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The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Book Name: The Long Earth
Author: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Publisher(s): Harper Collins
Formatt: Hardback / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Science-Fiction
Release Date: June 2012

Terry Pratchett – “[Stephen’s] the bloke who knows about quantum. I’m the bloke who knows about faeries.”

Pratchett and BaxterTerry Pratchett is perhaps the world’s finest satirical writer. I believe that everything Pratchett has ever written is based on his perspective of the world around him. Pick up any Discworld novel and beyond the witches, dragons, walking chests and grim reapers; you’ll see familiar political and cultural issues that are affecting the world at the time that particular novel was written.

Stephen Baxter writes in a similar way. In Baxter’s science fiction work, he takes a look at what the world could become or what it could have become should things have been ever so slightly different. How will spaceships and a powerful position in the universe change us as people? How would things be different if certain events in history were changed?

So, although one author is a “fantasy writer” and the other author is a “science fiction writer” both write about and express views on the past, present or future of the human race. Therefore, two of Britain’s finest speculative fiction writers getting together and writing a novel wasn’t a huge shock for me – especially when I heard the premise of the novel.

The Long Earth is a novel set, initially at least, on our own planet in the very near future. Imagine if human beings were to suddenly find out that this Earth, the one we live on, is just one of many. I’m not talking about other planets as such; I’m talking about other parallel Earths in different dimensions.

How can I explain? Well, to steal and expand upon a metaphor from the book: image you have a pack of cards. Take that pack of cards and place each card down upon the table a little distance away from the other. OK, each one of those cards is a planet in the universe – they are all different and all removed from one another. This is how things are as we know it. Now, take those cards and put them all together into a tight deck. This is how The Long Earth works. Each card is touching another face to back, right? Each is a card and yet slightly different from the others. Each is its own dimension.

In The Long Earth, a new schematic for a small machine has been released on the Internet. It is very, very simple and pretty much anyone can make it; it is a small box that requires very little construction and is powered by a potato. What this box does is allow you to step onto other Earths. So, imagine you are in a deck of cards that has been arranged in order. Our Earth is the six of spades. This little machine would allow you to step into the parallel Earth that is the five of spades or the seven of spades. You could explore this new world for a while before returning to the six of spades with one step or taking another step, further from your own world, to the four of spades (if you went to the five) or the eight of spades (if you went to the seven). There is one catch though, stepping across the worlds makes you violently sick and with incapacitate you for a good half-hour or so.

That is a rather long-winded explanation, but I hope it makes some sense. I guess you are now asking: what is on these other worlds? Well, that is the question that this novel poses. No intelligent life is believed to live on any other world throughout The Long Earth. Only our planet seems to contain human life, which is strange when you think about it, because on these other planets there are animals and there are mountains and vegetation and everything else that we’d expect on our own planet – except for us. One theory is that the worlds just evolved differently and humans never appeared – surely though, with an unlimited worlds, we’d have appeared somewhere else?

Hmmmm. Anyway, we meet our protagonist, Joshua Valiente, very early on in the novel. He has a unique ability to travel between Worlds without falling on the floor sick and throwing up. This gives him an advantage, as it means he doesn’t have the same kind of anxieties as many other humans when it comes between exploring further Earths and, of course, it means he can step far-far quicker than a normal human being. However, Joshua has only gone so far into The Long Earth, not seeing much point going too far, because they all offer relatively the same thing…

LobsangThat is, until one day, when he meets the talking vending machine: Lobsang. As it turns out (this isn’t a spoiler) Lobsang isn’t actually a vending machine, he is an artificial intelligence that has the ability to put his consciousness into almost any kind of computer. He is scarily intelligent and has a lot of freedom – having petitioned for, and won, the same rights as a human. The novel then is about Lobsang and Joshua joining forces after Lobsand convinces him that they should further explore The Long Earth.

At this point, you might be thinking ‘sounds very interesting’. And I will agree with you there. At this point in the novel, I was intrigued. What will they find in The Long Earth? Why is Lobsang so keen to get out there? What is in it for him? What will be the consequences of opening up all these other Earths for mankind? Well, I really don’t want to spoil the novel for you – but I will say that at this point the novel takes a nosedive.

The pace slows and the book becomes completely disorganised. I believe this novel must have been written over a very long time and with the ideas and discussions completely taking over the characters and storyline. I know that Pratchett is very, very interested in Stephen’s hard science fiction and it does feel like the two authors have got together and written a book about their ideas in regards to possible parallel universes as opposed to getting together and writing a story. Not only this, in addition to the ‘search’ that I will discuss in just a moment, there are almost random interludes from characters in The Long Earth that add very, very little to the novel. They will pop up and make a speech or write a blog about their lives and then disappear.

Anyway, yes the search across worlds is relatively boring. The problem with this novel is that the book is almost too realistic. The Long Earth sets a premise: This Long Earth is made up of many Earths without any intelligent life set upon them and each of which are only very, very slightly different to our own. When you think about that for a minute: exploring them really isn’t going to be that interesting. Stepping takes a long time (even for Joshua and Lobsang) and, as readers, all we really get to see during the stepping is a bit of banter between Lobsang and Joshua. The result for me is that I was just sitting there, flipping pages and waiting for that revelation. Waiting for a character to announce some kind of goal or some kind of hidden agenda, perhaps or some kind of danger to appear…but it just didn’t.

