Thursday, 20 September 2012

[Duel Review] The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth is the much anticipated new novel from Terry Pratchett in partnership with science fiction writer Stephen Baxter. I had heard good things about this book and when Colin suggested it for this month's duel review, I was completely happy to read it. The only Pratchett book I'd read was another collaboration, Good Omens with Neil Gaiman but I'd quite enjoyed that. I'd never read a Baxter. However, I love science fiction and the premise sounded interesting so I bounded down to Waterstones and picked it up.

The premise of The Long Earth is that our Earth is just one in a chain of connected worlds, going off to the east and the west as far as the eye can see. This is discovered when the plans for a "stepper", a (potato-powered) machine that allows the user to "step" between the worlds, either to the east or to the west, are put up online and the world's children decide to build them. After a mass panic, the world slowly adjusts to this new addition to the known universe.

The actual plot of the book takes place about 15 years post-'Step Day', as it's called. Joshua Valiente, a 'natural stepper' or someone who doesn't need the stepper device to step and slightly famous (against his will), is recruited to go on a mission with Lobsang, a sentient computer program or possibly the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, to try and discover the end of the Long Earth. As they step farther and farther away from the original Earth, known as Datum Earth, they discover many new and different ways of life, as well as something that just might be headed their way.

I think the thing I liked most about this book wasn't the actual plot but the world building. Although Joshua and Lobsang were likable (with some great dialogue), the actual plot felt a bit thin and just a vehicle to write about this amazing new universe the authors had created. In a way, though, I'm fine with that because the Long Earth posits a lot of very interesting new theories and questions that could be properly explored in other books (I do believe this is meant to begin a series) or just contemplated in general.

There are a lot of one off chapters that tell the story of some minor character and how they have interacted with the Long Earth. Using these short anecdotes, ideas are explored and brought to attention without having to preach. For example, one man decides to step five or so earths to the west and pan for the gold found in the original Gold Rush. However, when he gets there and begins, he's stumbled upon by two other people who laugh at him for not realizing that, since this is something available to everyone now, money will soon have no value. 

There's a general feeling of manifest destiny that infects the entire novel and seeing that aspect of America's history in a new context is very interesting. There is an added sense of time displacement from the fact that metal cannot be brought over by stepping, so everything in the new world is truly rustic. While technology has kept up the pace and beyond on Datum Earth, all the other worlds are easily back in the 1800s, at least. 

As the book unfolds, more and more problems are mentioned, if not touched on. How does a country collect taxes if its citizens can just step to another world to avoid them? Does a country remain itself in each of the new worlds? Since people can step to a new world, position themselves and step back, crime and assassinations are a lot easier to perform and police have to step up their game, making underground holding cells and witness protection. Things like this, to me, are what science fiction is all about and there was tons to be explored. I hope this universe and its new moral and societal implications will be explored in future books.

I really enjoyed the world of Long Earth and hope to read more in the future. I do hope the plot picks up a bit to match with the wonderful universe the two authors have created but I have faith that all will be explored in time.

This is my review of The Long Earth. You can find Colin's review here.

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