The Long Earth: An ambitious let-down

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter 

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. 

~Kate Lechler


The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterStill going strong on my Terry Pratchett reading spree, I decided to move away from the fantasy novels that make up the majority of his literary corpus. It was Science Fiction I settled for, and a collaborative work at that: The Long Earth sees SF heavyweight Stephen Baxter join forces with Pratchett for a planned 5-part series.

The founding concept of The Long Earth is actually Pratchett’s brainchild, dreamed up somewhere between the publication of his first and second DISCWORLD novels. The premise is this: multiple worlds exist, possibly infinite versions of them. This in itself is no groundbreaking concept, but the way Pratchett and Baxter deal with the logistics of parallel universes is. It is possible to move between worlds using a device called a ‘Stepper.’ To clarify: a Stepper is a potato attached to a switch.

So, these alternate earths. They are totally devoid of humanity, unlike the usual alternate versions of humanity that are so common in SF. Seemingly infinite versions of the untouched, unspoiled natural world stretch out and it is our protagonist Josh who is going to explore them.

Joshua Valienté is living in a children’s home run by nuns on what will forever more be known as ‘Step Day’: the day when humanity realises travel through the Long Earth is possible. And what makes Josh special? He’s a natural stepper; that is, he can step through worlds without needed the aid of the mysterious potato-in-a-box. What’s more, he isn’t overcome by the stepping sickness that grips most of the people that step from earth to earth. He is enlisted by Lobsang, the re-embodied consciousness of a dead Tibetan, to explore Long Earth and map unchartered worlds and unknown creatures.

The Long Earth didn’t read like much like your average Pratchett book. Being a collaboration, of course you have to expect the other author to shape the work as well. But when you take a look at Good Omens, a collaborative work between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the characters and prose in that work ring much truer to Pratchett’s characteristic warmth and humour. The Long Earth seemed sparse, somehow, devoid of Pratchett’s quick dialogue and depth of character. There was something refreshingly clean about the prose; the no-frills language will have you zipping along at a healthy pace, but it comes at the price of the laughs.

Scientifically speaking, the whole thing is very well imagined. It’s a nod to Science Fiction reminiscent of the fifties and sixties, which lauded the discovery of new worlds. And with multiple worlds come multiple storylines: it’s easy to see how Pratchett and Baxter will have plenty of room to expand their universe and the characters in it.

Despite the vividly imagined and clearly described mechanics of the Long Earth and those travelling across it, one slight flaw of the novel was its plot. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof. Whilst there is a vague hint that something is amiss on the Long Earth, we never really find out exactly what this is. There is no real threat, no visible antagonist, human or natural. Whilst Joshua’s travels play out interestingly enough (and the less we say about his irritating companion Lobsang, the better) he returns without having really progressed or achieved anything.

Whilst it didn’t quite have the spark of Pratchett’s earlier fantasy works, The Long Earth is an easy and accessible read, which will not only leave readers contemplating the state of the planet and how they can better care for it; it will also leave them reaching for the next instalment.

~Rachael McKenzie


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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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2 comments

  1. I totally know what you mean about “grab bag”. How disappointing!

  2. Sounds like Pratchett provided the idea but Baxter did most of the writing. An intriguing concept but perhaps a bit lacking in the execution.

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