Pratchett, Baxter, Mieville and King

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First of all Happy New Year everyone. I will start off this year with a post about some books I have read recently. There’s three to talk about, two of which at first sight seem to be based around a similar premise so I will deal with them first.

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter – The Long Earth

These two acclaimed writers join forces for a science fiction tale based around the idea of parallel worlds, Earths to be exact which can be ‘stepped’ to using a simple switching device based around a potato. People can use these devices or discover they have an innate ability to step ‘East’ or ‘West’ repeatedly through these parallel worlds that can be compared to a seemingly infinite run of Earths arranged like a pack of cards. Each Earth differs slightly from the last and some are inhabited by singing trolls with a shared memory based on their complex songs.

The main characters are a natural stepper called Joshua who lives in an orphanage run by nuns who is approached by an AI called Lobsang the reincarnation of a Buddhist motorcycle repairman, to help him explore the far off versions of Earth that no-one has been to (the High Meggas). They travel in an airship and eventually meet another natural stepper in the High Meggas called Sally discovering a threat to the multiple Earths as the story rolls on.

My biggest gripe about this book is with its structure. The reader is presented with disjointed chapters dealing with one minor character after another who then appear briefly in Joshua’s journey and it is only towards the end of the book with the reappearance of Sally that the story really takes on any momentum.

A lot of the characters are typical Pratchett fare like the Harley riding nun, Private Percy in the trenches of WWI and the singing trolls and seem somewhat out-of-place amongst the ‘proper’ sci-fi which I attribute to Baxter, and the book does sometimes feel like an admixture of styles and ideas. The ideas are interesting, but the story never seems to really get off the ground and there seems to be too much opinion regarding humankind’s corruption of the planet. There is some suggestion that this is the first book of a series, so hopefully the next one be a little more joined up and less preachy.

China Mieville – The City & The City

The parallel world idea here is instead a cross-hatching of one city upon another. Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the same time and space and the inhabitants follow an ingrained protocol to avoid bumping into or looking at the inhabitants of the other city for fear of being dealt with for their indiscretion by a mystical organisation called Breach.

The overall theme has been compared in turns as Kafka-esque or comparable to my old fave Philip K Dick, and I suppose these comparisons for once are acceptable if you ponder enough on the metaphors in his metaphysics. When I read a book I want a good story first and I can take or leave the symbolism and theme.

The story follows Inspector Tyador Borlu of the extreme crime squad in his investigation into the murder of a woman found on wasteland in Beszel. His investigations lead him to explore the secret organisations existent in both cities and as you would expect an ultimate showdown of sorts with Breach. There is a huge question mark over whether the dead woman had uncovered the existence of a third city called Orciny and been killed because of her discovery.

This is a good story reminiscent of a hard-boiled detective yarn and in a similar vein to Mieville’s Kraken. In comparison to The Long Earth it is a lot more coherent, but on the flip side is harder to read – the dialogue is not run of the mill and Mieville’s grammar and use of invented words sometimes left me having to re-read sentences to make sense of them.

Also I found the actual reality of Borlu’s case once it was solved to be less interesting than the trail of red herrings he had laid out and requiring a little too much exposition from the author. Mieville frustrates me at times as I still regard his Perdido Street Station to be one of the best books I have ever read.

Stephen King – On Writing

When I saw this book on Amazon it seemed like a complete no-brainer that I should read it immediately, being a hobbyist author and being a big fan of his (not in a Misery style tie-him-to-a-bed-and-cut-off-his-feet way, honest).

This book is half autobiography and half a book of advice on how to write. However King is quite clear that it is only biographical as it applies to his development as a writer and only about how he writes. His method or tool box as he puts it might not suit everyone wanting to write stories or novels.

He makes some good recommendations for further reading and is wonderfully entertaining and honest as he divulges his thoughts on the process. The main revelation for me was that he does not plan out his plots before he writes – he starts with some characters and an initial ‘what if’ idea and lets the story develop organically of its own accord depending on how his characters would react to happenings and each other as things progress.

This seems a lot more experimental and jazzy than I would expect from an author who has been accused at times of cranking his books out like a machine bent on the destruction of all tree-life as we know it, and may explain why I find some of his endings a little lacklustre at times. As he is a recovered alcoholic and drug user, his views on the requirement to get stoned or drunk before writing are obviously interesting as is the recounting of when he got hit by a truck and almost died.

Honest, witty, opinionated, humorous and useful, this is a good read for anyone interested in writing or the man himself.

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