Book review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Near the end of “The Long Earth,” after a long quest, the three central characters come face to face with an entity that one describes as “a destroyer of worlds. An eater of souls.”

Or, as another more bluntly puts it, “the end of the world” for humans.

That’s a lot for a reader to bite off and gobble down. The end of the world? Really?

Yet, it’s a measure of the skill and imagination of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter that, by this point in the novel, the reader doesn’t hear melodramatic echoes from bad sci-fi flicks.

Instead, the reader is more likely to hear echoes from J. Robert Oppenheimer who, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, recalled the line from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Stepping

This is a book that operates on three levels. The authors use their science fiction story to connect to present-day issues for humanity, in this case, the possession and threat of nuclear weapons.

On another level, the book is an exercise in scientific speculation. It posits a discovery that we live in one of an infinite number of parallel Earths (and universes), each shaped in large and small ways by different random events.

Then it asks: How different are these Earths? And what happens if a way is found to slip from one Earth to another?

In this case, the method is called “stepping,” and 80 percent of humans are able to do it. And many do, flying and/or fleeing what’s called Datum Earth to other Earths and new lives. (And leaving behind the other 20 percent, known as phobics, who become an increasingly restless and antagonistic minority.)

When you step, you can go in one direction (arbitrarily called East) or another (West). Each alternative world that you come across is different from Datum Earth, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in radical ways — sometimes in really radical ways.

This gives Pratchett and Baxter a lot of room to imagine the species that might be found on other Earths, the landscapes, the sentient beings. Even the tilt of the poles, the presence or absence of the Moon.

The result is an intellectually stimulating journey for the reader.

A new world — er, millions of new worlds

On its third level, the novel is also an adventure story — patterned in some ways on the discovery of the Americas.

Yet, instead of heroes and villains, Pratchett and Baxter envision worlds of people and animals just trying to survive. There’s some dog-eat-dog, but not much. And what there is is seen as a fight for survival, not the workings of good and evil.

“This is not a malevolent phenomenon, or in any way wrong,” one character says about a major threat. “There is no villain here.”

The novel is also built on the idea that, with the freedom to move, people will leave big, crowded, intense cities and create on other Earths small communities where humans will be much less likely to be violent or selfish or anti-social or evil.

This attitude is in contrast to the space wars that occur throughout Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series which essentially replayed the history — the violent history — of Western Civilization.

Happy Landings

I don’t think I buy this touchy-feely sociology, epitomized by a place called Happy Landings. And, truth be told, it also unsettles two of the book’s central characters, Joshua and Sally.

So I’m thinking this may get dealt with in a more satisfying way in a future book — and it does appear there will be at least one sequel and maybe many more.

“The Long Earth” had its genesis in several short stories that Pratchett wrote before he published his first Discworld novel “The Color of Magic” in 1983, and found huge success — 65 million copies of Discworld books sold! — as a fantasy writer. Recently, he pulled out these manuscripts and began working with Baxter on this novel.

Certainly, Pratchett and Baxter have embedded several storylines in “The Long Earth” that could serve as full novels of their own in the future.

I’m looking forward to that. And to seeing how they deal with violence on these other Earths.

Oh, and also, that “eater of souls.”

Patrick T. Reardon
July 1, 2012

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