The Long Earth is 2001: A Space Odyssey with a Willy Wonka sensibility and a touch of Neo from The Matrix. It is also some of the most fun I’ve had reading in a long, long time. This is one truly original novel with a cogent but whimsical premise and delightfully oddball characters. It would be criminal to spoil anything about this book but it is essentially an epic journey into worlds (un)known. Lobsang is the reincarnated monk, Sally is the misanthropic brat, and Joshua is the sensetive loner. Together they embark on an expedition in a highly modified dirigible to discover the answer to “life, the universe, and everything.” And in this book, the answer is not “42.”
Pratchett and Baxter have come together to weave a marvelous tapestry of the bizarre. It is quirky and clever and self-referential. But, to my happy surprise, not so bizarre as to be incomprehensible or without heart. I expressed some displeasure about the Gaiman/Pratchett collaboration on Good Omens in a previous review, but I am thrilled with this Pratchett and Baxter team-up. There is a gentle ebb and flow to the humor in this book and it never steals focus from the larger issues. And there are certainly large issues in this novel, as there should be in any great Sci Fi. But unlike more traditional ‘hard’ science fiction, The Long Earth has a gentle narrative style and an almost lazy ease to the language. This same narrative could have been told in a razor sharp, break-neck pace with techno babble and confusing leaps. That is not the book Pratchett and Baxter have given us. It reads like a fairy tale or a Jules Verne story, but manages to maintain just enough tension and foreboding to make the stakes feel very high. (They really can’t be any higher.)
More than any of the other team-ups we have covered in this reading list, Pratchett/Baxter seem to balance each other perfectly. Every time the reader even begins to feel adrift in the ridiculous, the authors pull back and reinforce the narrative throughline or introduce a different location/setting/character. There is a masterful interplay at work in this novel and it makes for a more linear (and personal) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
For the long-time Sci-Fi geeks, there are plenty of references and inside jokes. The same is true for movie geeks and science nerds. There is even something here for the comic book fan. I know it made me want to revisit DC’s 52. However, this novel works because the characters work. How often does The Worm get to say that about Sci Fi???
Oh, and I want a Shi-Mi for my very own.
Best moment: There are really too many to name but near the top of the list has to be the Green family’s exodus without Rod. It was heartbreaking and at the same time any semi-experienced reader was thinking, “This isn’t going to turn out well.” It doesn’t.
Best character: Lobsang is the easy favorite, even though I related best to Joshua. But probably my favorite character is Officer Jansson. She is stoically badass without ever having to DO anything badass. In a world gone crazy, it is the adaptable who are the heroes.
Frustrating moment: The very end. It plays like the beginning of a Mission Impossible episode, which of course means there are additional shenanigans afoot. Damn you Baxter and Pratchett!!! I’m going to have to sign up for more adventures, I’m sure. (And I secretly can’t wait.)