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Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is part of the bedrock of the Book Trolley’s growing list of books to read after Harry Potter. Stephen Baxter is a science-fiction novelist, active since the early 1990s, whose forty-odd books I had never read or heard of until I found this book on CD, narrated by the talented Michael Fenton Stevens. Pratchett specializes in examining the nature of our civilization through the lens of a silly, off-bubble fantasy world. Baxter, I take it, likes to play with ideas related to time travel, alternate history, and parallel worlds. Put these two creative minds together, and you get a fascinating world-building experiment that shows what might happen to mankind if (or maybe when) we suddenly figure out how to “step” from one possible Earth to another.
From Step Day onwards, humanity has been surging “east” and “west” along the branches of the Contingency Tree, discovering quantum duplicates of the Earth reaching, perhaps, to infinity. The main difference between “Earth Zero,” also known as the Datum, and these other worlds is that the latter have developed—mostly—without human civilization. Until now. Now governments are crumbling and economies are crashing as the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, build their own “steppers” (homemade electronic devices that most people need to step from one Earth to another), and pop off to find a better life. Some of them settle down and do the pioneer thing. Others drift up and down the chain of worlds like hobos, stopping now and then to exchange labor for supplies. And of course, some use their new-found stepping ability to commit crimes.
Only a few people fully recognize the opportunity and the responsibility that come with this new frontier. One of them is a “natural stepper” named Joshua Valiente, who was an orphaned boy when Step Day happened, and whose presence of mind (not to say his ability to step without puking) saved a lot of kids’ lives that day. Now he’s a restless explorer, driven by some unnamed instinct toward places untouched by man, yet also returning often to refill his humanity tanks by visiting the nuns who raised him. Other such hero is a lesbian police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, nicknamed “Spooky” because of her specialization in transdimensional issues. Then there’s Sally, the daughter of the man who invented steppers, who knows secrets about stepping that Joshua never dreamed of. And finally, there’s Lobsang: a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic reincarnated as an artificial intelligence, who recruits Joshua for a voyage into the strange, far reaches of the Long Earth.
Traveling on board a sentient airship—because only sentient beings can step, together with anything they are carrying except metallic iron—Joshua and Lobsang flit from Earth to Earth, thousands—hundreds of thousands—millions of steps from Earth. Along the way they encounter ice worlds, an ocean planet, a few “joker” Earths utterly devoid of life, and many strange life-forms as each copy of Earth grows just a little less like the Datum. They also find colonies thriving in unexpected places, traces of a dead civilization, and several species of nearly sentient humanoids—some of which have evolved the ability to step between the Earths. As you journey with them, you will be charmed by the gentle Trolls and chilled by the predatory Elves.
I can’t remember the last time I read anything that grabbed my imagination the way this book did. When, in Joshua’s first encounter with them, the Trolls sang an exquisite polyphonic choral setting of “Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road,” I had that song stuck in my head for a whole week and a mental image of the Trolls that I may never shed. But things get increasingly serious after that. Joshua can feel something coming in the worlds ahead, a painful pressure in his head like the presence of a huge mind. Elves, Trolls, and other humanoids are migrating through the Long Earth, fleeing in the opposite direction. Something terrible is headed toward Datum Earth; while, at the same time, trouble is brewing back at home, and may spread from there toward the pristine worlds where, for the first time in history, mankind seems to be doing it right.
Disaster, doom, and sacrifice await Joshua, Lobsang, and Sally at the end of their westward journey of exploration. The solution may seem to come a bit too easily, in proportion to the build-up to its full revelation. But in the end, the biggest shock is the one that rocks Datum Madison. This will create new problems that only a sequel can resolve. And behold, that sequel has arrived, as of June 2013: The Long War.