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The Long Earth: a Voyage Across Millions of Earths
Sometimes, an author happens upon an idea of such poetic brilliance that it can define him for the rest of his career, launching him into the legends of his genre. Terry Pratchett had such an idea several decades ago--and then, the series he was working on, a little thing called Discworld, took off like wildfire, so he put it aside.
Now, with the Discworld getting a bit too full and the end of his life becoming increasingly apparent, Pratchett has decided to re-examine the idea he had back before Discworld got started, helped by fellow science fiction writer Stephen Baxter. The result, the novel "The Long Earth" is simultaneously innovative and amazing. Despite how much I love Pratchett's writing, I was legitimately surprised how much I loved this book.
The central conceit of the story is that our Earth, referred to as the Datum Earth, is surrounded by an infinite number of nearly identical Earths, each with minute differences, causing different species to evolve on each world. A small percentage of people on the Datum can "step" to these worlds naturally, but when a mad genius is able to perfect a ridiculously simple machine (the parts can be bought at RadioShack for roughly $20, and it's powered by a potato) to allow almost everyone else to gain the ability to step, the world changes radically. People empty out of the Datum to strike out for a free space of their own, creating their own frontier settlements on Earths thousands of steps away from the Datum.
The main plot of the novel concerns Joshua Valiente, a young natural stepper who serves as a sort of Daniel Boone for the new frontier of the Long Earth by saving inexperienced pioneers from their own mistakes, all the while trying his best to avoid the traces of society that are creeping out into the untamed worlds surrounding the Datum. Joshua is recruited by transEarth, a giant corporation trying to make a profit over the new found existence of the Long Earth, to accompany Lobsang, an artificial intelligence who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman (and therefore deserving of the right to be considered a human being) on a voyage to see how far they can go on the Long Earth, and see what they'll find millions of steps from the Datum. Aside from the main plot, the book occasionally drops in on other characters, including the Greens, a family who abandons their phobic (i.e. unable to step) son in order to join a pioneer expedition to create a colony 1700 or so worlds from the Datum, as well as Madison, WI police officer Monica Jansson, who has become the go-to person for law enforcement complications involving the Long Earth.
Pratchett and Baxter have obviously thought out how this sort of situation would work for a long time. If you could spread out across an infinite series of world, there would never again be a scarcity of anything (wood, metal, gold), although you'd still have to carry mined resources across the worlds yourself (Iron and its derivatives also cannot be carried from one world to the next). Also, if a significant chunk of the population simply disappears to other worlds, what does that do to the governments they leave behind. Is an American living on a distant Earth in a what is a part of the US on the Datum still an American citizen? How do you deal with the possibility of thieves or suicide bombers who can essentially step through whatever barriers are on the Datum?
And all of this is brought up or mentioned before the story even gets to the main plot of the book: that while there are no humans on alternate Earths, there are other hominids who have evolved the ability to step naturally, and these beings (called trolls and elves by Joshua and Lobsang) seem to be migrating towards the Datum, fleeing some mysterious entity which seems itself to be following them...
Lobsang and Joshua are both fascinating characters. Joshua especially is an interesting mix of character traits, a misanthrope who is legitimately uncomfortable around other people but who nevertheless feels driven to help out those who have endangered themselves through stupidity, bad luck, or inexperience. The likable and affable yet deceptive and somewhat creepy (thanks to his seeming omnipotence) Lobsang plays off him interestingly, and it's particularly fascinating to watch the extremely antisocial Joshua warm up to the know-it-all computer with the strange sense of humor and taste for old movies. A third character who joins in midway, a fellow natural stepper named Sally, didn't win me over as much, as she seemed to alternate between being smug, being rude, and being jealous of Joshua, although she did get better as the story went along.
The book doesn't have a plot per se, and a lot of the story is just Joshua and Lobsang exploring one world or another, combined with occasional chapters focusing on the Green family or Monica Jansson. The troll migrations and what is causing them do start something of a plot, but although the plot thread is "resolved" by the end of the book its full implications are only barely hinted at. Instead, we get a sudden plot twist that ends the book not so much on a cliffhanger but instead on the moment after the hero has fallen over the cliff, and has just picked himself up from his fall to figure out what he should do next. It certainly makes you want to read the next book, which I can only hope will come out soon.
One of Pratchett's great talents is his snappy writing and dialogue, of which in this story we only get brief glimpses. Some of the dialogue in this book is almost shamefully clunky, and there is at least one early chapter that is an extremely poorly disguised info dump for how stepping and the Long Earth work, even more shamefully containing mostly details that had been established in earlier chapters. I don't know whether I should blame this on Baxter (having never read any of his books) or on Pratchett's struggles with Alzheimer's, but the quality of the writing definitely dips a bit, even though it is still largely good.
That said, this is an intriguing enough concept for a story to overrule the comparatively minor quibbles. Definitely check it out if you're a Pratchett fan or want a well-thought out and clever alternate Earth adventure.