The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is a really interesting book without being a particularly good one.
The concept for The Long Earth itself arises from a short story Pratchett wrote before he became Pratchett with a capital P. Essentially, there are other versions of Earth strung out like a strand of pearls in parallel universes — and the ability to travel to these Earths has begun to spread through the human race with the advent of new technology called the “stepper.” The technology itself is pointedly pointless; it is literally a potato connected, with some wires and electrical components, to a switch. Using this, people can step “East” or “West” of what comes to be known as “Datum Earth” — our Earth. The most obvious difference between the worlds of The Long Earth is that only on Datum Earth did apes evolve into homo sapiens.
This concept allows Baxter and Pratchett to explore a multitude of fascinating ideas. What would Earth look like without human impact? How about if an asteroid crashed into it a million years ago? What if the climate was cooler, or hotter? What other species would evolve given different conditions? The main characters explore these possible Earths, and more, as they travel West down the line of planets. The parallel Earths of The Long Earth also allow Pratchett and Baxter to consider what it might mean for our planet and civilization if we stumbled onto a wealth of unlimited resources.
One of the problems of The Long Earth, though, is that it is crammed with too many interesting plot points, as if it is a grab-bag of all of Pratchett and Baxter’s good ideas. The explorers encounter other sapient species out in the Long Earth — a gentle, singing ape-like species they dub “trolls,” an aggressive hog-riding species they call “elves,” and the archaeological remnants of a long-dead dinosaur species. Each of these discoveries would be enough material for a book on its own. However, in addition to these close encounters, the human explorers begin to sense an ominous presence far out in the Long Earth. Waves of sapient species are escaping from it, running down the line of planets towards Datum Earth. But there isn’t enough emphasis put on this plot point (ostensibly the big mystery and climax of the novel); instead, it feels like one among many threads. And when the protagonists do finally encounter the colossal species threatening other sapient life, the show-down is more of a let-down. Baxter and Pratchett’s alien antagonist had the potential to be very scary, almost Lovecraftian, but somehow it comes across as anticlimactic.
The story is told through multiple viewpoints. Joshua Valente, a teenager who is preternaturally good at stepping, is the nexus of most of character relationships. His friends include a cop trying to unravel the mystery of stepping, a brash lady-explorer named Sally, a nun named Sister Agnes, and an artificial intelligence who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorbike repairman named Lobsang. However, most of these characters felt flat and unrelatable to me. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why but I still can’t really put my finger on it. The best description I have is that they felt like collections of characteristics rather than real people. Perhaps they weren’t given enough interiority; sometimes I didn’t really understand why certain characters acted the way they did. I felt genuine distaste for Sally, who is too precise a parody of sassy tough lady-hood. She is prickly and sarcastic even when it seems unwarranted and, despite giving the impression of a sharp wit, her jokes aren’t very funny.
Which could be one of the main reasons I didn’t, on the whole, like The Long Earth very much. Terry Pratchett’s trademark humor was completely absent from this book. What attempts at humor there were consisted of characters making lame jokes to each other in dialogue sequences that felt like they belonged to an action blockbuster. Granted, the point of this book wasn’t to be funny and it’s perhaps unfair of me to expect Pratchett to do the same thing every time — like expecting a comedian to be “on” when she’s just picking up her laundry. And some of the more ridiculous ideas — the potato that powers the stepper, the reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman — do seem to have a Pratchett-ian stamp. It makes me wonder what the division of writing labor was like between Baxter and Pratchett, but also makes me incalculably grateful that Pratchett found a niche with Discworld.
Baxter and Pratchett have both signed on for a total of 5 books and, despite the lackluster writing and characterization, I will probably continue to read the series just because I find the main idea so compelling. I’ve always wished I still lived in the days before Google Earth, when you could still find untouched islands. In The Long Earth, the exploration is limitless.