Book #41: The Long Earth (2012)

13147230authors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 424 pages
finished on: 10 October 2013

I hadn’t been sure whether to buy this book, but my mother made up my mind for me and got it for my birthday. It’s the second book I’ve read that is a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and another author – the last, of course, being Good Omens. Like Good Omens, I couldn’t find any particular places in which The Long Earth was identifiably written by one author and not the other, but again, that might be because I’m not yet familiar with Stephen Baxter’s other works. Apparently he writes hard SF, and that’s why Pratchett wanted to collaborate with him on this story.

The story’s premise is quite simple and introduced without much fanfare early on in the book: the “multiverse” has been discovered, and it turns out it’s very easy to “step” to the next world in a long chain of Earths – known as the Long Earth. One can step in two directions, known as East and West for convenience’s sake. The discovery of this was advertised recklessly on the internet sometime in 2015 (known colloquially as “20 minutes in the future” – the idea being that this is set in our own time but with minor alterations), causing many teenagers to build stepping boxes and panic to ensue around the world.

The other rules are also established early on: iron can’t be brought from world to world, but anything else can, and whoever steps has to be sentient. Not everyone can step, and while most people need a box, some can do it naturally. It turns out there are no other humans anywhere on the many worlds, and humanity quickly spreads out to nearby worlds and even further – resources become limitless and the book spends some time considering the effects on the world economy and the politics of such a world where at least 20% can’t even leave their birth planet anyway. A lot of this is done in a fairly dry expositional style, but I nevertheless found it compelling and wanted to just keep reading.

The main story concerns a man called Joshua, a presumably-sentient robot/computer called Lobsang, who claims to be the reincarnation of a dead Tibetan in order to be legally classified as human (the book leaves it ambiguous as to whether this is true), and later on, a woman called Sally who joins them. Lobsang is part of a benevolent computer corporation called Black Corporation, which has sinister overtones of Apple or Google. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to trust them or not. Their quest is to go out to over a million steps from the original Earth (called “Datum” in one example of the book’s odd jargon) in the Western direction, and explore.

Along the way, the book treats us to explanations of the different worlds that they find and the things they discover. From world to world, there is not a lot of change, but as the point of divergence becomes further and further apart, the worlds start to organize themselves into bands: some icy, some desert, some good for farming, and so on. Some, however, known as Jokers, have had some kind of freak accident of evolution, geology, or astronomy, and turn out to be very different. Of course, it is these that the book makes the biggest deal about, and the most obvious point that Baxter’s experience with hard SF comes into play. It becomes fun to try and predict what will happen next as they travel through the worlds, and I think I succeeded on at least one occasion.

The other main thing that they discover and that the story explores in great detail are the other sentient inhabitants of the Long Earth, which are called trolls and elves, by no accident, as it’s implied that many of Earth’s legends are actually these creatures stepping in and out of existence, in an eery but not entirely unexpected echo of Pratchett’s pre-Discworld SF novels like Strata.

Fortunately, many of the other jokes, philosophies and themes that Pratchett continually repeats in Discworld are absent from this novel, partly because it was never meant to be a comedy, but I suspect also because it was co-written. I found this refreshing. Without them the prose seems to flow much better.

One thing about this Earth that I couldn’t take seriously and that I found annoying, especially when they got out to a million steps was that they all seem to be fairly consistent geologically – they all seem to have a North American continent and a Europe, although they do discover various inland seas that aren’t there in other worlds. I think I’d have found it more interesting if it couldn’t quite be predicted where the continents would end up.

Other problems include the fact that nobody ever seems to get sick in the story, even though the probability of getting unfamiliar diseases from alien evolutionary chains should be high. It’s mentioned in the story but more as a scaremongering technique by the homebound politicians afraid of what could be out there.

Basically I don’t want to say that I found no fault with the book, because I did, but I found the story very rich, which definitely contributed to the page-turning factor. It didn’t bog itself down with too many characters, although possibly there could have been fewer storylines. Some of the plot points are subtly left hanging, in just enough of a way that I was wondering what would happen, and thus it’s fortunate that they’ve already released the sequel, which I was able to buy in electronic form and dive into straight away, and they’ll probably come out with two or three more in the coming years. There is plenty more that I could say about this book, but I think that’s enough for now. I enjoyed it a lot and I think many people I know would also enjoy it, and that’s all I really need to say for now.

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