Friday September 21, 2012
Review by MICHAEL CHEANG
Fantasy funnyman Terry Pratchett and sci-fi specialist Stephen Baxter join forces to step into a world of alternate Earths.
The Long Earth
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Publisher: HarperCollins, 352 pages
FORGET reality-changing spells, dimensional rifts or wormholes. All you need to step into an alternate Earth in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth is a Stepper box made from, well, a box, some wires, a switch (which is vital), and a potato (for power of course, what else?).
With this laughably simple device, one can “Step” into any one of millions of alternate Earths, all of which are completely devoid of human life, and thus completely unspoilt by the destruction wrought upon the “original” Earth (or Datum Earth) by humans. After this miraculous discovery was made (during an infamous day called “Step Day”), people began making their own Steppers and exploring the “Long Earth” (as these alternate Earths came to be known), some going as far as to colonise and live in these unspoilt paradises.
Joshua Valienté also visits the Long Earth quite often, but unlike most other people, he doesn’t need a Stepper box. He is what is called a “natural stepper”, and his ability soon attracts the attention of a mega-corporation called transEarth, which is interested in exploring the vast reaches of the Long Earth. Thus, Joshua joins a strange character called Lobsang (who is apparently a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated into a... er... drinks dispensing machine) on a specially built “stepping ship” called the Mark Twain, and they attempt to travel to the end of the Long Earth.
I have to admit, what attracted me most to this book was the name “Terry Pratchett” printed on its cover. I’m a huge fan of Pratchett’s books (Discworld or otherwise), but I had yet to read a single book of Baxter’s until now, even though he is one of the most prolific authors in the science fiction genre.
This book is actually Pratchett’s second collaboration with another author, the first being the hilarious and utterly brilliant Good Omens, with Neil Gaiman.
Now, Gaiman once told me during an interview that many people assume that Good Omens had him doing “all the dark bits” while Pratchett just walked around behind him adding in the jokes.
Well, I had that same assumption about The Long Earth, which really felt as though Baxter had written a serious science fiction book, and roped in Pratchett to make it funnier. Granted, that may be because I’m more familiar with Pratchett’s work than with Baxter’s, but I just could not shake the feeling that this was more of a Stephen Baxter book than a Terry Pratchett one.
Don’t get me wrong though, The Long Earth is pretty good, as long as you’re not expecting one of Pratchett’s Discworld books. The story seems simple enough (it’s mostly about Joshua and Lobsang’s journeys through the different Earths), but it also touches on weightier social and political issues that arise from the discovery of the Long Earth. For instance, what would the segment of the population that can’t Step (and are therefore left out) do? What happens if you put a group of different people together in an expedition to colonise a new Earth? With the explosion of easily available natural resources on all these parallel worlds, how would greedy corporations react, and what would it do to the economy? And how does a natural-stepping loner cope with being on a ship for extended periods with a talking drinks dispenser?
All in all, The Long Earth is an easy enough read (I managed to finish it within a day), and has enough charm and ingenuity to make it pretty compelling as well. However, I felt that there really should be more to the story, and that there is so much more potential to the universe Baxter and Pratchett have created.
The authors have announced, though, that there will be another book set in the Long Earth, so there will definitely be more Stepping to look forward to in the future. Until then, get those boxes, wires and switches ready. And don’t forget your potato.