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Book Review: "The Long Earth" by Pratchett and Baxter

It all began when the blue-prints for a mysterious device where put up online. These blue-prints claimed the device could be built from easily obtainable parts—and, that it could be powered by, of all things, a single potato. With no clear idea of what this device actually was, or what it was supposed to do, many dismissed the whole thing as some sort of joke. For others, however, the whole thing proved to be enough of a mystery that they felt compelled to investigate.

Soon after these plans became available, curious people all over the world had constructed their own copies of this strange device in order to see what, if anything, it would actually do. As it turns out, the results of all of this led to a significant change in the course of human history—as people all over the world suddenly vanished, finding themselves stranded in parallel worlds. There was panic, of course. But, that fear and uncertainty soon faded as many of those who had vanished were able to return to share their experiences.

In the years that followed, this event became known as Step Day. Knowledge of the existence of these parallel worlds has long since become common-place as people came to see the potential of this new discovery. Realising that this device, which became known simply as a "Stepper", has opened up access to a multitude of parallel worlds, all of which seem to be entirely devoid of any form of intelligent life. Exploration of the Long Earth, as it came to be called, has opened up new possibilities for human expansion—and, the nations of the Datum Earth, as our original world became know, have eagerly set out to claim the land and resources that can be found there.

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Step Day was a very different experience for Joshua Valiente, though. While, for most people, the process of Stepping into a parallel Earth requires the possession of a copy of that strange device, and results in a feeling of intense nausea, Joshua discovered that he seemed to possess the ability to Step naturally. On Step Day, Joshua had devoted himself to helping those others who had become lost on parallel worlds find their way home—and, in doing so, had managed to achieve a status as something of a folk hero. In the years since, Joshua has remained a well-known figure, as his own explorations of the Long Earth have made him into something like the Long Earth's version of Daniel Boone. It is for this reason that Joshua is called back from his explorations, and recruited to take part in a fully-funded expedition of the furthest reaches of the Long Earth in the employ of the mysterious Black Corporation.

On this journey, Joshua is partnered with Lobsang, a highly sophisticated A.I. program who, it seems, had previously managed to claim legal status as a living person by declaring himself to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan repairman. Travelling aboard the Mark Twain, a specially designed air-ship capable of carrying passengers into parallel worlds, the two set out on a voyage that will take them further into the Long Earth than any other traveller has ever gone.

The Long Earth is a novel that seems to depend heavily on its single "big idea". By that, I mean that the authors have clearly put a lot of time and effort into exploring the Long Earth, as a concept—paying careful attention to both the long-term and short-term consequences that such a discovery would have on human society, as a whole. And, all of this is genuinely fascinating. There was the sudden resurgence of the "frontier spirit", for example, as more and more explorers set off into the Long Earth. There was the consequences for the nations of the Datum Earth, as some found themselves practically bled dry as their populations left. There was the growing tension and resentment felt by those who lacked the ability to Step, even with a Stepper. There was the particular tragedy of the "home-alones"—children lacking the ability to Step, who were practically abandoned by families eager to set out. There was also the bizarre issue of crime on the Long Earth, and the increasingly difficult task of policing it, when criminals could simply step into a parallel world. Finally, of course, there were the long-term economic consequences for the Datum Earth, now that land and natural resources came in a seemingly infinite supply. All of this was touched on throughout the novel—and, I found all of it to be genuinely fascinating.

Unfortunately, while the novel devoted time and attention to exploring all of these idea, it seemed to fall a bit short when it came to characters, and actual plot. The journey of the Mark Twain, which should have been the primary focus of the novel, had a tendency to drag, somewhat—especially throughout the middle section of the novel. It was an unfortunately common occurrence that, while following Joshua and Lobsang on their journey, I often found myself wishing that attention could be turned back to the various side characters that we were introduced to along the way. This isn't helped by the fact that, beyond his seemingly unique ability to Step naturally, Joshua Valiente just is not a very interesting character. Perhaps he is a victim of the somewhat disjointed quality of the novel as a whole, but we simply are not given a very clear idea of exactly who this man is, or what he actually wants—and, as a result, he comes across as fairly bland.

There are clear high-lights in this journey, though—particularly as they draw closer to their destination. Any encounter with a "Joker" Earth—a term given to any parallel Earth which deviates wildly from our own, in some way—is something which provides the novel with some moments of genuine excitement and wonder. Also, while Joshua may be the blandest character in the novel, he does have the advantage of being paired up with Lobsang—who is easily its most interesting.

© 2020 Dallas Matier