Terry Pratchett has teamed up with Stephen Baxter here to create a delightful high concept science fiction novel. There’s not much weight to it, but it presents an interesting situation and some interesting consequences thereof.
Most of the book is set a few years after the discovery of cheap technology that allows people to shift into alternate earths that have developed slightly differently to our own. One can travel either ‘west’ or ‘east’, stepping through one universe at a time. There seems to be an infinity of these universes, but none (so far) have anything like intelligent life on them. The main character is Josh, a resourceful loner and someone who can step without a technological aid, who is recruited by Lobsang, a buddhist reincarnated in the guise of a supercomputer, to help him explore as much of the long earth as possible.
There isn’t much of a plot. On an airship, Josh and Lobsang flicker through world after world, seeing ice ages come and go. They occasionally encounter something a bit interesting that manages to occupy them for a chapter before they head off again. One of these interesting things is, inevitably, the existence of intelligent life. Two main species are encountered: trolls, who are very friendly and like to sing, and elves, who are not friendly and like to spear people. Both species are able to shift at will. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the names that are bestowed upon them, the authors suggest that they would have visited our own earth (called Datum Earth) in pre-industrial times — the origin of our own tales of faerie creatures. Eventually, Josh and Lobsang discover something particularly interesting somewhere past the one million mark…and then they head home again. There are another couple of minor characters — a cop who has to deal with trans-universal crime, a family setting out to start up a new life on a far distant earth — but they don’t have too much plot attached to them either.
So, not the most dazzling of plots. The characterisation? Well… I thought Josh was pretty well sketched out and he was definitely likable He’s a good soul who can’t take crowds and is a bit bamboozled by social niceties. I would have liked Lobsang to have been more Buddhist. Mostly he comes across as an arrogant, though personable, super inquisitive AI. A third person joins the airship team later in the novel who’s a big mess of random anger and peculiar motivations. She was not likable at all.
If not plot or characterisation, then what redeemed this novel? Well, it has, of course, its fair share of funny lines. In fact, the existence of such lines was one of the main clues as to whether Baxter or Pratchett wrote a particular section. Beyond that, though, were the little thought experiment explorations of what might happen in a universe like this. I liked the fight scene where elves were flashing in and out of sight, jumping back and forth between one universe and another. There wasn’t too much done with this here, but in the hands of a good fight director and special effects team this would look very impressive on the screen (I was reminded of the Nightcrawler fight scene at the beginning X-Men 2). I liked the solution to the problem of large head size to small hip size during birth — skip birth and just step next door, leaving your ‘newborn’ behind to be picked up immediately afterwards. I liked the thought they put into the economic and political outcomes of sudden access to an infinity of resources. I liked that they added one small limitation to stepping (iron can’t cross the dimensional walls), and were able to turn this into a whole cascading sequence of sensible happenings (for one thing, blacksmithing suddenly becomes a very valuable skill).
The book is definitely an easy read. It has much of the charm that you’d expect from a Pratchett novel, and much of the hard sci-fi, evolutionary considerings that you’d expect from a Baxter novel. On the whole, I think that it’s somewhat less than the sum of its parts, but one can’t complain when the parts are of this quality.