Sir Terry Pratchett first came up with the idea of the Long Earth multiverse back in 1986. He set it aside to focus on Discworld. The 75 million copies sold of those wildly popular fantasy novels would indicate that this was a pretty good idea. Even the Queen of England agrees.
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, Sir Terry's career is drawing to a close. Before he makes his appointment with the tall, thin chap WHO TALKS A BIT LIKE THIS, there's time to dust off old projects. The Long Earth is a brilliant Science Fiction collaboration with Stephen Baxter: a love letter to all Pratchett fans, readers, and lovers of wonder everywhere.
From here on out the main body of this review will contain spoilers *1, but nothing you wouldn't get from the first 50 pages of this short but highly concentrated novel. Pratchett's hallmark humor abounds, but this is nowhere near the level of Anhk-Morpork wackiness. There are no footnotes, but the text may contain trolls and elves *2.
The story does not begin in Madison, Wisconsin three years from now. A scientist, too poor to be called eccentric yet not dangerous enough to be mad, destroys his home in a lame arson attempt and vanishes Never to be Seen Again *3. He leaves behind a strange but simple electronic device made from a handful of parts readily available from Fry's. It features a three-way switch labeled WEST, OFF, and EAST and seeps to be powered by a single potato. The instructions, labeled in large, friendly letters "TRY ME", are easy enough for a child to follow and also appear everywhere on the Web. It goes viral like a herd of LOLcats
Within hours on what will forever be known as Step Day, spuds are wired and switches flicked. Possibly a million unprepared people, mostly children, find themselves instantly transported to pristine wildernesses with more minor abrasions, mosquitoes, inconvenient cliffs, and hungry predators than you can shake a greenstick fracture at. The frightened charges of a Madison orphanage run by a Harley riding nun who prefers Carl Sagan to Leviticus are rescued by one of their own. Joshua Valiente is one of those orphans with a Special Destiny. He is terribly self-reliant thirteen-year-old and observant in more ways than one, able to discern the rules of any situation and follow them to the unwritten letter. He prefers to be alone, yet is drawn to aid the lost or endangered; a born pioneer or explorer. Joshua attracts the attention of world-weary police officer Monica Jansson who has an affinity for the sudden weirdness. Her fellow MPD officers begin calling her "Spooky" although she thinks of herself more Sculley than Mulder *4.
Overnight the potato gadgets, Steppers, give nearly every man, woman, and child access to the Long Earth, an endless string of parallel worlds. It makes Larry Niven's Ringworld seem like a Tokyo capsule hotel with no messy engineering or tedious commute. Each Stepper will only transport the person who assembled it, whether from scratch or a kit, and whatever she can wear or carry. Ferrous metals are left behind *5 and stepping induces extreme nausea in everyone. Except for Joshua, of course who also discovers he is the only person who can step without a Stepper *3.
All these worlds, "the thickness of a thought away," are stuffed with resources. In the Wisconsins *6 next door there are herds of bison, passenger pigeons, mammoths and other creatures that were long ago converted into teepees and pemmican on our world, the Datum Earth. Many entrepreneurs try to exploit all these resources, but too late. In the post-scarcity Long Earth, gold loses most of its lustre and there are a possibly infinite number of oil fields available. You just have to transport it back home one bucket at a time.
It makes more sense for any community, family, or individual to roll up their sleeves and colonize a world all to themselves. In tens of thousands of stepwise Earths, East or West *7, and no evidence is found of intelligent life *3. Speaking of politicians, some nations try in vain to ban stepping, or claim infinite sovereignty. Borders and tax collectors become quaint notions. Every aspect of society is challenged. Architects, for example, rush to stop the sudden craze in locked-room murders and brazen burglaries. Interior designers vow to foil all the potential assassin steppers. Vignettes appear of these changes in the months and years following Step Day from the viewpoint of Officer, then Lieutenant Jansson and others struggling on Datum Earth or the uncharted new worlds. These chapters bounce between and support the main story, which takes place in 2026.
