Edition 9: Book Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Damien Smith
Parallel worlds and the travelling thereto are nothing new in speculative fiction, however The Long Earth is noteworthy even before you open it as it is the first collaboration between two stalwarts of speculative fiction: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.
First off let me say that whilst there are significant glimpses of both authors in the style of the writing (as you’d hope given it’s a collaboration,) in the end it is written by both, so anyone expecting the typical Baxter hard science or the next Pratchett humour is going to be disappointed. I’ve read much criticism about just this but I don’t think that’s fair—treat it as a collaboration by a two-headed author with 100 books behind them and go into it with an open mind.
The basic premise is your usual multiverse-of-Earths-a-shadows-width-away dimensional romp that begins (after a couple of mysterious prologues) with Step Day. Step Day was the day when plans were mysteriously posted on the Internet on how to build a device (powered by a potato—there’s your first glimpse of Pratchett) that will allow you to ‘step’ between different versions of Earth, each slightly different than the last, presumably depending on some minor divergence in that world’s history. Naturally, countless children built their own stepping devices to see what would happen and vanished without a trace.
When stepping, you can go in two directions, arbitrarily labelled ‘East’ and ‘West’. The physicists describe the whole set up as a deck of cards, with each two-dimensional card representing a three-dimensional version of Earth. Steppers can travel across them at will with the only restrictions being fifteen minutes of severe nausea after each step and the inability of any iron to travel across the dimensions.
Though there are many minor characters with their own stories unfolding and helping build a wider picture of post-Step Day Earth, the main story revolves around Joshua—a natural stepper of unique talent. His main companion is Lobsang, the possibly-artificial intelligence who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman and has been granted sentient status because no one can prove otherwise.
Lobsang—a well-funded power behind a mysterious globe-spanning organisation—enlists Joshua’s help to explore the far reaches of the Long Earth (as the many versions of Earth are dubbed) and the lion’s share of the novel is based around them. Given the premise, it seemed odd that more time wasn’t spent exploring each new world, although with presumably infinite worlds to explore this would quickly become tedious and Joshua states just this as he and Lobsang step across thousands of Earths. Instead, much focus revolves around the political fallout as governments try to control different versions of their own countries and economies collapse through people simply up and leaving. There are also growing tensions between natural steppers (who don’t need a device to step) and ‘phobics’, who can’t step at all.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the ending and how it just stops or doesn’t resolve or shouldn’t end there, but I don’t think this is any fairer than anyone complaining the book doesn’t feel enough like a Pratchett or Baxter. To me, the whole story bears a very close resemblance to Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’—mysterious possibilities opens up; many unknowns; constant surprises; possible danger; political tensions, and a finale that promises massive things to come. The end to me was one giant hook for the next instalment–The Long War—which has happily just been released. Besides, there’s a world war triggering and a world-eating something working its way across the Earths and if they’re not big enough hooks for you then you’re not going to be satisfied by much.
Again, I cannot state this enough: Do not read this book if you are expecting the next Discworld or Xeelee as you will be profoundly disappointed. There isn’t the hard science (although the physics of the Long Earth are touched on and a large part of the story premise is based around finding out more) and there aren’t the laugh-out-loud moments. What there is is a great story that prised open my mind and kept me daydreaming at length around the possibilities and consequences of what would happen if all our scarcity problems suddenly disappeared. For that and more I thoroughly recommend The Long Earth.
The Long Earth by Terry Prachett & Stephen Baxter
Science Fiction/Parallel Universe
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013
Being a writer requires dedication, commitment, devotion, diligence, a skin like an armadillo and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. By this definition, Damien is most definitely not a writer, although he does occasionally put pen to paper. More accurately, Damien is a lover of the written word in nearly all its forms (you can keep vampire romances) and always feels a little down if he can see over his To Read pile.