Drowned out by the sounds of the mundane world

The Long EarthThe Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I actually have a lot of thoughts about this book, but going into most of them would require revealing more about this book’s premise than I want to in this review. So I’m going to keep this (fairly) short and highly recommend that you read the book, then maybe we can do spoilers in the comments!

The set-up of the book is that one day children suddenly start disappearing all over the world – and then hours later they reappear telling the fantastic story that they had “stepped” to another Earth, a parallel world that seems to be identical except that there are no signs of humans or human civilisation there. They were able to step thanks to eccentric scientist Willis Linsay posting online the details of how to build your own stepper device. And it turns out that there isn’t just one parallel Earth; there are hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe an infinite number, each subtly different but still clearly Earth.

“The prairie was flat, green, rich, with scattered stands of oaks. The sky above was blue as generally advertised. On the horizon there was movement, like the shadow of a cloud: a vast herd of animals on the move. There was a kind of sigh, a breathing-out. An observer standing close enough might have felt a whisper of breeze on the skin.”

We meet a series of characters adjusting to this new reality, some of whom we meet only briefly, others who become increasingly central to the story. There’s Monica Jansson, a cop sent to investigate the burned-out remains of Willis Linsay’s home. There’s Joshua Valienté, an orphan raised by nuns who became famous on Step Day by managing to keep his head where others panicked. There’s Helen Green, whose parents decide to move to one of the parallel worlds to give their children a shot at a better quality of life.

It’s a rich vein to tap, and Pratchett and Baxter have done a great job here of choosing one main thread to pursue while alluding to plenty of other issues raised by this scenario, from potential new criminal acts to financial opportunities created and all sorts of practicalities to be considered. Pratchett’s trademark humour is evident, but there is also the solid science fiction that is Baxter’s forte, and the two together make an entertaining romp of a read, but one that really makes you think.

“The Silence was very faint here. Almost drowned out by the sounds of the mundane world. Did people in this polished building understand how noisy it was? The roar of air conditioners and computer fans, the susurration of many voices heard but not decipherable, the muffled sound of telephones followed by the sounds of people explaining that they were not in fact there…This wasn’t Joshua’s world. None of it was his world. In fact, when you got right down to it, he didn’t have a world; he had all of them.”

As both Baxter and Pratchett are/were British, I was a little disappointed that the book is largely set in the US, even if it’s mostly parallel versions of the US, and if anything Britain gets short shrift here. However, there is an amusing authors’ note that says they chose Madison, Wisconsin as their main setting because while they were planning this book, they were also planning to attend a Discworld convention in Madison, and figured the trip could double as research. And why not?

This book is the first of a series, with the fourth title The Long Utopia published just last week, and the fifth and final volume scheduled for release in 2016. I hope that Pratchett was able to write his parts of those last two books before his death, because this would not work nearly so well without his eye for the bizarre details that make life comic.

Published 2012 by Transworld.

Source: Secondhand from a charity shop, I think.