Joshua has earned unwanted fame for helping unfortunate steppers and colonies, always pressing further from encroaching civilization and preferring the psychic Silence of globe far from the madding crowd. He is hired to be the guide and sole companion of a very unique client, for an expedition to the furthest Western reaches of the Long Earth, millions of iterations away. His client is Lobsang, head of the transEarth Institute, a subsidiary of the not-at-all ominously named Black Corporation. He is also an emergent AI who has claimed to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman and proven his independent personhood in court.
This is a wonderful character — so not Skynet — immensely wise, powerful, and always willing to tell you so but also quite charming *8. Is he humanity's best friend or just running an excellent emulation, and is there a difference? The odd partnership grows, as they uncover the unimagined both in the Long Earth and themselves.
This book is well-paced, featuring one bright concept after another with many thrills and laughs along the way. Only at the very end are we introduced to the really big conflicts and heavies leading up to — yep, BOOM — a cliffhanger. At the time of this posting, I have not received any tentative date for the next volume of this projected series but am remaining optimistic.
It's great to see Sir Terry return to science fiction, weaving a chuckling philosophy with an appreciation for the wonders of the universe(s).*9 Niven and Clarke's The City and the Stars get namechecks in The Long Earth. I also saw similarities to works by S.M. Stirling, Stross, and a hint of Solaris. What I really enjoyed are the less traveled paths taken to get to the multiverse. The lack of humans on all the other Earths is a refreshing change from anthropocentrism, that also emphasizes what a special thing we have here in our world. I love that there are no Earths where the Nazis/Confederacy/Carthaginians/Cubbies etc. won. I also can't think of many stories where travel to the Other Earths is not only common knowledge, but possible for everybody rather than a privileged few.
I found some elements that seem recycled from Discworld novels, especially Thief of Time. Then I remembered this came first, and of course a Pratchett book will have Prachetty notes. Stephen Baxter seems to be one of the last few practitioners of Hard SF around, and his contributions here are noticeable. He's very good at the societal impacts of new technology and the Big Picture — like Olaf Stapeldon Big. He also wrote those novels about mammoths, which prepared him for the plethora of prehistoric pachyderms in these pages. Hard SF fans may be disappointed with the use of some ideas that went out of fashion with John W. Campbell. *10 But the less-jokey tone will appeal to a wider audience than the already immense throng of Discworld fans. This novel is a gift to be shared with anyone who loves to be amazed.
Thank you, Terry Pratchett.
The Long Earth is available from your local independent bookseller on June 19th.
Grey Area sells books at these stores on Datum Earth under the name Chris Hsiang. He may be followed @greyareareads
Stepper model built by Allan Bailey, suuuper-genius.
*1: Yeah, I'll be spoiling the heck outta stuff down here as well as leaving lots of tantalizing/erroneous clues.
*2: Some io9 readers might quibble with the author's decision to use the word hominid rather than hominin. Robust and gracile forms of homosomethings appear in the Long Earth in a manner not dissimilar from what Ken MacLeod did in the Engines of Light. In one scene there is someone who looks Librarianish if you squint a great deal.
*3: Of course, that statement is loaded with metric fuktons of narritivium.
*4: It is mentioned two or three times in passing that Jansson is a lesbian. She doesn't have a very successful romantic life, but neither do the other, presumably straight protagonists. I find this a subtly progressive note.
*5: The iron in hemoglobin and other such organic molecules is an exception, so there.
*6: It is theorized that Madison, WI is slightly easier for stepping due to its geological stability, or possibly the Mac'n'Cheese Pizza. But in fact it was because the 2011 North American Discworld held there. It sounds like a cool place, especially the Arboretum.
*7: I would have gone with Charles Howard Hinton's terms for extra-dimensional directions: ana and kata. "West", however, has all that pioneer, expansion into the frontier connotation. It's cool how the Amish, blacksmiths, bowhunters, weavers, and the like get rockstar treatment.
*8: At one point Lobsang adopts the voice of David Kossoff, a British actor known for The Mouse that Roared and a series of spoken-word Bible stories. An excellent choice by the secular humanist Pratchett.
*9: The Science of Discworld trilogy he wrote with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen is a must have.
*10: It's a practically a Heironymous device. I mean c'mon, a potato?.