April 24, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along Continued: The Long Earth

Infinite Earths. Infinite possibilities. Only one world with humans.

Before he died, Terry Pratchett managed to finish his end of the Long Earth series, a series consisting of five novels co-written with sci-fi author Stephen Baxter, looking into what would happen if humanity ever learned to travel to alternate Earths.

The first of those books was The Long Earth.  Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

Plot:  Truth be told, there isn’t much of a plot here.  Pratchett and Baxter use this first book as more of a thought experiment on paper.  Here’s the basic premise:

There are, perhaps, an infinite number of alternate Earths.  One day, an explosion at a home lab in Madison, Wisconsin summons the police but the scientist who lives there isn’t there at all.  Not as in he’s dead.  There’s no sign of him one way or the other.  Before his lab blew up, though, he sent out instructions online to put together a simple device powered by a potato.  What does the device do?  Well, no one knows until they put it together, but the long and the short of it is it allows the person holding it to “step” over to an alternate Earth either to the East or the West (as the device records things).  Numerous children in and around Madison do so and disappear, lost and confused.  One boy, an orphan named Joshua Valiante, manages to put together a “Stepper” of his own and then guides all the lost kids back to “Datum Earth” as it becomes known.

Joshua becomes something of a hero, but he’s also a restless lad who likes solitude.  As an adult, he is recruited/blackmailed by the Black Corporation and it’s AI Lobsang, who may or may not be a reincarnated Tibetan mechanic, to escort Lobsang in an exploratory mission to see if they can find out exactly how many Earths there are.

Commentary:  This book took me a while, and for a good reason:  it doesn’t seem to really go anywhere in terms of plot.  What plot there is doesn’t seem to kick into the book until late.  Neither Joshua nor Lobsang struck me as particularly interesting characters.  Joshua is maybe just a heroic analogue, and I could see that Lobsang was perhaps intended to be endearing, but it didn’t work for me.  Even the late addition of cynical natural stepper Sally didn’t add much.

That may or may not have been the point.  The book works as something of an experiment on paper.  Here are the ground rules for the universe presented in the novel:  20% or so of the human population are “natural steppers”.  They don’t need the machines to step and they don’t, like most people, get sick after crossing to a new Earth.  Many natural steppers have been stepping for centuries, and some people stepped without knowing it for ages.  Another 20% are incapable of stepping at all (or maybe not depending on what the penultimate chapter means).  The remaining population can step with the aid of a very simple device called the “Stepper” that, yes, is powered by a common potato.  Sentient intelligence is required to step.  Anything you carry or hold on to can step with you with one exception:  iron cannot cross over.  Anything else is fair game.  Humans only evolved on “Datum Earth,” though other, bipedal ape-like species evolved on other worlds with stepping abilities.  The place you step to is the same place as you left, but you should probably make sure you’re on the ground if you don’t want to tumble from a nonexistent building.

Aside from some short chapters discussing various people’s reactions to this new phenomena, most of the book consists of Joshua and Lobsang traveling to different Earths as they sail West to see if there’s a loop back and they can return to Datum Earth without sailing East at all.  As the book is mostly full of little incidents, I was left to wonder what to make of the book.  As it is, besides the fact neither Pratchett nor Baxter seemed able to write a character whose dialogue made him or her sound like the American he or she was supposed to be (Madison was chosen as the “ground zero” as both authors were visiting there for a Discworld convention and it made research easy), and Pratchett’s style was missing, causing me to believe Baxter did most of the actual writing after the two plotted it out together, just as I suspect Pratchett did most of the writing after plotting out Good Omens with Neil Gaiman.  I didn’t find the book particularly amusing, aside from some obvious humor, so I suspect it wasn’t necessarily meant to be funny.  If it was, this series is going to be a bit longer than the five books it is supposed to be…

As it is, I spent time wondering why anyone would react the way many characters do.  The book takes a moment to get away from Joshua and Lobsang to focus on the Green family.  Mrs. Green, a college professor type, wants to resettle her whole family on a distant Earth and live like the pioneers of old did.  Along for the ride are her husband and two daughters.  But their son, Rod, couldn’t step, so despite the fact he’s still a minor and his dad felt it wasn’t right, the family moved to another, far-distant Earth without him!  What kind of parent decides to go on a romantic exploration of pioneer days and actually only takes two-thirds of her family with her?  Why didn’t her guilt-ridden husband (we only ever get his feelings on the subject and not hers) opt to stay behind with the son he felt bad about leaving?  How is that normal human behavior?  The book also makes it clear the Greens were not the only parents to do such things!

I get the impression that the effort here was to create more character types than actual people.  If that wasn’t the case, well, this will indeed be a long series to get through.

NEXT BOOK:  Well, The Long Earth started off OK at best, so let’s see what happens when we get to the next one, The Long War, because despite the fact that resources are no longer scarce given an infinite number of worlds to take them from, sometimes people still want to shoot each other.