As soon as I heard about The Long Earth a few months ago I began counting the days until its publication, and not just because of its gorgeous evocative cover. I’m not a reader of the Discworld novels – they’re too fantastical for my scifi tastes – but that doesn’t stop me enjoying a Pratchett turn of phrase and when this is married to the science fiction vision of one of its masters, Stephen Baxter, I’m caught. The hook works its way in deeper thanks to its premise: an infinity, more or less, of earths, each no further than a step away from its neighbour, each one with the possibility of great differences or similarities, each one mysterious yet similar, and all empty of the human beings that crowd the original, Datum Earth. And all it takes to discover them? A few wires, a box, a switch and a potato.
The opening to The Long Earth is bewitching. In 1916 Private Percy Blakeney is stunned by a blast on the Western Front. He wakes up in fresh grass, not mud oozing with the slaughtered. The trees are full of leaves and not broken and shell-blasted. And there isn’t a soul around him and there is nothing to be heard except the song of birds and the wind. Many years later, in Madison, Wisconsin, Willis Linsay puts a design on the internet for an object so simple a child can make it. They do, in their hundreds. In an instant, they all disappear. This is Step Day. One teenager saves the day. Joshua is a boy who can step without a box or stepper and is able to bring home these terrified, vomiting, lost children.
The Long Earth is as rich as its infinite layers promise. On the surface we have a travel adventure. Joshua is hired by Lobsang, a ridiculously wealthy artificial intelligence who, he insists, is actually human. He is the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman and has passed the Turing Test. Mostly inhabiting environments much like an Edwardian gentleman’s sitting room, Lobsang has an urge to travel, to find the ends of the earths. Joshua, a natural stepper, is the perfect companion. And so they set off in an airship that can step. Travelling across the earth as well as between earths, they cover vast distances of space and worlds, looking out for anything unusual, especially signs of other humans.
Lobsang and Joshua aren’t the only characters here. There are plenty of others, some of them throw light on the reason for the long earths as well as show us much more about it. We see how Datum Earth copes with the exodus incited by the discovery of all this space, its affect on resources, religion and politics. But this is all deftly done. The emphasis is on showing us the succession of possibilities and the lengths to which mankind will go. But at the heart of The Long Earth is a mystery, one that becomes more pressing, urgent and astonishing as the novel continues.
Every page of The Long Earth yields wonders. There are surprises on every page. It is a book that is extremely difficult to put down. With a succession of earths passing beneath us, there is nothing that can’t happen. The prose reflects this. It is full of charm and enjoyment for what it reveals. This isn’t a novel to read for its plot, for its times of danger or even for the mystery, its magic is in the description of the worlds, the wonderfully rounded characters of Joshua and Lobsang, their conversation and their quest. The Long Earth is often very funny and frequently not a little bizarre. I found so much of it celebratory. It is definitely a celebration of dual storytelling.
The Long Earth was a pleasure to read from the very first page until the last. I am hopeful that there really were clues in its telling to a sequel in the works and that this wasn’t just the product of wishful imagining. Characters sometimes disappear, are just touched upon or leave questions unanswered. We pass them by. We always want more. There are so many possibilities here and there are no better guides than Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Much more please!