Sep 17, 2013

[Books] The Long Earth

Every year on my birthday, I share my Amazon Kindle Ebook Wish List and see what books my friends decide to give me. It makes gift-giving ridiculously easy and it makes sure that I get something that I actually want - more books! And the good book worm never runs out of books to potentially read.

Oddly enough, this book was actually a gift from 2012 but for one reason or another I never got around to reading it quite just yet. And this is even stranger given that I really love Terry Pratchett's books, although I must admit that this is dominated by his Discworld books. This is one of those books that he's released outside of Discworld, and it's a collaboration to boot.

What's even more interesting is that it's a science fiction novel whereas we most associate Pratchett with fantasy a lot more (again, Discworld). I can't say that I'm all that familiar with his partner in writing this novel, but the end result has been pretty interesting indeed. I kind of wish that I could better distinguish between Pratchett's contributions to the novel and Baxter's. Then again, maybe that's part of the brilliance of the whole thing.


Synopsis: The Long Earth is a collaborative science fiction novel written by Sir Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. The book already has a sequel, The Long War.

The premise behind the book is a most interesting one. One day, instructions for how to build a "Stepper" are released around the world. Given how the needed materials for the device are readily available and the core component happened to be a potato, a lot of kids excitedly tried to follow the instructions in order to build the device. However once the first Steppers had been assembled - a day that would be later known as Step Day, it turned out that the Steppers allowed people to travel to parallel Earths. Each Earth appears to have no human life and are largely undeveloped, natural wonderlands. Hence the term of the "long Earth" - an decent description of the potentially infinite alternate worlds.

Enter Joshua Valienté, who is revealed to be "natural Stepper" - he does not actually need the device to cross over to the alternate worlds. He eventually gets recruited by Lobsang - a Tibetan motorcycle repair man who has supposedly reincarnated as an artificial intelligence. Together the two have the means to travel across the Long Earth and perhaps uncover more of its secrets. But as they travel further and further in, they find that the alternate Earths become more and more different. And just because there aren't any humans to be found does not mean that there aren't other intelligent life forms to be discovered.

The book starts off with a few seemingly random chapters that actually cover different people accidentally discovering the stepping phenomenon on their own. And these are not all characters that we'll be actively following around, but they will factor into the story in one way or another. It does make for somewhat awkward pacing in the beginning, but in time the story will pick up steam and then you'll be well on your way. The other stories are mainly there to help illustrate how Step Day changes everything for people around the world, but such chapters seem to disappear for the most part once Joshua and Lobsang take over the story. I'm not sure if this was a good thing or not given there is some degree of character investment that you're hoping to become fulfilled later on. We do want to know what happened to these people, in one way or another.

Beyond the core story about exploring these alternate worlds, there's a longer term meta-plot that tries to address these larger scale effects of the parallel worlds not just on people but on governments and larger institutions. Plus there's the unique element of people who appear to be unable to step at all - and thus a natural divide in humanity is created between those who can leave and those who can't. This becomes most evident by the end of the book with the rather dramatic conclusion to things, but I do think this could have benefited from a bit more foreshadowing.

This is not to say the core adventure with Joshua and Lobsang is a bad one. They do get to explore rather different versions of Earth including different climates, different animals, and other such variations. But because of the speed of their explorations and how little time they spend on each world, it does seem like we spend a heck of a lot of time merely traveling. To be fair, this is really time meant to help us better understand the two characters and what makes each unique. And there's the larger narrative question of what Lobsang seems to be in a rush to find as they race across the worlds. This isn't about careful, scientific exploration in general - soon enough we all realize he's up to something in particular.

What I like best about this book is how they tie the stepping phenomenon to human history - that the Stepper devices are merely the latest incarnation in other possible ways of stepping across the worlds. That in itself may seem like a spoiler (and for that I apologize), but the manner in which this is revealed (apart from the very first chapter of the book) is really the meat and potatoes of this book and it makes for great reading. A fair amount of thought went into figuring out the pieces that would go into this story and the end result is pretty great indeed.

The Long Earth is an interesting new venture for Terry Pratchett and also a rather promising series of books as a whole. I'm definitely going to pick up the next title and I expect you'll feel the same way should you venture into this book. It rates of respectable 4 "trolls" and "elves" discovered by Joshua and Lobsang out of a possible 5.


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