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The Long Earth    by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter order for
Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Terry Pratchett's extraordinary and long-running Discworld fantasies have always made us think hard about the world we live in, and laugh a lot. Now he teams up with SF master Stephen Baxter (who wrote the Time Odyssey novels alongside Arthur C. Clarke) in The Long Earth, set (mostly) in our near future. Together they take a huge leap of imagination ... sideways! They show us what might happen if earthlings suddenly and unexpectedly discover a new and seemingly infinite frontier.

After the plans for a Stepper (various odds and ends put together and powered by a potato) are posted anonymously online in 2015, our world (now known as Datum Earth) changes. An infinity of new frontiers open up to those with a sense of adventure, a desire for change - and a strong stomach. Wisconsin Police officer Monica Jansson, who quickly adapts to the new reality, is soon assigned a key role in dealing with its legal and logistical ramifications.

Actually, humans (and others) had been popping sideways for a long time before Step Day. Private Percy Blakeney did it in 1916 (he's not sure how) and taught Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag to trolls (humanoids who are natural steppers). A century later, a very pregnant young woman stepped in and out, so that her baby was born in a universe that 'spoke to him with an infinity of voices. And, behind it all, a vast Silence.' That child, Joshua Valienté, was raised by Sisters in an unusual orphanage. He is able to Step naturally and without nausea.

As the novel opens, Josh is hired by transEarth Institute to explore the 'unending chain' of Earths, along with Lobsang, who first appears to him as a Coca-Cola machine. Lobsang is physically a computer, but used to be 'a Tibetan motorcycle repairman.' At least, that's his story and he's sticking to it! They journey sideways on an airship, the Mark Twain, 'a gondola like an Art Deco fantasy', along with a robot cat, Shi-mi. They encounter Blakeney's trolls and elves who appear to be migrating across worlds - what are they fleeing from?

Of course, we know thet our heroes (and the heroine who joins them en route) will find out. They do eventually make first contact with what Josh calls a 'migraine monster', but return to a Datum Earth that has been attacked by Humanity-Firsters. This opening salvo to what looks like an impressive new series ends on a cliffhanger, leaving readers anxious for more sideways romps.

As a Pratchett fan, I have to say that I worried that his distinctive wit and wisdom might be diluted in the collaboration. But his unique voice comes through clearly, as in his comment on intelligence: 'But smart has to have a depth as well as a length. Some smart brushes over a problem. And some smart grinds exceedingly slow, like the mills of God, and it grinds fine, and when it comes up with an answer, it has been tested.' I highly recommend The Long Earth to both SF and fantasy fans. It's heady stuff.

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