On the face of it, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter may not be a particularly obvious writing partnership; their distinctive brands of comic fantasy and hard science fiction might seem incompatible. But, then again, Pratchett’s interest in science often comes through in his work; and both writers share an ability to create grand fantastic visions – whether Baxter’s evocations of the vastnesses of space and time, or the large-scale comic set-pieces which crown Pratchett’s best novels. So the prospect of a co-written work from them is intriguing, and now we have The Long Earth, the first novel in a projected duology– though the end result is more frustrating than anything.
A few years hence, more or less everyone has access to a ‘stepper’, a device that enables travel through the chain of parallel worlds known as the Long Earth. There are certain practical concerns – worlds can only be accessed in sequence; iron cannot be carried between them; and each ‘step’ induces fifteen minutes of debilitating nausea. Moreover, most of the parallel worlds are empty, minor climatic and geographic variations on our own prehistoric Earth. But none of this stops people making the journey between worlds, to exploit the resources there, or to start their lives anew.
It takes a while for The Long Earth to coalesce, as a number of plot strands present themselves at the outset, and it’s not clear initially which will be the main focus. But it’s quite exhilarating, first to begin the story at a point where the notion of parallel worlds and the stepping technology are well established (and, even though Pratchett and Baxter do fill in the back story, they don’t especially dwell on it), then to have this sense of a raw story coming together as the pages turn.
The novel eventually settles on a main narrative thread, concerning Joshua Valienté, one of a select few able to step between worlds unaided and with no ill effects. The existence of this ability is unknown to most, but not to Lobsang, a supercomputer who claims to have once been a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic. The ‘transEarth Insititute’ enlists Joshua to be Lobsang’s escort on an airship voyage to the far reaches of the Long Earth, where they discover the threat that will presumably become the key focus of the second volume.
In terms of its authors’ other work, The Long Earth – as Adam Roberts rightly suggests in the Guardian – is much closer to Baxter’s usual territory than Pratchett’s. There’s not much humour in the novel, and what there is – such as the comic-cut biker nun, Sister Agnes – feels somewhat out of place. But the book’s interplay of fantasy and science fiction is interesting; structurally, the Long Earth could be seen as a scientific riposte to the traditional fantasy multiverse – steppers have no prospect of a swashbuckling adventure through outlandish worlds, just a systematic trudge through near-identical Earths. (Joshua and Lobsang also discover a rational origin for the idea of elves and trolls.)
The thing is, though, that – almost by definition – this is not a set-up that lends itself naturally to drama: there’s nothing much for characters to act against , and most problems can be solved simply by stepping to the next Earth. The novel never manages to find enough drama to compensate for this: Lobsang controls the central journey to such a degree that Joshua’s main function as protagonist is to witness rather than act; and the subplots exploring other aspects of the Long Earth recede too far into the background to carry enough weight in the book as a whole.
Overall, I’m inclined to agree with Paula at The Broke and the Bookish that The Long Earth feels more like a beginning than a tale that stands alone; there’s too strong a sense of pieces being moved into place for a game to be played out in the next volume. Pratchett and Baxter explore some interesting ideas of the different paths terrestrial life might have taken, and how modern humans might respond to vast new wildernesses; but the book has really only just got going as it ends.
(A shorter version of this review appears at We Love This Book.)