Year: 2012, Pb 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy
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!
Years ago I read a book by Terry Pratchett Called “Good Omens” which was, as the title suggests a send up of the Omen films and was very funny indeed. I then decided to try one of the Discworld novels which many workmates were full of praise for. However, I did not find it funny at all and put it aside after three or four chapters. Which, as they say, just goes to show. What it shows exactly I really couldn’t say but there you are!
I’m not a reader of Pratchett’s books myself (don’t read fantasy) but I did like how The Long Earth kept some of his touches of his humour and a few fantastical ideas within a science fiction framework that I’m much happier with. I wouldn’t let your Pratchett experiences put you off this book. It’s a different beast 🙂
I liked it, but I think it’s more Baxter than Pratchett (without actually having read any Baxter), I guess Terry’s name got to be on top because he sells more books.
I’m not quite sure how Ian up there managed to “read a few chapters” into a discworld novel, as they notoriously do not have chapters…
I really enjoyed the very Pratchett-esque jokes about Mark Twain, which made me want to read more on him, and reread this book 🙂
I think it was more Baxter too – although I’ve not read any Pratchett but I have read Baxter and I like his work very much. The ‘read a few chapters’ is a phrase that I would also use about an author whose work I’d barely read.
I loved the Mark Twain references and all the other little touches. Such a rich book! I’m glad you liked it too – I know some people have had issues with it. It’s one of my books of the year.
I bought the book yesterday, and have read the start. I now find it very difficult to pick it up and read more. It is too chaotic, and appears to lack any plot. Terry Pratchett’s books have cunningly constructed plots, which for me is their chief attraction. The jokes are few and far between and not up to standard.
Thanks for commenting, David. Personally, I liked the lack of structure and the fact that it was all about the journey rather than the destination. Also, I didn’t think it was attempting to make jokes. It does seem that plenty of Pratchett fans aren’t happy with this novel while Baxter readers are less ruffled by it. Interesting!
The ending certainly begged a sequel which I am looking out for avidly. I thought it was a delightful story, very well written, lots of novelty and characters and circumstances that warrant a lot of future exploration
I totally agree, Don. I would love a sequel. This is a world of worlds I want to return to! Thanks for commenting.
I am an avid discworld reader and have read most of baxters books too (big differenceetween reader and fan I think). I really enjoyed this novel, and could see the inflce of both writers quite plainly. Pratchett is excellent at bringing to life charators and dialogue, making them witty and unique.
Whereas Baxter has a knack for believable creatures and worlds formed by changes in evolution (hell, read the book Evolution by SB.) They fitted well together, kept a great pace throughout and left me googling “long earth sequel” fruitlessly for days!