Is it worth reading then? Is this the worst book ever crafted? No, I hope I haven’t given that impression. It certainly isn’t the worst book ever written, but it is a huge disappointment when you consider the authors’ names who appear on the cover. But, I’m going to try and leave on a positive. Firstly, I’ve said that both Pratchett and Baxter have become famous for writing about human beings and speculating upon us as a race: what we may become or what we could have become. They achieve this very well. The Long Earth gives us a glimpse into a possible future and does give some good speculation on what may happen if such a thing was to happen. Think about it, humans would no longer have to worry about the size of the population. Men could keep travelling until they find their own planets and live a life free of technology. Food would never run out, because there are huge amounts of animals that haven’t been preyed upon by humans.

Then, there is the narrative. I thought it was particularly good. It reminded me a lot of Rivers of London, which is strange because it is in third person, not first (which Rivers of London is). However, there is that same light-hearted, down to Earth feel about the prose that makes very, very easy reading. If The Long Earth had anywhere near the kind of energy that Rivers does, you’d be flying through this relatively short novel in a few hours. As it is, unless you are flipping the pages anticipating something happening, this may be one of the longest short books you’ve ever read.



  1. Waiting to read!! Great post!! thx!!

  2. Avatar the_hound says:

    On my pile to read after I have got up to date with the book club reads. I’ve read most of the Pratchett books, and have read the Destiny’s Children sequence by Baxter – and am a big fan of both writers. Baxter for me is best as a short story writer – but wondering if I will have a different take on the novel being more familiar with both writers and a fan of both (Pratchett especially.) Also Lobsang! That name certainly rings a bell for Discworld fans! Wondering if that’s just Pratchett playing with us – or an actual cross over with the Discworld novels…. drinking vending machine to time monk hmmmmm

  3. Avatar the_hound says:

    Half way through now and really enjoying this. I think people who are considering reading this need to understand it’s science fiction. The actual science behind the ‘stepping’ is pure fantasy (or is so far) and involves an imaginative leap. And guess that is Pratchett’s influence. After all this is the man who created a world on top of the back of a giant turtle! But there is some real science in this novel, and that’s parallel worlds and of course, Baxter’s personal obsession evolution. And that is the dynamic of this book, why are these parallel worlds here and what are they for? And the evolution side is fascinating. The chances of human life evolving in the manner it has were a million one to one shot with all the different variables in place, so it makes perfect sense that just the datsun Earth has human life as we know it on it, and that life has evolved in very different ways on the other Earths. This in itself is a fascinating point, scientists often theorize that another planet with similar conditions on it to our Earth could have human life evolve on it like on Earth, but Baxter is saying that this is very unlikely. Here is a series of hundreds of thousands of Earths with almost identical conditions (just slight variations in climate, some are still in ice ages, some have developed desert conditions etc) but none of them have produced human life as we know it. (Big blow to those who hope the universe of Star Trek might one day become reality) The place I am at now in the book, has humanoid life develop on some of the other Earths but not only are they completely alien to the humans of datsun Earth they have also evolved with the ability to ‘step’ and Baxter has explored how that has affected how the species have evolved.

    We also have an exploration of the human drama of the Long Earth, and Baxter and Pratchett have written various asides and sub plots following how other humans have adapted to the Long Earth suddenly being there. There are stories of entrepreneurs trying to make their fortunes, and families heading off as pioneers to make a new life on a far off parallel Earth, as well as chapters on how economies and governments on Datsun Earth have been affected, overall it is well reasoned and intelligent social commentary on just how people might really respond to an event like this if it really happened.

    If I was to compare this to any book, I would say The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. There the idea of a plateau full of dinosaurs and neanderthals and early homo-sapiens is quite an imaginative leap to make with little science behind it, but how the three groups live together and how they have all evolved is actually quite believable and intelligently reasoned, and of course how the group of explorers lead by Professor Challenger react to it all, and how London society reacts as well is believable.

  4. Avatar the_hound says:

    Okay finished! (Flew through it in just two days).

    No, its not perfect. The novel in the second half moves towards a confrontation with a threat to the Long Earth, and well avoiding spoilers, the actual meeting and resolution of the threat is a little underwhelming (think Star Trek: The Motion Picture) , but then a new threat appears on Datsun Earth, and things end rather abruptly but its a threat that has been growing all novel, and leaves things wide open for a sequel, and I personally can’t wait!

    I would recommend this as a piece of thoughtful and actually very accessible sci fi. If you are intrigued by the concepts that Neal Stephenson and Stephen Baxter have in their books, but find the actual books themselves rather heavy on science and hard going, you will find this a way more enjoyable read. And Pratchett’s deft hand at characterization and humour is on full display here.

  5. Avatar Angelya says:

    Yes! I totally agree with your description of the book being more of a collection of ideas rather than a story. It kind of came across to me like they had sat there in a pub over a few pints and jotted down a whole bunch of ideas on a coaster.. “What if this happened?” “Or how about this?” It seemed to me like a string of situations that didn’t tie together all that well, but individually the things were really great. Does that make sense? 🙂 I didn’t hate the book, I just… didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped to.

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