The idea of parallel universes is not a new one, but travelling to them in fiction always involves massive amounts of power, an inbuilt knack or a wormhole of some kind. In The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter travelling to the parallel earth next door is easy, all you need is some basic electronics and a potato. The potato sounds absurd but once you consider that it’s the perfect organic battery it fits in with the way Pratchett and Baxter’s universe works.
The other earths are all slightly different, all different realities with one thing in common: no humans. In every other Earth, humanity never happened.
Suddenly mankind has all the space it needs, all the resources we could ever use and more. What happens then? The Long Earth is a semi-serious look at answering these questions, with the scientific and political ramifications of simply being able to jump to the next world when you’re done with this one.
We see most of the story through the eyes of Joshua Valienté, someone who can step between Earths without a machine and his travelling companion Lobsang, a Tibetian motorcycle repairman who happens to have been reincarnated inside a computer. We do get a little bit of the story of Monica Jansson, a police officer assigned to help police those Americans who travel to the other earths. Joshua is presented in story as strange and anti-social but his character is very easy to like. Lobsang comes off as a cross between a benevolent monk and HAL 2000.
There are no real antagonists in The Long Earth, although there is plenty of danger and adventure as they get further and further from our version of earth. This lack of a primary antagonist would normally slow a book down but The Long Earth keeps up the pace by keeping the variations of visited Earths interesting. Our Earth is in danger, both from its own populace and from several million Earth’s away. These dangers help keep the tension up as Joshua tries to reconcile what he knows with what he is seeing.
There are a lot of Star Trek references in The Long Earth, and it could almost be an homage to Gene Roddenberry. Even though there are no spaceships as such, there is a small crew boldly going and the vision of humanity and its future is broadly very positive. Pratchett’s humor isn’t as overt as it is in the Discworld series but it is definitely present. There are also plenty of references to the Discworld scattered through the novel. Baxter’s meticulous approach to science fiction is also obvious as everything feels like it could be possible, if we can accept that travelling to a parallel Earth only requires a trip to Radio Shack and a tuber.
There are a few problems with The Long Earth, but they mostly stem from the fact that it’s book one of a two book series and thus its ending feels like a midway point rather than a real ending per se. I would have liked to have heard more from Officer Jansson as her character is vital to the novel’s integrity but she vanishes about a third of the way in and doesn’t reappear until the end.
A very good, interesting sci-fi adventure desperately in need of its sequel. The next book is being written at the moment but doesn’t have a firm release date. Whenever it is, I’ll be lining up for my copy.
Andrew Jack lives with his wife in Christchurch New Zealand and has been misusing the written word for most of his life. He even got his first rejection letter from Random House at the age of four, who kindly suggested he learn to read and write before resubmitting. A life long martial arts enthusiast, Andrew spends his time getting beaten up by his friends, writing like he’ll starve if he doesn’t and trying to stop his cats from destroying his house.