Literature: The Long Earth

"For What Purpose?"

A science fiction series co-written by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. After the schematics for an easy-to-construct device called a Stepper, a key component of which being a potato, are leaked onto the internet, most of humanity gains the ability to "step" to parallel Earths. The issue being, nobody knew that was what a Stepper did that first day. "Step Day" involved a large number of teens vanishing into the next Earth in the line, many injuring themselves.

In Madison, Wisconsin, one boy named Joshua Valiente Steps along with the others, but unlike the rest does not experience nausea or disorientation. He gathers the other teens and helps them back to their Earth. On the same day, a single police officer also learns how to Step and becomes a sort of police liaison for Stepping-related crimes.

Skip forward a decade or so, and society has been rocked by the new ability to Step. There is now no limit to space or resources, and so the global economy, no longer able to base itself on the scarcity value of commodities like gold and food, is smashed. Colonization of "The Long Earth" is subsidized by many governments under an attempted "Aegis Law," but no one buys the idea that governments have control over the Long Earth equivalents of themselves. As governments crumble and become useless, rules and patterns emerge:

  • The new economy is loose and favor-based, rather than using hard money between worlds.
  • Ferrous metals can't be brought between Earths in solid form, but chemical iron in blood will go.
  • Most people suffer nausea when they Step using a Stepper Box, but some "Natural Steppers" like Joshua can Step faster, without equipment or step-sickness.
  • Roughly a fifth of the population are "phobics" who cannot Step at all, and if someone brings them across worlds they get more violently ill than others, possibly to the point of death.
  • You can't Step from world to world if you would be Stepping into a solid.
  • Aside from the 'datum' Earth, none of the other worlds in the Long Earth appear to have any sign of Homo sapiens whatsoever.

The Black Corporation, co-owned by a man named Black who does not appear until book 3 and an advanced AI who may be a reincarnated Tibetan repairman named Lobsang lead the research into the Long Earth. Impossibly advanced and ahead of the game, Lobsang contacts Joshua about the farthest exploration into the "New Frontier" of The Long Earth ever made.

And behind it all, where only Joshua, born alone on another world when his mother accidentally Stepped during childbirth, can hear it, is the Silence.

The first book, The Long Earth was released June 19, 2012. A sequel, entitled The Long War, was released on June 20, 2013. A third book, The Long Mars, was released June 17, 2014. The next book The Long Utopia, was released June 18, 2015.

The series is based on a 1984 short story by Pratchett called The High Meggas, which can be found as part of A Blink of the Screen, a collection of Pratchett's shorter fiction. The original story concerns Larry Lynsey, a hermit who lives in one of the high meggas - that is, more than a million Earths lie between him and Earth Prime. A pair of Steppers interrupt his solitude, each claiming that the other killed an entire base full of people.


