Title: The Long Earth
Author: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Published: Out now
1916: The Western Front. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wind in the leaves in the trees. Where have the mud, blood and blasted landscape of No Man's Land gone?
2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Cop Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive - some said mad, others dangerous - scientist when she finds a curious gadget: a box containing some wiring, a three-way switch and a … potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way Mankind views its world for ever.
And that's an understatement if ever there was one...
The Long Earth is the result of an idea that has been germinating in Terry Pratchett’s brain for many years. I’m a huge Pratchett fan so I’m very familiar with his work, but not so his collaborator, Stephen Baxter. While this tale has obvious flares of Pratchett’s style and dialogue, I’d say this is more Baxter’s vision. A Discworld novel, this most definitely is not.
The two experienced writers explore the idea of parallel universes: what if our world wasn’t the only one, and by the use of a small device, crafted from a few wires and a potato, you could travel between the various Earths whenever you pleased?
What would those worlds be like, and how would humanity vary? What effect would this have on society as a whole? The impact on the economy, the government or crime, in all worlds? How would it be regulated, if at all? Does someone have the right to ‘step’ if they’re unhappy with the life they have, and how does this affect the family unit? And what about those that can’t travel between the worlds; what bearing would this have on them?
So many questions, perhaps with endless possibilities. It’s clear that this is the first book in a series, and therefore its main task is to install the groundwork for more to come. The problem then, is that while the various incarnations of our blue planet are sumptuously described, character development suffers as a result and the tale is unfinished.
Our earth, or the ‘Datum’ Earth, is a near future vision of our world. By contrast, the majority of the Long Earth is uninhabited by humans. Pratchett and Baxter paint a beautiful landscape, and present us with plenty of minor characters full of potential, yet ultimately unexplored.
Our primary focus is Joshua, who as a boy discovers he can step without the aid of a device, and with no ill effects. An orphan of seemingly high intelligence and detached personality, we follow his discovery of the alternate Earths and his natural ability to move between them, and also his reaction to such astounding events.
As an adult, Joshua finds himself recruited by the mysterious Black Corporation, and in the company of a sentient soft drinks machine named Lobsang (instantly bringing to mind the Disc’s History Monks). Together the unlikely pair traverse the worlds, on a quest to map the Long Earth, further than anyone has gone before.
One of the things I love about Pratchett’s work is the way he pulls all the various strands together in the final throes and you fly to the finish line. This is clearly just the warm up act. But it is definitely an interesting idea, and the follow-up could be enlightening. I’ll definitely be reading The Long Earth again, and waiting to see what else Pratchett and Baxter have to offer.