The Long Earth – Stephen Baxter & Terry Pratchett
The concept of the multiverse fascinates me, and I enjoy stories about it. The way that this idea is applied in The Long Earth is good – but unfortunately the rest of the story lets it down.
Basically, the Long Earth is a seemingly infinite series of parallel Earths that humans discover how to access (a process known as stepping). These Earths exist at the same time as ours (known as the Datum Earth) but feature different environments, different wildlife, and apparently no other humans. Naturally, the human population starts setting out to colonise these new worlds, causing no little turmoil on the Datum. The story follows Joshua Valiente, a young man who can not only step without a machine’s assistance, but can do so without the same debilitating side effects that everyone else suffers; he is hired by Lobsang, a computer who claims to be a reincarnated human, to go on a voyage to explore the limits of the Long Earth.
So yes, it’s a great concept, and Baxter and Pratchett get very inventive with it, with such things as human colonists setting out into the Long Earth like old American settlers, and the different climates and ecosystems of the Earths as they get further away from the Datum. But while these are good, they’re not enough to overcome some major problems.
Firstly, there isn’t really much of a story. There are sources of conflict, such as the problems caused by people leaving the Datum and some rather bitter people who are physically unable to step, plus the dangerous situations that Joshua finds himself in. But there’s no three-act structure, and no clear goal or conclusion that the characters are heading towards. For the most part, it’s just Joshua and Lobsang on their journey of exploration. As a result, much of the book is a slog, which is partly why there’s been such a gap between this and my last book review. Because it has no real structure, the book doesn’t end so much as it just stops, and on a cliffhanger that’s not really as tense and shocking as the authors might like. I know there are more stories after this one, so maybe this is the first act in a bigger story – but it should still stand on its own too, and it doesn’t really.
For a big chunk of the story, the only characters onscreen are Joshua and Lobsang. The latter is an interesting one; he’s friendly and charming enough, but also so powerful and all-seeing that you never feel truly comfortable in his company. Joshua, unfortunately, is another factor that lets the story down, as he’s more dull. A bit like Alex Cross, he’s too generic; I couldn’t get much of a feel for the kind of person he is except that he’s a practical guy who likes his privacy. He also doesn’t have much of a voice (unlike Lobsang) – you can’t look at his dialogue and instantly recognise him or link it to what he’s said before; indeed, occasionally his dialogue doesn’t feel like something a normal person would say, a pet peeve of mine in stories.
So The Long Earth ultimately appears to be mainly setting the stage for future stories – but it hasn’t left me terribly inclined to read those. Rating: 2.5/5.