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     The Long Earth 

  • All Trolls Are Different: Trolls in this setting are peaceful, ape-like creatures who only use violence when provoked, can perfectly sing any song they hear, use songs to communicate with one another and can step.
  • Alternate History: Each stepwise word is this on a geological and evolutionary scale.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Lobsang speculates that a great deal of human mythology originated from misinterpreted encounters with trolls and elves.
  • Bad Future While never directly mentioned, it's hinted that the world has suffered badly from overpopulation in the books near-future setting. Also the various 'Joker' Earths where there is no life at all. Or Earth.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Trolls and Elves, to a minor extent, and First Person Singular to a major extent. She doesn't know she's hurting anybody by absorbing them into herself, she likely doesn't even know what hurt is. It's just what she does.
  • Celibate Hero: Monica Jansson is celibate by twenty-nine, after her marriage fails.
    • Joshua doesn't seem to have much experience around the opposite sex either.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Rod Green, the Green family's phobic (non-Stepper) son who is forced to remain on the Datum Earth while his family goes to colonizes another Earth. He eventually becomes involved in a conspiracy to use a nuclear bomb to destroy Madison, Wisconsin.
  • The Chosen One: Joshua. Although it is clear he is special from the beginning, in the end he turns out to be a "dipole" to First Person Singular, having felt her presence through millions of parallel worlds.
  • Cold Iron: In a sort of inversion iron, for reasons unknown, can't be carried when stepping, making it less useful for most purposes than any other metal. There is mention of the idea that an iron cage could hold a stepper prisoner.
  • Cool Airship: The Mark Twain.
  • Death by Childbirth: Joshua's mother
  • Downer Ending: Sort of. The novel ends with Lobsang entering diplomatic negotiations with First Person Singular with a possibly sinister outcome, the discussion of the possibility of a conspiracy/experiment behind Happy Landings and, finally, Madison being nuked by terrorists.
  • Eldritch Abomination: First Person Singular, a sentient biosphere intent on expanding to every Earth, consuming everything living on those Earths. She doesn't mean any harm though.
    • Joshua is more troubled by Happy Landings, the cheerful and utopian colony to which natural steppers have drifted for millenia.
  • Everything in Australia is trying to kill you: The Long Australia is revealed to be exceeding violent. The first group of steppers vanished, leaving behind only a large splash of blood in their place.
  • The Fair Folk: Elves in this setting are said to be the inspiration for these portrayals of elves.
  • Fantastic Racism: The leader of Humanity First claims steppers aren't really human.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • Apparently whatever particular mutation allowed the evolution of early hominids into humans only occurred on Datum Earth. Hominids in all other earths seem to have either evolved into human-like stepping species or gone extinct.
    • Jokers are Earths that, due to some chain reaction caused by the minor fluctuation that originally distinguished Earths from one another, are vastly different from other Earths, resulting in worlds that are covered in a vast ocean, are missing major landmasses, or have no moon. Or where, in one critical case, there is no Earth at all.
  • Have I Mentioned I am Gay?: Jansson's boss can't resist bringing this up on her behalf. Possibly justified in that she's a Celibate Hero following her failed (gay) marriage and doesn't talk about her personal life at all, to the extent that she even has one. Sort of flies in the face of The Law of Conservation of Detail, all the same.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Lobsang is incredibly arrogant, but he does consider Joshua to be his friend.
    • Sally. She has an almost-insufferably proprietary attitude toward stepping, resenting that anyone else has access to the Long Earth. She also looks down on everyone else for not being natural steppers. She is often outright insulting, especially in the sequel when she insults Joshua's wife Helen to his face. She still has a soft spot for trolls, though.
  • Lesbian Cop: Detective Jansson is mentioned to be lesbian several times, usually by her superior officer. It is treated in a very offhanded manner and does not relate to the plot much otherwise.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Lobsang's assertion that he is a reincarnated human. He claims very sincerely to believe that he is truly the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, and demonstrated by discussing what should be private details with his previous incarnation's old friends. The "gel" that makes up most of his computing power is sufficiently brain-like that he believes it could store a human soul. But as of The Long War he's shown a somewhat worrisome ability to get into any automated system sufficient that he may have found and raided somebody's computer or other records to get the information he needed to imitate the fortuitously-deceased previous Lobsang, before coming out with this gambit.
