Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Book Review: The Long Earth

On my flight back from Kansas I finished reading The Long Earth. This is the first Terry Pratchett novel I've read in some time. The rest are reserved for the next time I take a serious crack at writing. I wrote a short novel that I credit the Discworld books for helping establish the mindset needed for me to create text. Not that this has anything to do with the subject of today's essay.

The Long Earth is a collaboration by Sir Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. It's a different approach to the idea of parallel universes. We all know about the idea that each decision, each twist of fate, each flip of a coin, creates an alternate timeline or universe where another decision was made, fate twisted counter clockwise, the coin landed on it's edge. In The Long Earth someone posted plans online to make a simple device that allows people to step into one of the alternate universes that are our immediate neighbors. Strangely enough, there's nobody there. Never has been, as far as we can tell. Nor in the universes beyond that. Or beyond that. Or beyond that. But go far enough and you'll encounter a series of ice age worlds. Keep going and you'll find a series of worlds great for growing corn. And, occasionally, a universe where Earth never formed.

There's rules to stepping between worlds. Iron can't go. It just gets left behind. Your must build your own stepper, your own traveling box, in order for it to work. The device doesn't seem to be as important as working through the design. And having an actual switch to flip. Some people don't need a stepper. Some people can't step at all and are trapped on Earth Prime. Most people are sick for 10-15 minutes after they step.

With all these worlds creating a new frontier mankind spreads out. Nearby universes can trade with Earth Prime, but there must be people carrying the stuff. Logs must be carried. Oil only comes a barrel at a time. But the labor force of Earth Prime is quickly vanishing into worlds that are more open, free, and resource rich.

The book starts with the story jumping between different groups of people. A police officer, a natural stepper, a family of settlers, an entrepreneur, a child left behind, etc. Eventually, it starts to settle down. A Tibetan monk who has reincarnated as an advanced AI recruits a guy who can step without the device to be his traveling companion. The AI/monk embodies a dirigible and can make the whole thing step. They're on a quest to explore a few million of the nearest universes.

This collaboration is a bit different than the one between Pratchett and Gaiman that gave us Good Omens. You can still see some of Pratchett's fingerprints (probably Baxter's too, but I haven't read enough of his stuff to be able to recognize his prints) but it's more like the later Discworld books. They're not as funny, but are a serious treatment of a strange and amusing world. It gives him a chance to play in a world other than the one that has come to define him so completely.

I do recommend the book. Thanks to this book, the other Baxter books on my shelves have moved up the list of books to be read.

1 comment:

James Breakwell said...

I don't think I'd make the jump for parallel worlds full of ice and corn. If there's one full of Funyuns and malt liquor, then we'll talk.