Fiction Reviews

The Long Earth

(2012) Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter, Corgi, £7.99, pbk, 425pp, ISBN 978-0-552-16408-5


It all happened suddenly on Step Day. The design for a comparatively simple device was posted on the internet. It involved the builder personally winding coils of wire and assembling just a few components. There was a switch that could be in one of three positions: 'west', 'off' and 'east'. And the whole thing was powered by a low voltage supply: employing a potato of all things!

What this device did for its own builder (and personal involvement with the construction seemed to be key) was that it transported them… Now, by transporting them do not think of travel in space, or for that matter time, but to the same place on a parallel Earth!

It seems as if the multiverse – at least from the perspective of Earth – is made up of a string (a necklace if you will) of Earths, a long line of Earths: the Long Earth.

Steppers, with their devices, can move one Earth at a time up and down (or east or west) along this necklace. Suddenly, people of our crowded world could literally step into an Earth empty of humans (other than those already stepped) and with all its natural resources intact. But there were disadvantages. Apparently elemental or refined iron cannot be stepped, and you can only take with you what you can carry. Nonetheless, these new Earths soon began to see pioneer communities and explorers… (I have explored this basic set up notion further in my review of the second book of the series The Long War.)

Step day brought with it its headaches for the establishment. How would the world's economic system work over many Earths? What of jurisdiction, law and order? Police woman Monica Jansson was given the task of having her Madison beat extend into the low Earths. Meanwhile the artificial intelligence – or was it Tibetan monk reincarnated into a supercomputer – Lobsang was determined to explore deep into the Long Earth.

With the discovery of the Long Earth some of humanity's legends seemed to have a sort of an origin in fact. There were cryptozoological creatures out there. What there was no shortage of was questions. Could intelligence have risen elsewhere in the Long Earth? And what was it coming from the far west of the Long Earth that seemed to be pushing east towards the original – the Datum – Earth? Meanwhile not everyone welcomed Step day; some feared it and fearful folk can do stupid things…

This is the first in a trilogy (or hopefully a longer series) that includes The Long War and The Long Mars. I deliberately read the second (The Long War) book first to see if it could be read as a stand-alone, and by and large it can. Having said that, there is a clear linearity in the sequence of tales and so it makes sense to read them in order, but it is not strictly necessary should happenstance get you another of the titles first.

Stephen Baxter has teamed up with another major author before, namely Arthur C. Clarke with the A Time Odyssey trilogy. That was a less coherent offering and a sober reflection might raise the thought that Baxter was doing his best with that trilogy to help a then elderly, and increasingly frail, Arthur C. Clarke bring a some final thoughts and possibly a closure to the 'Odyssey' thematic strand running through some of that author's own oeuvre.

Stephen, this time, is once again teaming up with a genre giant who is also in ill health, but this time the partnering seems to be more of two equal minds that enjoy bouncing off of one another.

The Long Earth itself is an easy-to-read tale whose value lies in it being jam-packed with ideas springing off of the central concept of the Long Earth and stepping. One gets the feeling that the authors were having fun playing with ideas and sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) as well as occasionally referencing other SF books and films. This book may not represent great literary writing (not that 'literary' is a useful concept in itself but you know what I mean), what The Long Earth is is solidly enjoyable SF and one that the authors' many fans will simply lap up.

Jonathan Cowie

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