People who buy a new Terry Pratchett usually do so in the hope of finding themselves in the comfortable, funny and wise purlieus of Discworld; full of well-known characters with personalities hovering on the edge of predictable and quirky, which are used to illustrate pertinent themes concerning the foolishness of humankind. Granny Weatherwax, the doyen of the witches, and Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of Unseen University, spring to mind. Gentle but pertinent satire is Pratchett’s forte.
The Long Earth is not about Discworld and it has been written with Stephen Baxter, an author whose prolific output equals that of Pratchett and who has been described as a writer of high-concept science fiction.
Pratchett’s earlier successful collaboration with Neil Gaiman produced Good Omens, which was an exploration of the possible end of the world, with good and bad angels, the four horsemen of the apocalypse and sundry witches. This book, however, does not use any of Pratchett’s usual characters or gags and is, on second reading, quite refreshing. This collaboration works, too. One of the pleasures for a reader is to try to work out what aspects of the novel have been created by each author. I have not read Stephen Baxter but I think I can recognise some of Pratchett’s preoccupations.
Pratchett has for a long time been intrigued with aspects of physics and has used the word ‘quantum’ in many of his books as a metaphor for scientific gobbledegook; particularly in those books where the wizards of Unseen University discuss magic. But he also uses ‘quantum’ in order to play with the notion of parallel universes where he suggests we could get lost in the wrong legs of ‘the trousers of time’.
The Long Earth begins with private Percy, who involuntarily escapes from the horrors of the First World War to a land of untouched beauty where he encounters creatures he assumes are Russians. He sings ‘Pack up your troubles’ to them and they sing it back, word perfect. He has ‘stepped’ to one of a long chain of parallel worlds of which the Earth we know is but one.
Parallel worlds provide the backbone to this book. The ‘Long Earth’ refers to a series of parallel Earths side by side, which can be reached by ‘stepping’. There are thousands of Earths into which those who have created their stepping device can travel at the price of some nausea. In a typical Pratchett fancy the stepping device is powered by a potato.
Joshua, one of the main characters, is a careful loner who was one of the first of those who found the plan for a stepper on the web and vanished from what the authors call Datum Earth. His carefulness has saved many children who had stepped inappropriately. He has a history which makes him special and has been brought up in an orphanage by nuns who are reminiscent of Pratchett’s witches; wise and earthy. As the story develops, Joshua travels with Lobsang, a robot who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan monk, from Earth to Earth in a blimp-like vessel, which is probably also part of Lobsang. Bear with me.
There is a paradox in the narrative, for although the myriad parallel Earths offer unlimited horizons for humankind, the main characters are trying to map these Earths and, in so doing, control them.
The authors use the early tentative explorations of those living on Datum Earth to examine aspects of human behaviour: greed, curiosity, kindness, the pioneering spirit, the will to power. But although these explorations are interesting, the main part of the story is the journey made by Joshua and Lobsang. What could be a dull trip covering Earth after Earth is made believable by the imaginative depiction of the terrain and the new and wonderful encounters with people and animals along the way. The book is rich in incident and character:
At random they paused at a world somewhere around twenty thousand. The sky here was overcast, threatening rain. Without the sunlight the rolling grassland below was a dull grey-green, with scattered clumps of darker forest. On this particular world Joshua could see no sign of mankind, not so much as a thread of smoke. Yet there was movement. To the north he saw a huge herd drifting over the landscape. Horses? Bison? Camels, even? Or something more exotic? And by the shore of a lake below he made out more groups of animals, a black fringe by the water.
As the balloon/blimp floats above the Earths, Joshua and Lobsang discuss everything from Keats and Wordsworth to evolution; from the role of the singing trolls they encounter, to the best way to cook fish. These clever discussions seem highly rational and indeed somewhat blokey and hint, I think, at the way the novel was composed: two skilled writers with erudition-stuffed auras getting together to create. Even when Sally, an independent stepper, is encountered, she seems a somewhat male construction. She is a feisty, argumentative woman and doesn’t ring true as a character, more of a foil:
Sally smiled thinly. ‘You know, Joshua, for an antisocial weirdo you are sometimes almost perceptive. Look – what bugs me above all is that I’ve had to come to you two for help. Well to anybody. I’ve been living on my own resources for years. I suspect I can’t face this problem on my own, but I hate to admit it.’
This ‘problem’ threatens the Long Earth, and no doubt the sequel will deal with it, but it is not so much the narrative drive of this story that pleases, as the wonderful creativity and indeed wisdom revealed in the debates and discussions held as the main characters travel. This is a rich and interesting fantasy.
Folly Gleeson was once a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading clever fantasy novels.
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