In the hours since I finished “The Long Earth” ($25.99, Harper) by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, I’ve struggled a little with how to approach the review. My love of most things Pratchett is no secret, but this is my first encounter with Baxter since I’m not a big science fiction reader. While I, in general, enjoyed the book, I didn’t walk away from it feeling really satisfied.
The premise is that there are many Earths, in various states of development and evolution, layered on top of our Earth, sort of like different dimensions. None of them seem to have humans – though there are some humanoid species out there – and many of them have moved along different evolutionary paths. Over the course of history, people have “stepped” into these worlds by accident, but it’s not until the day known as Step Day that it becomes a widespread phenomenon.
Plans for a Stepper, an electronic box fueled by a potato (there’s a little Pratchett humor), appear on the Internet. People begin to make them on a lark and disappear from our world into another. In Madison, Wis., an orphan named Joshua Valiente steps across into the next world and is greeted by pained and pleading cries of other children who have stepped and gotten lost or injured. One by one, he tracks the children and returns them to the Datum Earth, which makes him a bit of a legend. He soon discovers that he’s one of the few people who do not get violently ill when they step and that he doesn’t really need the box. He can do it on his own.
His ability draws the attention of the Black Corporation, in particular, a being named Lobsang. Though completely digital, Lobsang has been granted human rights by a court after proving himself to be an actual person – a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic to be exact. After just a wee bit of blackmail, he signs Joshua up to join him on the Mark Twain, a zeppelin-like vessel that is designed to explore the Long Earth much farther than it is believed that man has reached before.
The book is filled with great ideas, and there seem to be some fascinating worlds and discoveries for Joshua and Lobsang among a whole lot of mundane ones. But most of those worlds and the developments there are never really explored. We’re taken along as observers on their ride, but it ends up being more like a not very interesting travelogue for much of the book as they pass worlds quickly with only a brief glimpse at the wonders they hold.
Likewise, there’s not a great deal of development with the characters. True, Joshua learns a few things about himself on the trip and discovers things that answer questions he’s always had. At the end, though, he’s pretty much the same person he was when the book started.
The narrative is a bit rambling without much storyline. Lobsang and Joshua are basically traveling through dimensions to see what they can see, but they don’t see much because they’re moving so rapidly through them. There’s a political storyline involving those who are unable to step who are left behind and begin an anti-stepping movement, though it remains largely undeveloped. And some of the minor characters – Sister Agnes, for example – often strike me as more interesting than the ones we’re reading about.
All of that said, yeah, I still enjoyed the book. There’s a bit of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in it. There’s enough whimsy and humor – albeit a more reserved form of humor than Pratchett’s Discworld novels – to keep me interested. And, yes, I will most likely read the planned second volume. I liked this one enough to give it a try, and I really want to see how a few of the things left hanging turn out.
So, would I recommend “The Long Earth?” Tough call. It’s entertaining enough to probably make it worth a read, but it’s a little disappointing at the same time. Some of that could be inflated expectations from a combination of two of the speculative genres’ biggest names, but more, I think, comes from the execution. I’ll recommend it with reservations.