The Long Earth, the first in a planned series of novels by these two giants of the British publishing scene is an expansively imaginative work.
Flavoured more by Stephen Baxter‘s high-concept reckonings of future realities, with only traces here and there of Terry Pratchett‘s warmth and whimsy, it is nevertheless a successful collaboration between the two authors which draws on the strengths of both.
It traces what happens to a stressed, but thankfully not dark and dystopian Earth (it is refreshing to have a novel where our beloved home planet isn’t an irredeemable wasteland) when plans are released on the internet for a device, which comes to be known as a “stepper” which allows people to travel between alternate versions of our planet as easily as they pop down to the shops for milk and bread.
Been there, read that, you think cynically? Well, the twist here my friends is that none of these Earths have a single person on them. Not one.
Only our reality is stuffed to the gills with an overabundance of Homo Sapiens, and so a great land grab ensues as people quickly wake up to the fact that here is a chance for riches, and advancement on a scale no longer possible on what becomes known as Datum Earth.
But while there is an avaricious rush for the glittering jewels of new possibility, with corporations and entrepreneurs rushing for their slice of the pie, so too are there are many disadvantaged or world weary souls who see the chance for a fresh new beginning on planets unaffected by mankind’s proclivity for self-destructive behaviour.
Of course, this being a book partly by Stephen Baxter, a man who while not inclined to wallow in the despairing realms of dystopian bleakness, nevertheless doesn’t shy from being frank about mankind’s true nature, that genius for self-sabotage is acknowledged and factored into the narrative.
But by and large, this headlong rush into the Long Earth, which consists of infinite earths stretching on into the horizon, results in largely positive outcomes. Since the new earths are essentially unending in number, and can theoretically accommodate Earth’s population many times over, there is room for everyone and so people are able to set off to pursue their own dreams for the future with stepping, literally and figuratively, on anyone’s toes.
Seen primarily through the eyes of Joshua Valiente, who through a quirk of birth, is what is called a “natural stepper” – one of rare and hitherto unknown breed of people who can step without a “stepper” – the journey through the many variations of Earth is an illuminating one. We are able to see the plethora of evolutionary possibilities that might have taken place had mankind never cast his shadow over the planet.
He joined by Sally, who is the daughter of the man who makes it possible for non “natural steppers” to slip adroitly across the paper-thin dimensional divide, and Lobsang, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) deemed human by virtue of possibly being the reincarnated embodiment of a Tibetan motor mechanic (here Terry Pratchett’s gift for quirky characters is fully realised), and representative of the Black Corporation, who are, like most businesses, eager to make money from the infinite planets now in our reach.
Of course, it is not necessarily a Utopian delight.
Extremists, largely made up of those who, steppers or no steppers, are physically unable to travel between the worlds (and are thus denied the benefits of the new worlds) and led by a poisonously charismatic Brian Cowley agitate for governments back on the Datum to cease supporting those who risk it all for a better life. It is a realistic depiction of what could happen now if some new beneficial development excluded a certain sector of the population, who thus disenfranchised would go to great and destructive lengths in order to obtain some form of restitution.
And naturally what book of this nature would be complete without a gathering storm, a sense that the limitless possibilities of this infinite Nirvana may be threatened by unnamed forces sweeping in from the far reaches of the alternate universes. There is a distinct sense of “something wicked this way comes” in the book, but in the end it fizzles out a little, becoming more an intriguing possibility of what lies out there than a palpable, possibly terrifying threat.
It is one small misstep in what is in every other regard a superlative book that skillfully, and satisfyingly countenances the what-ifs of troubled but not endangered Earth offered a new unexpected chance for renewal, and examines both the fault lines, and nobleness of spirit running through the DNA of mankind that would be exposed if such a scenario were to come to pass.