Pratchett, Terry & Baxter, Stephen. The Long Earth.

NY: Doubleday, 2012.

It might be an interesting experiment to hand this book without the cover or title page to an experienced SF fan and ask them to identify the author. Except for a rather weak joke here and there, I personally would never have guessed that Sir Terry had anything to do with it. And, as an unshakeable Pratchett fan, I’m inclined to put the blame on Baxter, who has built one corner of his career on partnering with (or leeching off) Arthur C. Clarke, another elderly author with a far greater reputation than his own.

Okay, perhaps that’s an unfair accusation, based on the fact that I couldn’t get even halfway through the three or four of Baxter’s other novels I’ve attempted, but it’s the only explanation I can think of for the nearly total absence of the patented sly-and-dry Pratchett humor in this volume. Which is not to say it’s a bad book, because I quite enjoyed it. It merely seems mis-branded.

“The Day Everything Changed Forever” is a very old trope in science fiction. Sometimes, it’s First Contact with aliens, and everyone steps out into space. Sometimes, it’s the invention of time travel, and everyone steps back into the past. Here, it’s the discovery of an infinity of alternate worlds parallel to Earth, and everyone steps sidewise. The potato-powered “stepper” (okay, *that* has a definite Pratchett flavor to it) was invented by a Mad Physicist who posted the plans on the Internet, but it turns out that about twenty percent of humanity are natural steppers, one they discover it’s possible, and they don’t need help. When you step, you move into the next Earth over, either “east” or “west,” in the same geographical location — a very slightly different variation of “Datum Earth.” (Everyone I’ve discussed this book with agrees they ought to have called it “Earth Prime.”) If you want to get from Wisconsin Ten to Florida Ten, you still have to walk, though, because metallic iron can’t make the trip. And every single one of those other variant Earths is vacant of intelligent life — more or less. The predominant life form is trees. Lots and lots of trees. Soon after Step Day, folks begin taking a last look around our polluted, overcrowded planet, shaking their heads, and simply vanishing off “into the green.” Other people, who are not such loners, form themselves into pioneer homesteading parties and head off to, say, Earth West 101,754 to establish a private little community that suits them better. With literally millions and millions of (more or less) unoccupied Earths to choose from, you can have a world all to yourself. The “Daniel Boone syndrome” is in full swing — except for that other twenty percent of the population that can’t step at all. They’re being left behind and they resent it. They’re going to be a problem.

The authors start out by describing the experiences of several different characters — a British private in the trenches in World War I who escapes an explosion by stepping unconsciously to the next Earth and is adopted by what he thinks of as “Russians,” a teenage girl accompanying her family on a pioneer trek, a local cop who undertakes to deal with the sorts of crimes steppers are likely to commit (or be the victims of), a not very bright would-be entrepreneur who (unfortunately for him) is the thousandth person to think of visiting Sutter’s Mill in the next Earth over — but they soon settle their focus on Joshua Valiente, a natural stepper and survivor of a topologically complicated birth, who feels the vastness of the Long Earth in his head. He’s recruited by Lobsang (possibly human but largely an artificial intelligence), who is the head of an extremely wealthy corporation. Lobsang has come up with an elegant and slightly steampunk way to step across the parallel Earths more or less safely and at high speed (i.e., not having to pause to dodge trees), and Joshua is to be his fail-safe on a great journey of exploration. I found their trip somewhat reminiscent of the pastoral novels of Clifford D. Simak (that’s a good thing) but I suspect it will be a little too calm and lacking in wild action for many readers. There’s plenty of tension but it’s more of the intellectual variety. In fact, there’s lots of room for the authors to indulge in observations about what makes Man the sort of being he is, and Earth the sort of place it is — also something for which Pratchett’s novels are so highly regarded.

The last two or three pages are a bit puzzling, with questions left unanswered, but that’s a minor matter. (Though one has to wonder if a sequel is planned.) All in all, it’s a good book. Just don’t expect anything having to do with Discworld. Oh, and the plans for the stepper are included, just in case you’re really, really tired of this world. To quote e.e. cummings: “Listen; there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.”


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