Being unplugged for part of the summer has given me some chances to catch up with my reading, in particular two of the latest paperbacks from a couple of my favourite authors*
The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross
This is the latest book in the Laundry Files, which follow the adventures of Bob Howard, a once-lowly civil servant in a secret British organisation which protects the world (but particularly the British parts of it) against the incursions of monsters from beyond our dimension. The modern Mythos setting would appeal to me anyway, but Stross’s background in technology and the way that feeds into the structure of the stories makes the whole thing irresistible.
This story sees Howard being granted – or rather having foisted upon him – some management responsibility. He is a reluctant but loyal manager, and the interaction between him and those he is responsible for is highly entertaining. The existential threat is suitably menacing too, especially the mask it wears, and the conclusion is satisfying.
One thing about Howard the character – he is a reluctant hero, but a competent one: when action needs to be taken then he takes it. He makes mistakes but he owns them and deals with the consequences. This is one of my best models for an active protagonist.
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Before Pratchett made his name with the Discworld books, he tried writing some science fiction. Two of those books were published: Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun. They’re not generally well regarded, although I quite enjoyed them. Once the Discworld books took off like Errol the swamp dragon after an especially carbon-rich breakfast, Sir Terry put the science fiction book ideas to one side.
But one idea in particular kept nagging at him and he decided recently that it was time to have another go. However, he was also very conscious that he had spent something north of thirty years writing fantasy books and was therefore perhaps not best placed to write a science fiction novel, so he enlisted the aid of Stephen Baxter who does know a thing or two about science fiction.
The Long Earth is the result.
And a curiously bloodless result it is too.
To be clear, it’s a pleasant enough read. I didn’t feel bored so much as unengaged – the characters were well-defined but unmotivated (like the pioneers – it was never clear to me why they wanted to leave their lives that included indoor plumbing for an uncertain home in another universe) and although the travelogue was interesting there didn’t really seem to be a story, as such. The humour seemed a bit stuck on after the fact, also.
Still, as a first book for a new writing team it was pretty good – not as good as Good Omens**, but pretty good. I am hoping that the next volume (The Long War, out in hardback now) is a bit more of an actual story rather an extended source book for a fascinating new setting.
[*] although not all of the paperbacks – I read Pratchett’s main sequence Discworld books and Iain Banks in UK paperback which I usually pick up on my trips back to Britain, but I haven’t been back since the end of 2010 so I’m a little behind there.
[**] written by Sir Terry with the sainted Neil Gaiman.