It was a consummation devoutly to be wished, to steal a line. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, two of the most heavyweight writers of speculative fiction in the world today getting together to write a book, combining their amazing talents for a pyrotechnic literary event: The Long Earth.
The basis of the book is this: there are an uncountable number of parallel Earths that can be reached either via a small, easily made device, the plans for which are disseminated over the internet by its inventor, or through plain natural talent.
Kids start making the device, the stepper, and disappearing into other Earths. Parents are frantic, and then the kids reappear. Adults start to "step" and soon there are burgeoning colonies of people from our planet scattered through thousands of worlds beyond.
Some people can step without the device, such as Joshua Valiente, the viewpoint character. He has the added advantage of being born stepping and carrying his career on into his adulthood. There are a couple of problems with stepping, one of which doesn't bother Joshua at all. When you step you get sick for a spell. The other is that you can't carry metal with you; it just doesn't get transported by the potato-powered stepper.
Of course, the world takes advantage of the possibilities, while governments see them as problems. When the story starts, it's 15 years since step day, and worlds are being colonised, some quite close to Datum-Earth, our Earth, some further away, and everybody wants to know what's going on, so an expedition is mounted by the Black Corporation, led by the intrepid Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as a computer. They travel by airship from world to world, and from that point on the story is largely the traditional adventure tale, encountering weird, wonderful and sometimes threatening things in the wilderness of worlds.
Make no mistake, this book is an entertaining read, filled with oddness and laughs and one or two tears, plus the usual acerbic Pratchett insights and Baxter plot intricacy.
The trouble is, it's a bit too full, and it is very obviously the beginning of a series, right up to the teaser at the end. So many plot elements are left unresolved, so many characters crying out for further development that the book becomes a jumble sale of orphans. The immense threat from the other worlds makes an obligatory appearance, driving all before it in waves of creatures that can step naturally. Then there's the the unforeseen disaster for which Lobsang had prepared comes and goes. The necessary love interest. The sub-plot of the colonists and their ambitions. And all the other sub-plots that are simply tossed in and seem to be forgotten about - until the next in the series.
The idea is big, an immense tapestry which can contain just about any story you wish to tell, and that's the problem. Pratchett and Baxter have tried to tell too many stories and introduce too many plot elements in one middling-sized volume. Rather than being slammed over the head with the immensity of it all, it might have been better to be given more measured doses of this particularly heady brew.
Nevertheless, I await the next book with some eagerness, if only to find out what happens with Lobsang.