It was something of a shock to discover that this book had somehow
slipped past me unread when it first hit the shelves. And obviously an
omission I needed to put right as soon as I could...
1916: the Western Front. Private Percy Lakeney wakes up. He is lying
on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wing in the leaves
in the trees. Where have the mud, blood and blasted landscape of No
Man's Land gone?
2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Cop Monica Janesson is exploring the
burned-out home of a reclusive -- some say mad, others dangerous --
scientist when she finds a curious gadget: a box containing some wiring,
a three-way switch and a ... potato. It is the prototype of an invention
that will change the way Mankind views its world for ever.
I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting -- but it wasn't this. The
whole feel of this book harks back to the earliest science fiction I
read -- the likes of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine
came to mind in the enthusiastic, detailed description of the
expedition across the Long Earth to discover exactly what is out there.
In addition, the wide-ranging narrative arc and wide variety of
characters has a really old-fashioned feel. The main premise is that
there are an endless number of pristine Earths unblemished by humanity
just waiting to be stepped into using a small widget powered by a
potato, which the inventor ensures is accessible to everyone. The idea
of alternate Earths isn't new, but Pratchett and Baxter ensure there are
few interesting touches in their joint incarnation -- for starters,
stepping across from one Earth to the next induces acute nausea in most
people. Though of course, there are exceptions...
The main protagonists are Joshua Valienté, a natural Stepper who
doesn't need a machine or suffer any physical discomfort when travelling
from Datum -- the name given to our humanity-infested version -- to other
Earths; and Lobsang, an obnoxiously smug character who was originally a
Tibetan monk, but whose intelligence and identity has been uploaded
into a series of artificial environments. Neither of these characters
are particularly endearing -- I found myself far more interested in
Sally, another natural Stepper they encounter a long way from Datum. But
then I didn't much like Captain Nemo or any of the characters
travelling on the Nautilus, either. And their story didn't much stick in
my memory, so much as the wonder of actually travelling under the sea
and their adventures in such a hostile environment. And in this tale, it
is definitely the variety of Earths and their impact on humanity and
various societies that is the heart of this story.
By the end, I wasn't so much concerned about the main protagonists,
as to how the whole story with the Something Nasty Out There will be
resolved in the next book, The Long War
, which I will
definitely tracking down. A nod to the classics -- which initially snared
so many fans into seeking more stories in settings beyond the everyday
and mundane -- is no bad thing in the hands of two such experienced
story-spinnersS J Higbee!