Book review – Uneven steps, but too intriguing to be a misstep

2012-11-24 16:18

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter, Doubleday, 352 pages, R307.

A collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter sounds intriguing, but unlike Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s sublime Good Omens, it doesn’t look like the master of comic fantasy had that much input on the actual writing part of this book, because it’s not particularly funny.

But perhaps that’s just how an older Sir Terry wants to roll these days.

It makes one wonder what he might have come up with had he focused more on science fiction and less on fantasy – Baxter’s SF credentials are, of course, well established.

Unsurprisingly, their ideas are intriguing. Humanity cracks an easy way to travel into “the Long Earth”, an endless sequence of parallel earths, each subtly different from our own.

Suddenly, human overpopulation is no longer an issue, as billions of people disappear into the frontier of new, unpopulated earths just a thought away from our own.

None of this is a new idea, but in this book it all feels almost fresh, because a quite convincing picture is painted of our history in fact being shaped by the Long Earth and those who have always been able to travel through it.

The story is related primarily through the character of Joshua Valienté, an orphan with the rare ability to “step” between worlds without the aid of a “stepper” (which is the only typically Pratchett-like thing in the book, a circuit box with a switch, all powered by a potato). He teams up with a machine entity called Lobsang, who successfully proved in court – to avoid getting switched off – that he is the reincarnation of a Tibetan monk.

The two set off to the unexplored reaches of millions of parallel worlds beyond the boundaries of where humanity has so far “stepped”.

The style throughout is a little hit-and-miss, sometimes making you think you’re in a children’s book, but then someone swears.

And none of the characters are particularly likeable or memorable.

But the innovation and “what if” speculation that Pratchett and Baxter unwind as they steadily reveal the mysteries of the Long Earth are intriguing enough to keep any fan of science fiction powering through the pages to the almost poignant conclusion.

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