Books wot I red: The Long Earth, K-PAX III & The Machine Stops

It has been just over six months since my last books post. So no, not even a pandemic forcing me to stay at home has really increased my capacity to sit down and read a book. I’m at about a book every two months during lockdown.

I had high hopes for the first two books. But only a short story, of the three, stood up to the test. That said, I now have two almost guaranteed winners lined up. So see you for the next post in a few months (yeah, right…).

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

I’d heard good things about this. So when I saw it in a Waterstones 2-for-1 offer I picked it up. I very much enjoyed reading Discworld books when I was younger. And had heard Baxter was one of the best in his field (but I’m not really into sci-fi books). I was intrigued to see what this partnership could produce. But even several weeks after completing reading the first instalment, I can’t make my mind up about it.

The premise is fascinating. Thousands of parallel Earths, all of which most people are able to ‘step’ between. But (seemingly) only our Earth has evolved human life. The discovery of which (in roughly the present day) leads to a second land grab and partial desertion of our earth. Many of those who can’t step are understandable aggrieved about it. While issues of ownership, nationhood etc of these new earths is clearly problematic. As is crime. Being able to step into almost anywhere has its advantages for those up to no good…

Much of The Long Earth centres around three main characters: two 20-somethings (one male, one female) and a hugely intelligent computer/being in a robot body. And its here I start to lose faith. I usually fall straight into step with Pratchett characters. But with the exception of male protagonist Joshua I didn’t here. The others felt cliched, rushed and generally weak. And the book was very oddly paced.

The rambling sections exploring the concepts/problems of ‘the long earth’ were fascinating. While the main story was pretty compelling. But they really didn’t mesh together well for me at all. And worse, this is book one of five. And it was clearly planned as such, as this one ends (spoiler alert) in a wholly unsatisfying ‘end of episode’ whimper. Book two is on my shelf. But do I want to read four more to get to a conclusion? Doubtful. I expect my time on the long earth is at an end.

K-PAX III: The Worlds of prot by Gene Brewer

To cleanse the pallet, I returned to the last in a series I’d thoroughly enjoyed to date: K-PAX. Another present day sci-fi idea. But one I knew the author had absolutely nailed in the first two volumes. Essentially, a guy arrives in a psychiatric institution claiming he comes from another planet. Is he mad? Or is he actually from another planet?

It will surprise no one to hear that Robert/prot (the patient/alien?) returns in the third book. But from the outset it’s clear this will be his last visit – and that we’ll finally find out the truth. No matter how the book was to read, I was going to read it to find out.

Unfortunately, the only good thing to say about K-PAX III (beyond the big reveal) was that it was short. It read like a cash-in – a lazy rehash of previous plot lines. But there were no arcs, no interesting new cases, no moving along of old plot lines. If the first book had read like this, I would’ve given up after a few chapters. so, to conclude, I’d still thoroughly recommend the original book – it’s one of the best things I’ve read. And K-PAX II is a pretty solid follow up. But if you do get that far, don’t get too excited about the final instalment.

The Machine Stops & The Celestial Omnibus by EM Forster

Sarah had just read this, and thought I’d like it. And as it was just two short stories, who was I to argue? I’m not big on the classics, and hadn’t read any of his novels. But I was aware of his reputation as being a master of writing about human interaction. And of not shying away from difficult or controversial topics. Both stories were written in the first quarter of the 20th Century.

The Machine Stops is an incredible short story, when you consider it was first published (in book form) in 1928. It portrays a dystopian future where man has been forced underground after spoiling the earth’s natural resources. And where we have since become overly reliant on an all-powerful machine; to the point where it is worshiped as a god. But it seems, unbeknownst to most underground, some exiles (thought dead) have begun to live on the surface again. Could it be these people who restore humanity to something like its former self? This fear of the over reliance of people on technology, and how it makes them become insular, makes for a fascinating read.

This edition also includes even shorter story, The Celestial Omnibus (from 1911). It was an OK read, but is a far more obvious comment on how literature shouldn’t be taken for granted as something that should simply be enjoyed, rather than just intellectualised. But it reinforces the theme of The Machine Stops – that what makes life so special is human connection, often through the simplest of things. Something many of us have been starkly reminded of as we’ve been stuck in isolation through the COVID-19 lockdowns.

What’s next on the list?

The two new entries from last time ended up being the next two books I read, so didn’t hang around long. I picked up a lovely HG Wells hardback in a charity shop, so wanted to add that to the list. While picking up Bryant & May novels (when I remember) has become par for the course. so, along with a non-fiction and a couple of fantasy-ish novels, I think the list has a nice balance to it at the moment.

  1. Book of Dust #1 by Philip Pullman. Fourth time on the list. Picked this up because the first three books in the universe were brilliant – and the new (actually rather excellent) TV series reignited my interest in this world.
  2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Third time on the list. I heard loads of good things about this, and found it in a charity shop cheap as chips, so finger’s crossed it will live up to the hype.
  3. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Second time on the list. Having removed a Knizia game theory/history book from this list, it’s time to add another to the list. This time from game design’s other biggest legend (in my mind) – Sid Sackson.
  4. Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The next Bryant & May novel in the series for me. Nuff said.
  5. The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. New entry! What did one of the true masters of sci-fi predict for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929?

7 thoughts on “Books wot I red: The Long Earth, K-PAX III & The Machine Stops

  1. My wife and I both rate the Booksof Dust as even better than the first arc. Less epic in scope maybe, but wonderfully well told stories.

    And it’s been many years since I’ve read the collection of E.M Forster shorts that we have, so I’ve no idea if it contains the two you read, but I think t;s inspired me to go back to them!

    • Wouldn’t say it was a positive review. But I hope you get more out of it than I did – it’s certainly worth giving a look 🙂

      • It must be because the world building sounds like it really works and I love the concept. Even with the unsatisfying ending of book do you think you’d still recommend it as a standalone read?

        • Yeah, I think so – if you’re going in thinking it’s your kind of thing. It does grapple with some really interesting ideas, which is what kept me going despite the fact the characters didn’t really come to life for me.

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