The Long Earth: A Novel by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)
Read by Michael Fenton-Stevens (2012) for Harper Audio (review copy)
Review by Sam: I’m completely of two minds on this audiobook. First, and this is not one of those minds but rather a comment, there isn’t quite the humor and wit as in Pratchett’s Discworld books, but then again this isn’t at all that kind of story. It’s a story that’s more earnest than that, not a send-up or pastiche of the kind of novel it pretends to be on the surface. It really is a sf novel with two big ideas: a “stepper box” (simple Radio Shack level electronics and … a potato) which allows humans to step between alternate worlds, and also a well-done distributed AI (also with a bit of a Pratchett-esque “hook”, in that this AI gains legal recognition by claiming to be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman). There’s some interesting examinations of both ideas. With the alternate worlds, Pratchett and Baxter move on past the first and second ideas (e.g. jumping into another world, walking past the bank vault’s wall, and jumping back to gather the cash; assassinations; heading for well-known gold mines and oil wells; etc.) and past even the new Pilgrim and “back to primitivism” colony expeditions to the social-political implications: the poor urban centers emptying out into the verdant, fertile, unclaimed wilds. Overpopulation and deep poverty in India? What if with a potato and some wires you could step into a world where an orchard of unpicked apples rests near a stream of fresh, unpolluted water, alongside a soft green field ready for planting? And the further implications of these get at least a cursory exploration, as nation-states grapple with this exodus of their tax base, etc. There are even some more twists, such as a minority who cannot step, or if they can step it is only with severe side effects beyond the “normal” nausea and vomiting. This creates a quasi-religious political movement, and an interesting side-plot through the novel.
But speaking of exploration, that’s what this novel truly is about. Joshua, our primary protagonist, and Lobsang, the distributed AI, embark on an exploration of the Long Earth — those alternate earths hundreds, thousands of “steps” away from our own Earth. Are there higher life forms out there? Is there an end? How weird can it get?
As I entered the final third of the book, I wrote that I was very puzzled as to why I’ve seen so many “meh” reviews of this book: “Unless it falls apart in the final quarter it’s been delightful really. Top 5 in my 2012 sf reads this year (2312 and No Going Back being the top 2) quite easily.” And you know, it doesn’t so much “fall apart” as end incredibly rushed and abruptly, with so many started threads collapsing or left dangled, that this is where I get that “second mind” about the book. The narration and production are fantastic, the story quite enjoyable, but even as the first book of a series (The Long War is set for a June 2013 release) the story doesn’t just back away from some resolutions, it runs, screaming, headlong into the night away from resolution.