The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long EarthTitle: The Long Earth
Series: The Long Earth #1
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published: 2012
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: own copy
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 8/10

‘The Long Earth’ refers not to one planet but millions, perhaps infinite Earths, in universes parallel to our own. Throughout the ages, a few people have been able to “step” from one world to the next, but the Long Earth remained a secret. Then, in 2015, the plans for a simple stepping device went viral, and on a day later known as Step Day, people all over the world found themselves in pristine parallel Earths where humans never evolved.

Fifteen years before, Joshua Valiente’s mother accidentally stepped while giving birth to him, and for a few moments he was alone on another Earth. In those moments alone, Joshua developed an affinity for what he eventually called the Silence – the calm feeling of being far away from other humans. On Step Day, Joshua found out that he was a natural Stepper (he can step without using a device or getting nauseous like most people do), and he became famous for rescuing a bunch of kids who lost their way in the other worlds. Afterwards, he did a lot of stepping on his own, escaping the Datum (our Earth) for the Silence.

At the start of the novel, Joshua gets recruited by Lobsang, a godlike AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. Lobsang is working with the very powerful Black Corporation and has discovered a way to step very quickly across worlds. Lobsang wants to explore the “High Meggers” – Earths millions of steps away from ours – and he wants Joshua to join him because of his ability to step without getting sick and because of his tendency to live without much human company.

What follows does not have much of a plot (this is not a criticism). Rather, it’s a meandering exploration of the idea of the Long Earth, while also relating Lobsang and Joshua’s actual journey across those Earths. There is just a touch of intrigue to give the novel some pace – although humans only evolved on the Datum, there are other humanoid species across the Long Earth, who are all natural Steppers like Joshua. Some are friendly, others are not, but they all seem to be migrating, running away from something in the High Meggers. Lobsang believes they need to find out what it is.

What I liked most about The Long Earth is its speculation – the possibilities of the other Earths, and the ways in which they’ve changed human society. The Long Earth represents all the ways Earth may have turned out given major or minor changes in evolution, geological events, astronomical events, climate, etc. Joshua and Lobsang come across lots of unfamiliar plants and animal species, some of which are just slightly different from the Datum versions, and some that are completely new to them.

And, of course, the Long Earth also shows what the Earth could have been like if humans had not evolved. What this means for almost all of the Earths (barring those that suffered catastrophic natural disasters, for example), is that they remained lush paradises, overflowing with life. And humanity, having nearly exhausted the resources of the Datum, has suddenly been saved from the threat of ecological collapse. For those that can step, there are millions – perhaps an infinite number – of untouched Earths to spread out on. Scarcity of resources ceases to be a problem, and human life starts to change in myriad ways. For example:

‘Consider this. If the Long earth really is effectively endless, as it is beginning to look, then all mankind could afford to live for ever in hunter-gatherer societies, fishing, digging clams, and simply moving right along whenever you run out of clams, or if you just feel like it. Without agriculture, Earth could support perhaps a million people in such a way. There are ten billion of us, we need ten thousand Earths – but, suddenly, we have them, and more. We have no need of agriculture, to sustain our mighty numbers. Do we have need of cities, then? Of literacy and numeracy, even?’ (236)

You can’t carry iron across when you step, which means that most modern technology is limited to the Datum so people have to start almost from scratch, but many are willing to do that. Practical, archaic skills become immensely valuable, while money becomes useless. What value does gold have if every person can have their own gold mine? How do you pay people when they can take all the food they will ever need from trees and rivers? The Long Earth settlements are all interesting thought experiments in themselves.

Naturally, this also affects society on the Datum. Some societies are shrinking as people leave the old world for new ones, escaping debt, poverty, unhappy lives, or just looking for a new way to live. And there is a minority of people who can’t step at all, even with a device, and they’re being left behind. There’s a subplot about a family who leaves to live in a little village over a hundred thousand Earths away, and they leave their teenage son behind because he can’t step. This story could have used more page time, but it’s still an interesting thing to ponder.

I was disappointed that the novel focuses mostly on the United States, although I had to say that it’s not too bad in this case. The authors admit in the acknowledgements that most of the Datum parts of the novel are set in Madison, Wisconsin, simply because the second North American Discworld convention was going to be held there, and it gave them the opportunity to “get a hell of a lot of research done, as we authors say, on the cheap”.

And it works well enough. The Long Earth, and the possibilities it poses for humanity, fit in very nicely with the American Dream, and in fact there are groups of American pioneers who head out “looking for a place to spread out, a place you where could trust your neighbours, in a world where the air was clean and you could start over in search of a better future” (104). Out on the Long Earth, the whole concept of countries becomes obsolete anyway, and Joshua and Lobsang’s travels take them all over the globe. The idea of the Long Earth also has so many implications that it’s hard to explore them all without the book turning into an unfocused sprawl. We do at least get some idea of what’s happening in other countries, and I hope it’s explored in more detail in other books.

I want to make a few comments on the characters. I love quirky AI characters like Lobsang, who reminded me of the drones in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. His vast intelligence is a very useful narrative device, while also holding a lot of potential for the plot of the series, both exciting and sinister.

I wasn’t all that keen on the other characters though. Joshua is bland, although intentionally so, because he’s so antisocial. He’s at his most interesting when he tells stories about the eccentric nuns who raised him at the orphanage (Pratchett’s wonderful humour, I think). He’s always questioning the artificiality of Lobsang – his consciousness, his personality, his ‘humanity’ – but in fact Lobsang has so much more life and individuality than Joshua. In fact one of the other characters describes Joshua as “the great loner who’s barely human himself”.

This might explain why Joshua’s behaviour doesn’t always make sense. There’s a lot of telling in place of showing with him, and it was often at odds with my expectations. For example, it’s stated that Joshua is amused by Lobsang, when I thought he was annoyed. Or he’d be annoyed when it seemed like he was being friendly. Or Joshua would get angry, and that would make perfect sense in context, but it doesn’t quite show in his behaviour. This could be the authors’ way of presenting Joshua as a very distant person, but I found it a bit irritating.

Niggles aside though, I really enjoyed reading this. It’s the kind of sf novel that appeals to me purely because of the way it keeps saying “what if?” and then wandering along that thought. I think it’ll be one of the few series I make an effort to finish.

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