Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long War – a problem with expectations

Posted: October 15, 2013 in reading
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I just finished reading Terry Prachett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long War, their sequel to The Long Earth. It’s fair to say that, while there’s a lot to enjoy in this book, I wound up as ambivalent about it as I was about its predecessor. This time though I think there was a clearer, more definite problem, and it’s one that interests me as a writer – it’s the problem of expectations.

The Long War is set in the Long Earth, a series of millions of parallel Earths between which people travel. Over a decade has passed since the events of the first book, and humans are settling more and more into the parallel worlds. But there are conflicts brewing, as social and political change disrupt the status quo.

As with The Long Earth, this is well written. It flows easily, the characters are likeable and interesting, and the world that’s being built is fascinating. I had the same problem with the narrative’s ambling nature as I had with the previous book, but that’s a matter of personal taste – I prefer my stories with a bit more focus, a bit more intensity to them.

But this book had a problem its predecessor didn’t, and that’s in the expectations it set. Both the book’s title and its blurb implied a racheting up of the conflicts that were stirring in the previous book. There’s talk of how war is coming, and it’ll be unlike wars that have come before. It got me all ready for an exciting tale of action, in which the military implications of flitting between different worlds would be explored. That sounded exciting.

And that’s not this book. It’s clear from the ending that there’s a reason why Pratchett and Baxter chose the name they did, and that the more low-key resolution is there to make a point. It’s an interesting point. It’s an optimistic one for human nature. It even says something about the nature of the Long Earth. But it wasn’t what I’d been led to expect. There’s wasn’t a big build-up of tension. There wasn’t a feeling that things could go violent at any minute. And there really wasn’t a war. In fact, if not for a single reference near the end, the book’s title would have seemed to be completely cheating.

The thing is, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if it hadn’t set those expectations. I’d have known from the first book what I was getting into. I’d have settled in for more well-written ramblings through a well developed world. But that Wasn’t what I was led to expect, and as I read I found myself increasingly disappointed as that promise wasn’t fulfilled.

The writers on the Writing Excuses podcast often talk about the need to end a story by fulfilling the promises you make at the start, the things you’re implying it will be about. A book’s title and blurb are part of that start, and The Long War didn’t live up to its promises. As a writer, I’ve made a mental note not to make that mistake myself, to consider what my titles are telling the reader.

Have you read The Long War? What did you think? And can you think of other examples where books don’t deliver on their promise, or deliver something completely different, for better or worse?

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