The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)
In a forest glade:
Private Percy woke up to birdsong.
Imagine an infinite number of Earths strung out side-by-side, like beads on a necklace. Countless Earths that are unpopulated, tree-covered paradises, teeming with wildlife, abundant with natural resources, waiting to be explored. One day — a day that comes to be called Step Day — someone posts the plans for a device on the Internet, a device that once built and powered up by a potato can transport its holder to these other Earths as easily as taking a single a step.
That’s the premise of The Long Earth, a novel that fires the imagination with possibilities. What kinds of Earths might be out there? Will we find intelligent life on any of them? What would you do if you had the power to “step” from Earth to Earth? (Me, I would claim some prime real estate on the Mediterranean and eat seafood to my heart’s content.)
There are so many possibilities that one novel cannot possibly hope to explore them all, which may leave readers somewhat frustrated. Most of the plot is about a natural “stepper,” Joshua Valiente, who is recruited by the first artificial intelligence, Lobsang, to explore as many alternate Earths as they can. They flit right over many of them in a specially designed zeppelin, but stop at a few “joker” Earths, such as one where the moon was never formed and one where a strange civilization has collapsed into a radioactive ruin. They don’t stay nearly long enough, though.
As they travel, Joshua and Lobsang become aware of a threat to all the Earths. Discovering what that threat is and how to stop it then becomes their mission, and the driving force of the book. It’s a suspenseful story, and the final Earths they come to are wowsers, but I still hate to miss out on all the neat Earths they left behind.
Meanwhile, other characters introduced early on and their sub-plots are given short shrift. For instance, a small number of people can’t “step” at all, leading to unrest back on our Earth (called Datum Earth). This becomes an important part of the story, and I would have liked the authors to have spent more time developing it. In fact, I was really interested in the effects that discovering the “long Earth” had on our society, but The Long Earth doesn’t spend a lot of time back home. The end comes abruptly, and is clearly a setup for the sequel (a pet peeve of mine).
No matter. It’s still a terrific premise and a fascinating novel, one that I really enjoyed. Ever since I discovered the Narnia series as a child, with its Wood Between the Worlds, I have been tantalized by the idea of multiple worlds out there, waiting to be explored. So far, the only way to get to those worlds, though, has been through books. So I was glad for the chance to travel to Pratchett and Baxter’s Long Earth, and I hope to visit there again.
Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book for review from the publisher.