“Until the sun itself dies there will always be other worlds, and mankind will persist.”
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Well, this is my first book review. The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is billed as “the first novel in an exciting new collaboration between the creator of Discworld Terry Pratchett and the acclaimed SF writer Stephen Baxter”.
And, yes, it is quite exciting, especially for a loyal Pratchett fan like me. Even though it is a collaboration, the standard of his other collaborations, Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman, the Omnipresent – he seems to get everywhere) and The Carpet People (with his 17-year-old self – only half a collaboration, really) is high enough that a new one is still exciting.
And the premise is really excellent. You know the many-worlds theory of quantum physics, where every event causes the universe to split, so that everything that could have happened happens somewhere? It is much beloved of SF writers, from Philip Pullman to Stephen King. Well, TP and SB have taken this theory quite literally. There is a possibly infinite series of Earths, all ever-so-slightly different, spread out like a pack of cards – this is the Long Earth. And you can “step” between these worlds, but you can’t take iron or steel across. Oh, and there is a significant minority of people who can’t step, can’t take advantage of the Long Earth and the resources and opportunities it offers. What, the novel asks, would be the consequences, social and economic, of such a situation?
These consequences are admirably developed and explored. The sheer detail of them is astonishing, and seems completely plausible. For instance, the vast migration of people into the Long Earth causes a global recession; non-steppers are abandoned by their families seeking a new life; thieves and terrorists become a lot harder to deter.
As well as exploring these consequences, the novel also follows a pair of unusual explorers of the Long Earth: Lobsang, a computer who apparently used to be a Tibetan motorcycle repair man, and Joshua Valienté, who makes Daniel Boone appear pathologically gregarious. And this is really where the novel falls down slightly. Much of the first half of the story follows these two drifting across myriad worlds, watching films and…not much else. Talking. There are plenty of references to other SF and fantasy – The Lord of the Rings, for instance, comes to mind – but this is not really enough, I feel, to keep a plot going. And even when it does get exciting, there are other failings. At one point two minor characters have a “conversation” that sounds as if they are both talking to the air and not each other. (Although I do like the way the Archbishop of Canterbury is referred to as “she” at this point. It’s a double-take moment: you won’t notice it if you aren’t paying attention.) And the answer to the mystery of what is at the end of the Long Earth is ever-so-slightly anti-climactic, and the danger too easily dealt with.
The biggest problem for me with this book is that it is nothing like anything else of TP’s work. That is, it is not Discworld, and it is not remotely funny. It is just possible to determine TP’s hand in it – his wit, his humanism, his slightly different way of looking at things – but it doesn’t feel like Good Omens or The Truth. It just feels like a straight SF book, albeit somewhat more interesting than many SF novels.
But the ending, the real climax to the book, does feel like a TP ending. It is utterly unpredictable and inspiring and wonderfully dramatic, without being cliched, and leaves the book open for a sequel. And I really hope there is one.