbers 388 pages on 8.5 by 11 inch pages set to a single-space lining. It’s hard to say exactly what I’m feeling, though relief and satisfaction (joy, maybe?) would be the obvious contenders. There’s so much work ahead but the difficult part, and the most enjoyable for that matter, are behind me. Editing is upon me, and I know I don’t fully comprehend what I’ve accomplished, but I am definitely…pleased.
Prior to reading THE LONG EARTH, I had never read a book written (in part or in whole) by Terry Pratchett. His joint effort with Stephen Baxter, the first novel in a three-part series, proved to be my first exodus with these authors. I’m always entertained by non-natives writing foreign characters and in this case knowing that Pratchett and Baxter are British made me particularly interested to see the results of their labor.
As a novel that blends comedy, pseudo-science, and pioneer adventurism The Long Earth is, perhaps, the strangest book that I’ve read in a long time. It is a mixture of at least four genres that produces, maybe not too surprisingly, an equally strange novel. Almost two weeks after I finished The Long Earth I’m still grappling with my final impression of the book but, before we get to that, I want to outline the novel itself.
In the very near future, the instructions for a device called a stepper are uploaded to the internet. It is easy to assemble and the lone button on a stepper can be switched to east, off, or west. As thousands of children discover on what is later named Step Day, switching the button east or west moves you one parallel world in that direction.
Overnight, a new era of exploration is born. Only certain people and certain objects can step and what follows Step Day is a second age of pioneering. Thirteen years later, a man called Joshua is asked by a soda machine to go exploring these alternate Earths in search of answers.
And that all happens within the first fifty pages. Going back to my impressions, I’m pretty sure I liked the book. It’s fun and humorous at times, and Joshua Valiente is an extremely well-developed protagonist that I mostly approve of. The book’s breakout character, of course, is Lobsang the AI who moves from machine to machine as needed. He’s clever and witty and the inclusion of a non-human character allows the novel to inquire on the human condition but it never quite escapes the gimmicky feeling that stitches the book together.
Boy, does it wander. Not that wandering is a bad thing since this is, at its heart, a novel about a journey with no destination. Books, however, have an end and so when The Long Earth begins the rushed approach to its own ending the experience is rushed and disconnected; surreal but relevant in a strange way. The Long Earth owns a cool premise that it loses sight of on its way to the next sequel. Not quite a disappointment, but not quite spectacular either.
The best way I can phrase it is that I’m glad I picked up the book and I did enjoy it, but not enough to run out and buy book two. Baxter, who I’m led to believe did a majority of the writing, did it well, though British mannerism and expressions sneak into the dialogue and most of the police jargon is lifted from an episode of Law & Order. Ultimately, what concerns me about The Long Earth is a theme it revisits numerous times: emptiness.
The Long Earth, the expression for the infinite number of parallel Earths that are “east” and “west” of our own, is vast but empty. Unfortunately, so is THE LONG EARTH itself.
The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann, was another one in the pile of books that I purchased as a birthday gift to myself. I know they say to never judge a book by it’s cover, but Mann’s cover certainly didn’t dissuade me from purchasing his novel. I am a fan of anything that flies in literature—private planes, jumbo jets, airships—for the practical utility they offer. So fast! So convenient! Mann’s cover then, an enormous airship above Victorian-Era London, sang to me in several ways.
Newbury and Hobbes, the novel’s protagonists, are academics; researchers employed by the British Museum as a cover for their other job as Crown investigators for Queen Victoria. In this fictional steampunk England, Sir Maurice Newbury (think Holmes!) and his assistant Veronica Hobbes (elementary, dear Watson!) are attempting to solve the riddle of a string of murders when an airship crash in London diverts their attention elsewhere. What follows is a brisk story of industrial intrigue, precision investigations, and appropriately romping action.
One of my more marked appreciations for this novel is perhaps the one that is most forward-thinking: Mann spins the trope of the helpless, witless assistant on its head. When it comes to endangered protagonists, I would argue that Hobbes does more of the saving than being saved; and true, Hobbes bumps into sexism on occasion, but Newbury insists on treating her as a fully capable equal. And, repeatedly, he is proven right when Hobbes is daringly more functional than he on occasion!
Beyond that, the plot isn’t terribly thick. Queen Victoria is strangely interested in a civilian airship crash; paupers are being murdered by a “glowing policeman” and the two main characters have private matters to contend with along the way but Mann’s triumph here is the creation of a gripping alternate 1901 London. A London where technological revolution has placed clockwork men on the streets and airships high above. In a very noticeable way London 1901 is the third protagonist of this novel and any reader who appreciates a good detective story and Victorian-London to boot are certain to enjoy themselves.
The novel’s cover declares itself to be “A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation” which, if intuition serves, would indicate that there are more on the way. And, if that isn’t enough, Mann sets the stage for future work with a phenomenal epilogue! Here’s to more “investigations!”
UPDATE: A quick jaunt around George Mann’s blog reveals that, in fact, there are multiple sequels to THE AFFINITY BRIDGE (which was published in 2009—where have I been?!) which I must now, delightedly, purchase!