Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter


Harper, 1st Edition, ISBN 9780062067753, June 2012

This collaboration between Pratchett and Baxter seems more Pratchett than Baxter, though a bit more serious in tone than most of Pratchett's solo work.

We start with two vignettes of people unexpectedly displaced--a young British soldier in France during WWII, and a young, very pregnant woman who lives in a Catholic orphanage in Madison, WI, somewhat closer to the present day. The young soldier finds himself in a place that looks very like France except for the total absence of any evidence of war or, indeed, human habitation. He meets up with some rather odd-looking people whom he concludes must be the Russians he's heard tell of, and finds that they are friendly, helpful, and great singing companions.

The young woman delivers her baby, alone, in a strange, lonely place, briefly pops--or, as we shall later learn, Steps, away from him, and then returns to take him back to the orphanage with her. Her son, Joshua Valiente, grows up in the orphanage, developing strong attachments to the Sisters who raise him.

When Joshua is in his teens, he and everyone else wakes up one day to find that a rather eccentric Madison scientist has posted to the internet detailed plans for what he calls a "stepper," and disappeared. There's an immediate flurry to build these startlingly simple devices, and Joshua discovers that he's the only one around who can Step without a Stepper, and without experiencing nausea on arrival in the neighboring Earths.

That's the setup; the rest of the book follows the unfolding effects of easy migration to alternate, mostly uninhabited, Earths. Some have friendlier climates or more fertile land; there are "belts" of Earths in similar stages of development an ice belt, a water belt; most importantly, a Corn Belt.

There are a few people like Joshua, who need no Stepper; there are also people who can't Step at all, Stepper or no. Governments try to assert control of "their" territory in adjoining Earths; non-Steppers develop a resentment against those who can simply Step away into free land and new lives while all around the economies of the "home" countries are collapsing from the effects of the deserting population.

Looming over all of this is the presence that Joshua senses, which he calls the Silence, and the accumulating evidence of other near-human species who are migrating "eastward" through the worlds, fleeing--something.

Pratchett is always excellent, and Baxter is when he's not being self-indulgent, and this book puts their skills on full display, developing the characters and the cultural and practical effects of the discovery of the Long Earth. It's thoroughly enjoyable, but be warned: it ends with a partial resolution, and clear indications that more should be expected, in the way of future books exploring more of the implications. Well, to be perfectly frank, there's one storyline that ends with a full-blown cliffhanger.

Recommended, with the caution that if you hate reading a first book without the next books being available, you may want to wait.

I bought this book.