Thursday, November 28, 2013
Review: The Long Earth
I’m a huge fan of both Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, so when I heard they were collaborating on a science fiction novel it immediately got added to my must-read list.
Step day changed everything. A simple device constructed from components available at any Radio Shack and powered by a potato of all things, opened the doorway to an infinite set of parallel Earths known as the Long Earth. With the flick of a switch people stepped onto another Earth, one completely untouched by the ravages of humanity. Another flick of the switch, and you were on yet another Earth, and another and another... The Long Earth was born.
The cast of characters are compelling. The main story follows Joshua Valienté a loner with a natural knack for stepping who is recruited by Lobsang, an AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repair man, to accompany him on an exploratory mission to see how far the Long Earth stretches. Lobsang’s character is a bit grating initially, but as time progresses he grows on you. There is lots of subtle humour in the relationship between Lobsang and Joshua and their witty banter provides some comic relief (although not on the same level as the Discworld novels) in an otherwise serious novel. There is a perpetual question mark about Lobsang’s true nature that keeps you guessing. Is he really a reincarnated human as he claims, or is he a very, very smart AI?
The Long Earth is also intermingled with the stories of other individuals and families as they try to carve out new lives for themselves in the Long Earth. The most notable of these, the Green family leaves everything they know behind, including their non-stepper son, to join in a pioneering expedition to start afresh on a distant Earth.
I loved the premise of The Long Earth; an infinite string of parallel Earths offering a canvas of endless possibilities and ideas to explore. Baxter and Pratchett excel at contemplating how these other Earths might have developed, how life might have evolved differently from our own and how the sudden accessibility to nearly infinite resources and space might impact human society back on the original Earth (known as Datum Earth).
“Joshua, always remember, you have not travelled back in time, or forward. You have travelled far across the contingency tree of the possible, on a planet where dramatic quasi-random extinction events periodically obliterate much of the family of life, leaving room for evolutionary innovation. On each Earth, however, the outcomes will differ, by a little or a lot..." (p. 272)
Unfortunately this focus on playing with interesting ideas results in a novel with a rather disjointed storyline. The Long Earth is mostly a travelogue chronicling Joshua and Lobsang’s voyage of exploration throughout the Long Earth. There is no real driving force aside from the journey itself. The ostensible threat they discover along the way, the reason the other hominid species are fleeing toward Datum Earth, is far too easily resolved; almost as an afterthought. The cliffhanger ending is abrupt and felt rushed and somehow unfulfilling, leaving you with little idea where the rest of the story is ultimately headed.
If you can get past its flaws The Long Earth is a fascinating read, especially if you enjoy the exploration of big ideas and the sense of wonder it provides. This is the first novel in a series and it shows in the very abrupt ending. Fans of Terry Pratchett shouldn’t expect anything similar to the Discworld novels. There is some subtle humour, but Pratchett’s unique wit only makes very brief appearances. Where the novel shines is in how deftly it explores all the fascinating possibilities of evolution and how subtle changes in Earth’s history could have caused things to turn out very differently.
The Rating: 6.5 (Good)