  • Muggle Power: The Humanity First group, made up of non-steppers who hate the Long Earth, for reasons from resenting the government support given to colonists to being left behind by stepping families.
  • Not Good with People: Joshua is more at home with the uninhabited parallel Earths than on the Datum. Lobsang refers to it as Daniel Boone syndrome. This is because he spent the first minute of his life as the only person on an alternate Earth, and therefore feels a psychic pressure from other people that the rest of us are used to. That said, he's not happy if he can't talk to humans every now and then.
  • Nun Too Holy: Downplayed - the nuns at the nursing home that raised Joshua are a bunch of irreverent Cool Old Ladies, several of whom have mysterious or rebellious pasts. Sister Agnes is a Badass Biker who plays music too loud for her sisters' liking, and one of them may be hiding from the FBI.
  • Once More with Clarity: After being told who First Person Singular is at the end of the first chapter, the 47th chapter is just the introduction repeated, after we've actually seen what she is.
  • Our Elves Are Better: Long Earth elves don't quite fit the usual mold: they are semihuman missing link creatures, have violent tempers, cannot communicate with humans and are predators who use stepping to ambush their prey.
    • The Long War introduces the kobold subspecies, which can communicate with humans. They barter information for various human things (the example we see likes human music), and tend towards a sort-of hate/love relationship with humanity. They also aren't all that well known.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: The US President, shortly after Step Day, is mentioned in passing to be a woman. She's also President Target to some extent.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: Happy Landings is a Close-Knit Community with no real problems. It's so apparently perfect that it gives Joshua the creeps.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Jansson
    • And in the second book, Captain Maggie Kauffman and Admiral Davidson.
  • Straight Gay: Jansson's sexuality is only mentioned twice. By the same person. For no apparent reason.
    • Becomes a minor plot point in the sequel, when Jansson is romantically pursued by a man who doesn't initially realise that she's gay. He takes the news of their incompatibility well and they end up enjoying a brief spell as Platonic Life Partners before she dies. Still not terribly relevant to the main plot, however.
  • Suicide Attack: These are now a legitimate problem, as people can just step around security measures in the Datum. Fortunately, most people aren't good enough orienting themselves towards their targets be particularly effective. People also figure out pretty quickly that you can't get around security measures if you're underground in the Datum,and start holding important meetings in cellars and the like.
    • A suicide attack also turns out to be Humanity First's plan to destroy Madison.
  • The Greys: The elves inspired these legends too.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Lobsang, being a devout Buddhist, is a pacifist.
  • Turing Test: It's mentioned that passing the Turing Test wasn't enough for advanced artificial intelligences to be recognised as deserving protection; Lobsang was the first to come up with the idea of declaring himself the reincarnation of a human who died at the exact moment he was switched on, thereby getting human rights.
    • It's also mentioned that Lobsang passes Sally and Joshua's personal Turing tests through such human behaviours as choosing to dress as Indiana Jones when exploring an ancient monument, and deliberately pissing someone off to see how they react.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: "Step Day" occurs in 2015, three years after the first novel's publication date. The rest of The Long Earth takes place in the 2020s, and The Long War is set in the 2040s.
  • We All Live in America: Mild, downplayed version. While Pratchett and Baxter get the US right for the most part, little bits of narration and dialog use British construction over American (things like, "I must have done," instead of "I must have," or "Now she knew this..." instead of "Now that she knew this...").
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Precious metals and minerals such as gold and diamonds quickly lose their value once their supply becomes effecively unlimited, with only their usefulness defining their value. Some guys don't get this early on and step out to regions with known gold deposits in the hopes of making their fortune, only to be greeted by mocking crowds who realized what the real effect of vast untapped gold resources would be.
    • Conversely, iron (or rather, things made of it) becomes quite a valuable resource because it can't be stepped, therefore you have to go through the rigmarole of mining, refining, smelting and forging it on every Earth you step to.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: The Mark Twain in the first book, and the twains in the second. Technically, the zeppelins are from Earth Datum, but it's a still a story about parallel universes and zeppelins.

