The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
I can’t believe that this one flew under my radar for so long. I haven’t read any Stephen Baxter, but I’m a big Terry Pratchett fan, and this is honestly one of my favourite books he’s been involved in. It’s almost as good as Pratchett’s other great collaboration, Good Omens with Neil Gaiman. The Long Earth pushes my buttons pretty damn hard, delivering one of the most well developed sci-fi premises I’ve ever seen.
The Long Earth takes place 15 years after ‘Step Day’, when the schematics for a strange device were uploaded to the internet. Very easy to make, and powered by a potato, children around the world began to build the ‘Stepper.’ These odd devices only work for those who made them, and allow the user to ‘step’ into a seemingly infinite number of parallel Earths. There are two directions that can be stepped into, called ‘West and East’, with people only able to move between one world at a time, and causing severe nausea for the stepper. These Earths are almost entirely barren, lacking any sign of civilisation, but with many containing strange creatures subtly different from those of our universe. Now known as the ‘Long Earth’, these parallel universes have had a massive effect on the main Earth, now known as Datum Earth. New colonies are forming in the Earths in the immediate East and West of the Datum, with some striking out as far as possible to form new societies away from the hustle and bustle of the Datum. For reasons unknown, iron cannot be bought between worlds, so the new societies must start from a relatively blank slate. The exodus of much of the world’s population to the Long Earth has had a striking effect on the Datum Earth, with some businesses cropping up to exploit the new resources, but with many major economies crashing.
The main protagonist of The Long Earth is Joshua Valiente, a ‘natural stepper’, who can step even without the aid of a stepper, and doesn’t suffer the nausea which slows most explorers. He is a celebrity in the Long Earth, after famously saving the lives of many of the children who first stepped on Step Day, whilst only a child himself. He is recruited by Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle repair man who somehow ended up with a mechanical body, and a staggering intellect. He is now a senior partner in The Black Corporation, a powerful business with interests in the Long Earth. Lobsang and Joshua will travel further into the Long Earth than any others who have gone before, trying to discover some of the myriad of secrets to be found there.
So…yeah, The Long Earth is high concept if I’ve ever seen one. The premise itself is a wholly new spin on the parallel universe genre, and the Long Earth is a setting filled to the brim with fascinating details and discoveries. The reader is bought along with Lobsang and Joshua on their journey, and I couldn’t wait to find out what new weirdness would be hiding in the next Earth. The element I loved most about The Long Earth was the logical and detailed description of how the world has changed since Step Day. Many high concepts don’t really hold up to much scrutiny, but Pratchett and Baxter seem to have considered everything, and there’s an admirable amount of internal consistency. Okay, the actual concept may be outlandish, but Pratchett and Baxter manage to make it feel plausible.
I haven’t read any Baxter, but I’ve read a lot of Pratchett, and actually more often than not I couldn’t tell whether it was him or Baxter writing, a strength in a collaboration. There are a few flashes of Pratchett sardonic wit, but by and large The Long Earth is played much straighter than Pratchett fans may be used to. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not like The Long Earth takes itself too seriously, but this definitely isn’t a comedy.
Joshua is a likeable if not particularly engaging protagonist. Much better is Lobsang, the arrogant and entertaining reincarnated human machine consciousness. This isn’t a book with a massive cast, although it does like to occasionally dip into lives of various characters, giving us a series of little vignettes about life since Step Day. This gives us a broader perspective of the changes to the world, but overall the star of this novel in the setting, the Long Earth itself.