Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
I love Terry Pratchett’s work. I like Stephen Baxter’s almost as much. The former is an A for me, the latter a solid B, so when I picked up The Long Earth, all hopes were primed for an A+. Unfortunately, it seems that the law of averages applies even to fiction, and the combination of an A and a B resulted in a “good-but-not-great” B+.
The Long Earth is set in … well, several worlds, really. Pratchett and Baxter imagine a universe in which there isn’t just one Earth, but an infinite chain of them, each one slightly different from the last (both in terms of geography and development). Only a handful of human beings have the natural ability to “step” between these worlds, until the year 2015, when an inventor releases onto the internet a set of plans for a “Stepper”.
The Stepper is a simple device that can be made with minimal fuss and easy-to-find components, one of which is a potato (the main power source). The absurdity of the spud, it is implied, causes most adults to vaguely ignore what seems to be another prank out on the internet; children, however, face no such mental block and consequently become the first people to leave their worlds of birth behind.
This sudden, mysterious exodus of young people on what comes to be known as “Step Day” includes one Joshua Valienté, the only Stepper to not succumb to fits of vomiting and nausea. More in control than many of the other children who crossed over with him, he becomes something of a hero by helping the other kids to go back home. An orphan who lives in a children’s home, Joshua is a bit of an oddball, but his ability to resist the physical side effects of Stepping is what makes him really interesting.
Popularisation of the Step-wise Earths leads to a new culture of exploration and settlement, as people realise that they have access to — quite literally — an infinite amount of resources just a few steps away from the Earth of their origin (as long as there’s a spud within reach). And with the viral spread of the Stepper, human migration to alternate Earths kicks off en masse (presumably, the price of potatoes undergoes a similar surge).
It is gigantic in scope, but not in impact; for some ineffable reason Steppers can’t carry iron with them, and so most of the Earths that we encounter are rural, practically medieval environments. With a combination of infinite space and natural resources, these worlds are almost completely free of crime and that sheer low-grade malice that most human beings tend to carry around with them. This is mildly refreshing to read about, given the tendency of most modern writers to plunge audiences into one grim dystopia after another.
Joshua is approached by a character who will be familiar to anyone who has read Pratchett’s Discworld series: the Tibetan monk, Lobsang. More than a transplant from Pratchett’s fiction, under the aegis of Baxter’s influence, Lobsang is a digital spirit, the consciousness in binary of a dead Tibetan (incidentally, he also dispenses sodas, along with words of wisdom: sort of a hyper-intelligent vending machine). And he wants Joshua to come with him, on a journey to not only map the farthest shores of the Long Earth, but also to figure out how or why our world is the only one that supports life. Or is it?
There’s no particular reason for Lobsang to have picked Joshua as his travelling companion, other than the interesting little fact that Joshua is one of the few (very few) people on the planet who can Step naturally.
In so doing, he is also immune to the crippling illness that tends to overtake almost all Steppers, and is therefore ideal for the “maximum efficiency exploration” that Lobsang is determined to undertake.
As the two head from world to world in a giant airship, watching old classic movies in the evenings and trying to understand the Long Earth better, they come across a group of humanoids with the ability to Step; an ability that in the absence of actual homo sapiens, has led to races that give birth when a child Steps out of its mother’s womb, or that hunt prey by Stepping between locations to hide their trail. They also gain the sense that a Big Bad Something or the Other is coming in from the farthest reaches of the Long Earth, but no one is quite sure what for, or why.
This is all fairly interesting. Baxter is known for his remarkable imagination and Pratchett for his dry, witty insights into human nature, and so one would expect The Long Earth to be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, while the collaboration results in some fun ideas and concepts, the plot somehow fails to gel. The further away Joshua and Lobsang step from their home Earth, the lengthier and more tepid their conversations become.
The dialogue is occasionally a little bit too ‘ready for the screen’, and at times it feels as though the entire point of any talking is for characters to explain things to one another, frequently at disconcerting length. This attention to detail and exposition is very much a trait of Baxter’s storytelling, although Pratchett tweaks his nose for it too, having Joshua ask someone (with apparent sincerity): “Why are you telling me all this?” There were several moments in the book that I felt the same way.
I wish there were more to say about this book, but unfortunately, it’s just not very exciting. Neither is it terribly funny, nor particularly dark. It’s like tofu prepared by a master chef: you get glimpses of the technique and skill involved, but mostly you wind up wondering what on (the long) Earth possessed someone to turn soy milk into pressed curd and serve it as a meat substitute.
And while there are moments when you think, “Hey, this is pretty good”, at the end realise that your craving for red meat is in no way satiated. Presumably, given the nature of their story, Pratchett and Baxter will be bringing out additional volumes of the Long Earth series. Hopefully, these later courses will prove more appetising.
The Long Earth
By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
HarperCollins, New York