The last time Pratchett collaborated on a novel was with Neil Gaiman on the now modern classic Good Omens. 22 years later he’s back and collaborating with Stephen Baxter on a story of seemingly infinite earths called The Long Earth. After speaking to both (for a future episode of The Readers) I know that the book started as an idea that was too big for Terry to handle alone. The irony here is that they were brought together by the smaller quantum.
Before we go further I’m going to be honest and say it’s not a new Good Omens but that wasn’t what I expected. What I expected was an exploration by the authors and their characters of what you can do when you can ‘step’ West or East into a new Earth that has never seen the effect of humanity; a virtual clean slate and seemingly unlimited variations on the potential of our planet. And to explore those possibilities we follow Joshua, who kept his head on ‘Step Day’ when the design for ‘Stepper’ boxes were released into the world, as he sets on an adventure across worlds.
The ‘What If?’ question here could be; if humanity could suddenly have access to infinite resources and could escape their present situation by stepping themselves sideways what would happen?
And on face value a famous sf writer and a famous fantasy writer look like an odd pairing to explore this idea. That is until you remember that they are both interested in humanity and how they cope and interact with the environments they are in. Take Flood Baxter uses the rising waters on earth to explore humanity’s reaction though the canvas is slightly larger than Pratchett who I’d suggest as more of a satirist (especially in his Discworld novels) looks at humans in a more intimate way. So you have a writer than can cope well with massive ideas like flooding a world combined with a writer who can entertain with the absurdity of life.
Though I’m making a too simplistic argument. Both are masters of their craft and I didn’t notice a join. You could look at it as a patchwork with the main pattern decided between them before each add their own sections and flourishes but unless you grabbed a few of their other novels and started an operation worthy of an English Language degree I’d say you’d be hard pressed to separate them.
You really can’t see the seam and the story they’ve weaved together from a few main threads and minor but nonetheless needed ones is engaging and thoughtful. And they’ve only given themselves a couple of limits to what people can do with this new ‘stepping’ ability; the main one being you can’t take iron with you. That does show our progress to shape these new worlds a little mostly gives it that wild west frontier feel, which is reinforced by setting it in Madison, Wisconsin, 2015.
After some initial confusion about why it’s not set in Britain America does make sense as the perfect launching ground as mentioned it’s that pioneer spirit and they do show how Britain reacts. Let’s just say America embraces the idea and Britain tries to stop this ‘stepping’ happening.
They do a brilliant job of making visits to these different possible earths as interesting as possible though a couple of times when those stops (it’ll make sense when you read it) feel more for the benefit of showing us sometimes cool and not moving the plot onwards. It’ll depend on your tolerance but I enjoyed seeing all the little variations.
Now interestingly their choice of threat to our new freedom as an extension of what happens if a world thrives without us humans. That isn’t to say there aren’t humanoid characters as they do a good job of giving a scientific rationale to our encounters with elves and trolls but they also give them a twist.
The Long Earth is a more than a sum of its creators. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter have amalgamated into a fun exploration of the pioneering human spirit in a potentially overwhelming what if. Not only do they manage to explore new worlds where no man has gone before but they do so by making us consider what unique creatures we human are.