I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s work, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m slowly working my way through his Discworld novels (find reviews for #1-5 here and #6-10 here) and Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch, cowritten with Neil Gaiman, is among my favorite books of all time.* So when I discovered The Long Earth at my local library, I was ecstatic. I’d heard good things about Stephen Baxter, but never actually read any of his material. What I found was one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.
The premise here is that there are infinite worlds parallel to ours, spread out across the vast “contingency tree” of possible Earths, and in all of the Long Earth only one iteration has developed Human life–ours. Throughout our history there have always been a few with the natural ability to “step” between worlds at will, and still others who did so unintentionally and disappeared forever, but the world at large was unaware of this phenomenon until a reclusive scientist posted the blueprint for a “stepper” device on the internet and promptly disappeared from his apartment. Suddenly, the whole of the Long Earth is opened up to humanity. Suddenly, there is no shortage of land or resources. Economies are hard hit, jobs are lost, and once again humanity’s pioneer spirit is stirred to go out into the frontier and try to make their way….
Joshua Valiente is a so-called “natural stepper,” but he is probably unique among humanity. In the stress of childbirth, his mother stepped out of her world and into a parallel forest before slipping back without him. She managed to get back and recover him pretty quickly, but nevertheless young Joshua spent the first ten minutes or so of his life completely alone in his universe. As a result, he is uniquely attuned to the Long Earth. He can step between worlds without nausea, and is keenly sensitive to the number of people around, growing intensely uncomfortable the more crowded things get. Now, fifteen years after the world learned of the Long Earth, he spends most of his time exploring where no man has gone before. Lobsang, on the other hand, is a keenly intelligent AI, who may or may not be the latest reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. In collaboration with the shadowy Black Corporation, Lobsang has conceived a plan to test just how far the Long Earth goes. And he wants Joshua to go with him….the resulting journey is as much an exploration of what may have been as it is a geographical one, with most worlds mirroring our own, but a few display the effects of a cosmic “toss of a coin” going the other way–for example, there’s one where the Earth was completely destroyed by an asteroid strike sometime in the distant past.
Put quite plainly, this was the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Very original, and to my (admittedly limited) understanding very faithful to the relevant science without losing quality of narrative or character. Pratchett’s humor and sardonic narrative voice shines through quite often in the interpersonal or introspective moments as well as those detailing more plot driven points–those scenes that would, in a film, become some form of montage showing that time is passing and this is what’s happening in the meantime. As I mentioned, I’ve never read Baxter before, so it’s harder to pick out his voice from their collaboration.
Infodumping has become something of a cardinal sin in the science fiction world, but sometimes you just have to throw some information at the reader so that he doesn’t get lost. I felt that The Long Earth handled that very well. We get our first glimpse at the long earth in montage mode, a series of vignettes that don’t make sense on their own, people popping in and out of worlds without understanding themselves what is going on. This is followed by the main story, twenty years after the discovery of the Long Earth, in which the bare bones are presented via a TV interview a character is half-watching while he waits. These bare bones of the conceptual basis of the book are then fleshed out in more detail as Joshua and Lobsang and introduced and get to know each other, discussing the various theories regarding the Long Earth at length in an effort to better understand it themselves. This is interspersed with flashbacks, sometimes Joshua recalling his experiences, sometimes Lobsang telling stories of other people based on his research into early encounters with the Long Earth. In this way Pratchett and Baxter manage to convey how humanity as a whole is dealing, not just Joshua and Lobsang. If I have one complaint with this it is not always clear why or how we are being told this–you don’t discover until the end of the chapter that Lobsang is telling this to Joshua instead of the authors just throwing in a tangential bit with no direct connection. And it is all connected–every revelation, every character you visit and then abandon early in the book will come back and have significance later on. This is perhaps not the easiest read–you do have to engage it to understand it properly–but neither is it an incomprehensible enigma. As long as you pay attention you should be fine.
CONTENT: Some R-rated language, but not nearly what you could find elsewhere. Some violence, some grisly aftermath of violence. Sexual references, but nothing explicit.
*I’m frankly a little surprised I don’t have a review of that one up here, I must have reread it last just before I started doing this. I’ll have to fix that in the near future….