THE LONG EARTH
Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Long Earth is a collaborative novel by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, two authors whose previous works would not have indicated an affinity for each other. Nevertheless, this novel about the exploration of multiple earths works quite well, allowing the strengths of each author to show through and allowing them to write things outside their normal range.
The novel postulates that there are several earths parallel to our own, although our version seems to be the only one populated, at least by humans with any sort of advanced technology. The discovery of other earths is broadcast over the internet by Willis Linsay and in the resulting chaos as people step from one world to another, Joshua Valienté, an orphan in Madison, Wisconsin, discovers that he has the ability to step between worlds without using the device Linsay gave to the world.
Although the book tends to follow Joshua and his desire to just explore the world alone, there are other subplots running through the book, few of which provide any resolution, but all of which offer greater depth to the world(s) Pratchett and Baxter are describing. Eventually, Joshua is recruited by Lobsang, a Tibetan who has possibly managed to be reincarnated as a machine, but has definitely been able to get his humanity recognized. The two set off in Lobsang’s airship, stepping through worlds faster than Joshua had thought possible.
Throughout the novel, Joshua proclaims himself a loner. He loves the emptiness that the long earth provides, the silence (or perhaps Silence) which he can find there. Nevertheless, he isn’t antisocial, striking up a relationship with Monica Jansson, a Madison police officer with an interest in the other worlds, the various nuns at the Home where he was raised, Lobsang, and, eventually, a mysterious woman named Sally.
In some ways, The Long Earth is reminiscent of Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Once Joshua and Lobsang begin their voyage of exploration on the dirigible Mark Twain, the journey, as they move through the various versions of the long earth, is similar to the journey down the River that Farmer's characters experience. They are separate from the lands through which they pass, although they are still affected by those lands and, occasionally are strongly impacted by the landscape.
There are times during The Long Earth when one of the authors' voices seems to jump out at the reader. A turn of phrase will seem as if Baxter is writing a segment, or a comment is made that appears to indicate Pratchett's sense of humor has escaped. On a similar note, there are a few places where the phrasing clearly demonstrates that the book was written by two Englishmen rather than by Americans, which is only disconcerted since the main characters in the book are American. These "glitches," however, are few although they do have a tendency to drop the reader from the narrative for a few moments as awareness that it is a narrative sets in.
The book doesn't end with a cliffhanger, but it does present the set-up for a subsequent volume. Perhaps more importantly, for the sequel, Joshua now seems to have a purpose beyond simply exploring the worlds of the long earth. Although the book should feel like a prologue to another work, it doesn’t, and Joshua’s exploration of the long earth and his strange relationships draw the reader in to care about him.
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