The Ultimate Getaway: A Review of The Long Earth
- Monday, July 02, 2012
Author: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Title: The Long Earth
In Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk and McCoy prepare to follow a group of scientists that apparently transported into the core of a lifeless moon.
McCoy: Where are we going?
Kirk: Where they went.
McCoy: Suppose they went nowhere?
Kirk: Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.
In The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter ask the tantalizing question, "What if it really was possible to get away from it all?" Unlike the creators of Star Trek, however, they don't offer a Transporter but, uh, a potato.
In the first of this new series of sci-fi novels, a scientist named Linsay invents a device called a Stepper. With this gadget, people can "step" from the earth we know onto a parallel earth. If they so choose, they can continue "stepping" from earth to earth. They can, in fact, traverse "the long earth," yea, even unto infinity. These earths, while similar to our own and teeming with animal life, are completely uninhabited (and uninhibited) by homo sapiens. The gadget, which Linsay posted on the Internet, is not only so easy to build that a child can do it, it's powered by the simplest of fuels—a potato.
In the course of the story, we learn that not everybody needs a Stepper. In fact, there have been "natural" steppers throughout history. A young man named Joshua Valiente from Madison, Wisconsin, is one of these. Valued by the huge, vaguely sinister Black Corporation for his gifts, Joshua is engaged to travel the long earth to learn more about it. His companion on the journey is Lobsang, who is reported to be a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a super-computer. In the form of a chatty "ambulant unit" (think handsome, muscular mannequin come to life), the vain, boastful Lobsang provides a bit of character to a story long on ideas but short on heart.
Though Joshua and his robotic pal form the narrative center, the tale is told from a variety of viewpoints. Pratchett and Baxter explore the ramifications—a great many of them—of the discovery of the ultimate getaway. Some, like Daniel Boone, crave the elbow room provided by an endless number of quiet earths to choose from. Others wish to start new communities in new territory. We follow one family, the Greens, for a while as they travel with a group of pilgrims to a new life in a stepwise New England. There they form a colony called Reboot. Some of the Greens' story is told through the eyes of their daughter in her journal. Lamenting the loss of her laptop, she describes in longhand a life of chores and drudgery among squabbling pioneers—a chronicle not unlike that from the original wagon trains that moved west.
Mixed in with the human adventure is a bit of mythology-come-to-life as singing "trolls" and vicious "elves" come into the story. The trolls appear to be migrating toward our earth, now referred to as the Datum. These creatures, as well as a few hungry dinosaurs, provide some much-needed narrative tension in a book that often reads less like a novel and more like a travelogue.
As we shift back and forth between earths, we read about the career a detective, Monica Jansson, who befriended Joshua when he was a boy. She provides a narrative voice to the increasingly chaotic story of the world being abandoned for the long earth. A sizeable minority of the population (including a bitterly resentful member of the Green family) is unable to step. Their misery finds company among those for whom the new worlds have proven, in various ways, to be a disappointment. The anti-stepper movement leads to unrest, which leads to a rather abrupt ending to the novel, but one which leaves the door open for the inevitable sequel.
As I mentioned, the book is big on ideas--just silly with them, in fact. The authors explore, albeit briefly, many ramifications of the discovery of infinite universes—practical, economical, societal, philosophical, religious. You name it, they play with it. If you're looking for a What-If kind of story, Pratchett and Baxter certainly deliver.
If, however, you put characters over questions, The Long Earth will likely disappoint you. In the first place, our British authors haven't bothered to make their Americans sound like Americans. Assuming you're from Madison, Wisconsin (or anywhere else in the USA), when was the last time you asked a friend if he'd like a coffee? Ever had "fried slice"? If you live in England, you probably have. In America, that's the last thing you expect to be offered for breakfast (good thing, too; fried bread lathered in butter isn't exactly heart-healthy).
Yanks talking like Brits might be a mere quibble—if we cared more about the characters. Long before the end of The Long Earth, however, I was tired of the long, philosophical, evolutionary babble between egotistical, peevish, not very likeable people. The most interesting characters in the book are the nuns who raised Joshua. We get glimpses of a cloistered-yet-worldly-wise group. They contemplate the numinous, but with both feet firmly planted on this earth. Unfortunately, however, they're offstage most of the time.
Above, I said the book was big on ideas but short on heart. Ironically, the most interesting thing about The Long Earth is what the phenomenon reveals about the human heart. The authors aren't exactly taken with humanity. They know that crisis reveals character, or, more often, the lack thereof. They know that we're a flawed race and to lift the stony human heart is to reveal a host of unsightly things scurrying in the unaccustomed light. But that's all they seem to know—that we're sinners. Jesus, while a remarkable person, can do nothing for us. In post-Christian Britain, the attitude seems to be been there, done that. In the minds of the authors who've drunk deeply of that despairing well, our only salvation lies in evolution, or maybe pantheism, or perhaps—let's keep an open mind, now!--the worship of religion itself.
In my mind, the book could've used more nuns.
Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and actor living in Xenia, Ohio. He spends much time exploring the chain of worlds in the heads of those constantly put in his path. He blogs at http://www.garydrobinson.com
*This Review First Published July 2, 2012
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