Steppers jump from world to world using … a potato? A potato with a few wires attached?
With this bizarre apparatus in hand, people can ‘step’ from one earth to the next, through an almost infinite series of parallel worlds where evolution has taken a different tack, or even not happened at all. There is just one big thing missing from each of these alternate earths: humanity. In its place, there are other creatures streaming down through the worlds, for they too can cut across dimensions. Human beings are not the only ones who can ‘step’.
This is The Long Earth, the first book in a new series from British Sci-Fi veterans Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. It has just been joined by a sequel, The Long War, which is in the book shops now. Starting with a lost soldier from the First World War, the novel has a fantastic opening and a truly stunning conclusion set in the near future, which prepares us for an epic confrontation in the next volume.
The only problem is that the book takes a long time getting there. The novel introduces character after character, only to move on to a new location with the same ease as the story’s stepping protagonists. It’s hard to remember who is who and the real narrative doesn’t really get going until almost midway through the book.
Much of the story is then taken up with a trip across a series of different earths in an airship (mercifully only once described as a ‘dirigible’). The amount of research and imagination that has gone into this trek is huge. Unfortunately, the book becomes a sort of travelogue through earth’s evolutionary past. Too often the characters arrive, spot a creature which they refer to by some obscure name, and then step off to the next earth where the process is repeated all over again.
Nevertheless, some of the story’s monsters are wonderfully imagined:
Now a creature looking very much like a beefy ostrich approached. A family of rhino-like beasts backed off nervously. But the bird stretched out its neck, opened its beak wide, and fired out a ball, like a cannonball … The bird had a separate stomach sac which filled up with a mixture of faeces, bones, gravel, bits of wood, other indigestibles. All this was mortared together with guano to make a large ball, as hard as teak.
Until the end of the story, there also isn’t enough threat or drama in the book. The heroes, the natural stepper Joshua Valienté and the intelligent computer/reincarnated Tibetan Lobsang are just too safe as they float above the worlds, untouched in their airship.
Strangely for a Pratchettt book, the attempts at humour also fall flat. Lobsang is nowhere near as funny as he is clearly meant to be. Also Lobsang and Joshua’s enthusiasm for antiquated movies doesn’t really ring true. Their shared love of obscure films from the black and white era tells us more of the preoccupations of the authors than the interests of people in the year 2026 AD.
As the product of a two-author team, The Long Earth is rather less than the sum of its parts. It certainly lacks some of the fizz that usually comes from Pratchett’s effervescent imagination. The Long Earth is probably best for a long journey or for a lazy afternoon at the beach, but it isn’t destined to be a classic of British science fiction.