June 5th, 2014
My collaboration with Terry Pratchett on the books that became the Long Earth series came about because of shared enthusiasms.
Terry has always been a science fiction fan. He has fond memories of meeting Arthur C Clarke at a convention when Terry was around 16. And two of his early novels were full-blooded SF, The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata, though in retrospect the latter can be seen as a kind of dry run for Discworld. Perhaps in another universe Terry Pratchett could have become a rather good SF writer – but he put his SF ambitions aside when the Discworld novels took off, and he found his true voice.
But he remained an enthusiast. After we first met at a Clarke Award event in 1992, where my first novel Raft was a nominee for best SF novel of the year, Terry followed my work as I did his, and we kept in touch, at conventions and dinner parties. ‘What news of the quantum?’ he would ask me over the starter.
At one such dinner party in 2010 Terry mentioned fragments of an unfinished SF novel, abandoned in the 1980s in favour of work on Discworld. This would have featured adventures in a series of parallel Earths, reachable by anybody with the aid of a simple gadget – Earths like our own save for an absence of humans, Earths that became more exotic the further away you travelled. Terry’s sketched episodes hinted at a tale of a new frontier with a quite American feel, like much of the classic SF he and I had grown up with – like the work of Heinlein, Simak or Niven perhaps. This struck me as a classic SF idea, simple to express but with ramifications that could take you anywhere. We talked about the idea until we got thrown out that night, we started to think about collaborating on developing it – and our mutual agent, seeing an opportunity, set up a publishing deal.
After that Terry sent me his 1980s material, and we went from there, first with long phone calls and then get-togethers, mostly at Terry’s office in Wiltshire, lubricated by pickled eggs and brandies in his local pub. It quickly emerged that we had quite different writing styles. The Long Earth (as it became) is a kind of extended landscape which you could map, and as the series went on it evolved a history spanning decades, so from the beginning I showed up with sketch maps and timelines, all subject to revision but settings for the stories we would tell. This was ‘hard SF’ after all, SF of the kind I’d always written, where you stick to the laws of physics (given the odd tweak such as the existence of the parallel worlds in the first place) and you convince the reader through internal consistency. Whereas Terry likes to find his way into a story by following the people: give him two characters sitting in a room and the story will come, he says. As it’s worked out, the tensions between the two methods have basically been constructive.
I remember a moment when it came together. We sat before his voice-recognition computer system and worked through a revision of Terry’s early material, as our Daniel Boone-like hero Joshua Valienté is summoned to the presence of the mysterious artificial intelligence Lobsang for the first time. Terry veered off unexpectedly into a flashback to Joshua’s past, when he was a troubled thirteen-year-old on ‘Step Day’, the day when the Long Earth suddenly opened up for mankind. Terry likes to drill down into the heads of his characters; I think young Joshua had something in common with Tiffany Aching. We had Joshua saving other, less capable kids who got lost in the forests of the parallel worlds – and then I took over, thinking of my world mappings, and had Joshua go off alone deeper into the Long Earth, until he suddenly came upon one world locked in an Ice Age. So between us we ended up with a nice character study concluding with a hard-SF dash of wonder.gs and brandies in his local pub.
In practical terms after that, we came up with a rough outline for the whole of the first book, and went off for a few months to write up the separate narrative strands we’d agreed on, with occasional meetings at conventions and the like – and including field research at Madison, Wisconsin, where we attended that year’s Discworld convention, and were shown around a key setting for the books by kindly local fans.
I got the job of splicing together our separate contributions, only to find that we’d both diverged wildly from the outline – but this after all is in the nature of creative writing; you discover the material as you create it. I took a rough cut down to Terry and then we literally read through it, amending it chapter by chapter, line by line. (This being Terry Pratchett, some of this had to be done in a car on the way to a reception in Downing Street.) I think we became confident that this had worked; we had put Terry’s characterisation, humour and wisdom together with my sense of the hard-SF structure necessary for establishing the universe of the Long Earth.
But we had signed up for two books, and had always had an eye on the sequel. Early in the game Terry had come up with a sequel title: The Long Mars, no detail then, but clearly a way to move the idea on. However as we worked on Book 1 we realised that we’d taken the story too far, that we were hinting at a what-happened-next story of colonisation and conflict in the Long Earth that should be following our initial tale of pioneering and discovery. So Book 1 split into two, and Book 2 was pushed back to become a Book 3. And as we discussed how we would explore the ultimate meaning of the Long Earth Universe, Books 4 and 5 shivered into existence . . .
I’d collaborated before, and will again. Writing is a solitary profession, and while collaborating can be ego-collision frustrating, it’s also terrifically exciting when some idea sparks into life in the conversation between the two of us. It’s like a holiday from the narrow corridor of my own mind. And it’s at its best when we look back at a sentence or a paragraph, and can’t remember who originated it, as if there has been a third person in the room…