9.01.2012

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth
I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett and have been for years. But his collaboration with Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth, is very different from any other book of his--at least of the ones I've read. There's little of his trademark humor in this one. It's much more contemplative. (Not that there isn't a lot of think about with his Discworld novels. It's just that those books have a lot more sugar in them to help the medicine go down.) The Long Earth was a very interesting read, but I'm frankly puzzled about what to make of this book.

On Step Day, the world discovers that Earth is mirrored by a seemingly unlimited number of mirror earths. They are all habitable. Some are filled with amazing animals from divergent lines of evolution. But there are no people on any of these other earths. Humanity does what you'd expect and starts to expand into the empty space with predictable collapses in Earth Zero's economy, governments, and social structures. A new Manifest Destiny occurs in the United States as pioneers, with the encouragement of the American government, expand the American aegis across the other earths.

The story is told from various viewpoints, mostly by a loner named Joshua Valiente who spends a much time away from people as he can. The other viewpoints, a Madison, Wisconsin police officer and a pioneer girl, are not as interesting and not as well drawn. Pratchett and Baxter introduce cameos from various other narrators to show the scope of the changes brought about by the new earths. But they aren't clearly delineated in time, so I got the feeling of jumping around in time as much as the narrators were jumping around in space. It was hard to get a sense of how much time the story encompasses. There are casual references to years passing, but you don't get much sense of that the way this book is written.

The most interesting question this book raised for me was about how humans are meant to live. Earth is a crowded place. Opening up the new earths for colonization in this book feels a lot like releasing a pressure valve. Our civilization is complicated and this book shows hundred of thousands of humans upping stakes and heading for the hinterlands just to start over somewhere without all their burdens and obligations. There are some people who try to replicate the wonders of the original Earth, but a lot of people are content to live as hunter-gatherers in the abundant new earths.

As humanity adjusts, Joshua contracts with a mysterious corporation to travel as far as possible to see if there's even an end to the earths. They see earths in all states of evolution, even earths without moons or mass extinctions or with completely different continental drift patterns. They see wondrous creatures and lots of crocodiles. As they get further and further out, they realize that something weird is happening somewhere down the line. All this serves to give some structure to the narrative, but didn't do much for me. I wonder if this concept wouldn't have worked better as a series of short stories.

I want to say a quick word about the ending of this book. I don't want to give too much away, but this book ends on an ungraceful cliff hanger. Since I was reading the Kindle version, I didn't realize how close I was getting to the end. In fact, I thought the ending of the book was just the end of the chapter and I was shocked to "turn the page" and discover that I was out of book. I really, really hate this kind of ending, where it's clearly a set up for another book in a series.

I did enjoy pondering the thought exercise Pratchett and Baxter set up in The Long Earth. I just wish they had executed it better.

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