If you visit this blog regularly (and I don’t dare to presume that you all do) then you might be surprised to see me writing about Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s first collaborative novel ‘The Long Earth’ because I don’t really read much in the way of science fiction at all, if anything really. However if you listen to the podcast The Readers which I co-host with Gavin of Gav Reads, my having read this book may be less of a surprise as you will know that we had the honour of interviewing Sir Terry and Stephen for a special episode, which if all has gone well should have gone live today (I am on holiday though so can’t quite guarantee it), and so I threw myself into the novel and the genre in advance.
I have to admit that I might struggle to summarise the premise of ‘The Long Earth’ because it is rather complex. This actually concerned me before I had even started the book that I was going to get very, very lost by it. You see ‘The Long Earth’ is centred around the idea that as well as our earth, or Datum Earth as it is known in 2015 in this book, there are infinite parallel earths. Most people up until 2015 haven’t been aware of them, however on a single day the design for a Stepper leaks, a device which can transport you to them all one at a time and can be made using items easily found around the house. So children start stepping and disappearing. Yet there are people how can naturally ‘step’, and we discover there have been for decades and even centuries. One such natural stepper, Joshua Valienté, attracts attention when the other kids at the children’s home he lives in start vanishing and he saves them and brings them back. Police and big corporations want access and guides to ‘The Long Earth’ and so from here we follow Joshua’s journey and discover with him as he goes.
I admit writing that made my head hurt a little, so therefore reading it might have done, yet it isn’t as complex as it sounds. There is also much more too it as really I have only described the setting up of the story, much more happens from here on in. Yet at the same time it doesn’t… Let me explain. You see my other initial concern, after how would my head cope with all these earths, was that with endless versions of earths ahead this book might become a little repetitive and dull, yet it never quite did. There was a small moment at one or two points where I thought ‘come on, where is this going’ but they were brief.
Pratchett and Baxter create a really interesting Datum Earth, they also create many possible back stories with characters like Private Percy Blakeney who we meet ‘stepping’ during the war in 1916. There is a real sense of humour to the novel, one of the characters initial appears as a vending machine to which there were some giggles from me when he ‘lets a can go’ as it were, there is also the side effects of stepping too. It also looks at big subjects affecting earth now. There is a strand to the story which is about divides, some people simply can’t step even with the machine, and so the debate about ‘difference’ is part of the book as is human nature. As soon as new planets are found some people go to find their own private Idaho, yet some go to pillage and consume, other want to control.
My only slight qualm with the book was that it did feel like the first in a series. The fact the book does rather slowly, if with moments of adventure and discovery, trawl through each parallel earth made me think ‘this isn’t nearly the whole story’ and also the ending very clearly suggests there will be more. I should state that I knew beforehand there were more books coming so that could have been in the subconscious part of my brain but if I am doing a fair and honest review (which is always my aim) I sensed it throughout, I could feel things were being slightly reined in for the future and the bigger picture.
That small quibble aside I was rather surprised how much I enjoyed ‘The Long Earth’ being as it is not my normal reading fare at all. I lost myself in the world/worlds that were created for me and had a bit of an adventure along the way. I can’t say I will be throwing myself into science fiction from now on but I will certainly read the follow up to this and will definitely be trying some of both Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s other solo novels in the future.