The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett
As I read this collaboration between Pratchett and Baxter I found myself drawing comparison with the marvellous “Eon” by Greg Bear and anything written by S M Stirling. Both of these authors produced excellent novels, the former dealing with the now-fairly-common theme of multiple human worlds/time threads being on a linear “corridor”, the latter writing the finest alternative earth stories on the market. What Pratchett and Baxter present here is a diluted form of those and any reader who enjoys this novel should venture to read Bear and Stirling both of whom are masters at the respective science fiction genres. I also found myself reading this trying to work out when Pratchett was authoring, when Baxter was. Both have quite different styles and it is fairly straightforward to pick out their individual ingredients in this mixture.
The story is apocryphal in nature, the jacket focus on potatoes somewhat irrelevant given the lack of time the narration gives to the tuber. It is the story of one Joshua Valiente, orphan born to his mother on a world that is one step away from the earth we all know – or the Datum Earth as it comes to be known in the thoughts of humanity after ‘Step Day’. In the novel Joshua is coerced by the Tibetan turned computer, Lobsang – who also appears in Pratchett’s Thief of Time, not that you need to have read it to appreciate the character in this novel – to go on a trip with him. Stepping over two million earths to the West (I imagine East will factor in future novels) it is a journey akin to a Star Trek film where subtle tweaks in Earth’s history give rise to very different Earths with climate, geography, zoology, biology et al being a variant on a theme. In it we find creatures who are fleeing a great “noise”, creatures who explain the Datum Earth histories of the faerie. Part way we meet Sally, who joins the crew of the ‘Mark Twain’ as we rush head long in this Long Earth opener to understand what Joshua is all about.
It is a good opener and, with all alternative Earth stories, has capacity for the authors to go wherever they like, even away from the Discworld Conventions of Madison to the lands of other fans. I think it best to say it is a summary” novel, a précis if you will of those great trail blazing novels from the likes of Bear, Stirling and others. If you like this, then read those authors as well. You won’t be disappointed.
What happens when you bring together two of Britain’s biggest literary names to collaborate on a book together? Pure genius, is what, packaged together in some of the best English writing you’ll ever experience.
When I first heard that Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter were going to be collaborating on this new series of books, I asked “who is Stephen Baxter?” But I knew that Pratchett was a genius, and I trusted his choice in partner, just like I did when he wrote ‘Good Omens’ with Neil Gaiman.
‘The Long Earth’ is the result of this most recent collaboration, and it deserves all the praise Pratchett normally gets when he publishes a new book.
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 his world for ever.
And that’s an understatement if ever there was one…
There are moments throughout this book that you can tell very clearly who wrote what. Very Pratchett-like jokes and scenes blend into some really beautiful sci-fi scenes. The long journey through the Long Earth is mesmerising, and utterly brilliant. The concepts on display are brilliantly clever and utterly mind blowing, really making you think about the nature of our existence.
Reading this, it was hard to miss the almost-preachy opinion one or both writers share towards humanities treatment of her planet’s resources. Don’t get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with the opinion on display, but one wonders whether maybe it could maybe have been toned down, to make the novel about the story rather than about ‘an issue’.
A collaboration will always have to struggle to hide the fact that two or more authors have contributed and the same goes for The Long Earth. Yes there were times when I could watch a swap happen, and that is always going to pull you out of the story. But the times when this happened were rare, and the story overall was just too good to dwell on quibbles such as this.
The Long Earth is very much not a Discworld novel. It has none of the inherent silliness and humour and restricts Pratchett’s ability to satirise everything in sight. That being said, the collaboration has resulted in a magnificent story that had me hooked form the first few pages. What more can you ask for?
Joshua S Hill, 8.5/10
I have to admit that I have been a long time fan of Terry Pratchett and have been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. I have never read anything by Stephen Baxter so I cannot say how typical this book is for him, yet as with Terry Pratchett’s former collaboration, Good Omens with Neil Gaiman, I can only believe that his books are something I now want to read.
The Long Earth itself is an interesting novel which gives a social commentary on human nature via the discovery of parallel Earth’s. The book is set in Madison, Wisconsin and if there was a main focus then this is the story of Joshua Valienté, who really wants to be left alone, but like all of Terry Pratchett’s much loved heroes doesn’t always get what he wants.
By the authors’ focus on Madison as the place where what becomes known as “stepping” first becomes a phenomenon we are given a base for people to come and go from the world we know into the Long Earth, which is a series of parallel Earth’s that people can step between with the aid of a machine (Joshua can step without any aid). As the book is based in America we get to read a lot about individuals who have ideas about making money quickly, by starting a new gold rush, as well as the people who decide they want to become pioneers, discovering new worlds and going back to a frontier style of living. This is an interesting study on human nature – do we need to conquer every new discovery and make it our own?
As stepping becomes more widespread and with no way to stop people leaving we get to see how our world would be affected if suddenly a huge swathe of a countries’ populations decided to walk away and give up the lifestyle of the modern world. Is it too hard to imagine how simple life would be if you could just slip away from your current situation. We are also given an idea of what the people who couldn’t step would become – would they take it well, being that they were stuck only in one reality or would they be happy that they suddenly had more space?
The story itself is quite fast paced and as we start our journey to discover the Long Earth with Joshua who agrees/is coerced into helping an expedition with Lobsang, the world’s first machine to convince the courts that he is human. There are a lot of comedic moments with this mismatched pair as they have to learn to work together.
Although this book has a definite ending and I enjoyed it thoroughly it is one of those books that I loved every minute of and will always hope that the authors see potential to revisit the characters in the future. Of course if they don’t I can always read the book again.
Michelle Herbert, 10/10
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