     The Long War 

  • Blood Knight: Due to the Beagles reproductive cycle of population boom followed by destructive war, the entire Beagle race lives for war.
  • Brain Uploading: Lobsang does this with Sister Agnes, after her death.
    • He also arranges for 4900 Tibetan Buddhist monks to spend 49 days on 49 mountaintops in various iterations of Tibet chanting from the Tibetan Book of the Dead - as he puts it, to cover all his bases, though now he doesn't know which actually "worked" to produce the new Agnes since this was his first brain upload. It does a neat trick in continuing to obfuscate the question of whether he truly reincarnated or not, of course.
  • Bury Your Gays: Jansson is strongly implied to have succumbed to her illness on the last page of the book.
  • Determined Homesteader's Wife: Helen
  • Emotionless Girl: Roberta
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Thanks to the none-to-bright pioneers that first visited the Beagle homeworld.
  • Foreshadowing: Starting in the previous book, there are mentions of how Yellowstone is due to erupt soon. Then in this book, abnormal geological activity happens throughout the story until it winds up being Chekhov's Volcano.
  • Ill Girl: Jansson is suffering from cancer as a result of the radiation she was exposed to while helping to evacuate Datum Madison after the bombing at the end of the first book.
    • It should be noted that, at fifty-four, she is much older than most examples of this trope; however, it's largely played straight.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Jansson and Wood.
  • Johnny McCoolname: Finn MacCool.
  • Left Hanging: as of the end of book 2, we still don't know:
    • What happened with First Person Singular?
    • What's the deal with the idyllic but vaguely sinister Happy Landings?
    • Where's Sally's dad, Willis Linsay?
    • Two of those are resolved in The Long Mars, but that has unresolved plot points of its own.
  • Mama Bear: Mary the Troll. Helen.
  • Memetic Mutation: In-universe, Mary the Troll's "I will not" hand signal has been adopted by the U.S. colonies as a revolutionary slogan.
  • Modern Stasis: It's now the mid-21st century, yet, aside from the return of airship technology, Lobsang, and the Stepper boxes themselves, there seems to have been no technological change at all. In some areas, like space travel, there has actually been regression. This is justified and explored: Because humanity now has access to the literally infinite resources of the Long Earth, there is no more incentive to develop better technology. It is implied that this may be the reason why technological civilizations are so rare across the Long Earth: Only intelligent species that cannot step have any reason to advance beyond the hunter-gatherer stage.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Beagles. Partly because of their The Unpronounceable status and partly because of their disdain for humans.
  • Petting Zoo People: The Beagles.
  • Planet of Hats: Averted. A major plot-point hangs on characters being reminded that each Earth is a full and unique planet as opposed to featuring one theme throughout.
  • Ring of Power: Sally is annoyed that this is how the key to the Rectangle building appears to work.
  • Shout-Out: In-universe: the humans choose the name "Ham" for the troll child they're going to send into space for an experiment.
    • The airship Gold Dust has a crewman named Higgs. Doubles as a shout out to the LHC, as he's a bosun. (At least, this is the name he gives to Daniel. Helen doesn't believe it for a moment.)
  • Take a Third Option: When the Beagles are hunting Joshua. If he stays then they'll catch and kill him, but if he steps then the crossbow will kill him. Luckily, Li-Li and Snowy have another idea: bring back his severed hand as proof that they killed him, while actually letting him escape.
  • Turtle Island: Second Person Singular
  • What Does He See In Her?: Sally wonders why Joshua is married to Helen.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human? : Cruelty to Trolls and other Long Earth natives has become a problem in recent years, most notably with Mary and her cub.

     The Long Mars 
  • Beware the Superman: The Next have nigh-superhuman intelligence, a knack for seeing through peoples' inner motivations, and (in some cases) the ability to talk you into almost anything. This is a source of some concern for humanity, especially once they get a glimpse of how that power can be abused.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Sally goes through a very calm, subdued version of this near the end.
  • Genocide Backfire: Joshua's final point in the debate on what to do with the Next. However dangerous they might potentially be, trying to exterminate them would only lead to the survivors going into hiding and plotting revenge.
  • Idiot Ball: Despite being hyper-intelligent, evolutionarily superior savants, the Next of Happy Landings seem surprised that the regular humans will not willingly give the Next control of the settlement. Doubly stupid is that there doesn't seem to be any social constructs that would prevent the Next from attaining leadership through merit.
  • Immortality Seeker: Douglas Black.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!: As Mars only supports life in brief windows, the explorers find the ruins of civilization more often than active ones.
  • Make Way for the New Villains: The Next are built up as the sudden emerging threat, more dangerous than anything from the previous books, although their status as 'villains' is partially subverted in the end.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Willis giving the Martian whalers stepper technology leads to a disgraced Martian prince stalking the party across the many Marses in pursuit of revenge. Resulting in Frank's death.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Methane-spewing Martian land whales.
  • Sadistic Choice: Near the end, Willis has to choose between saving his daughter, Sally, or astronaut Frank Wood. He saves Sally, who later realizes that Willis made an entirely cold-blooded choice based on her ability to get him home through the soft places.
  • Space Elevator: The whole point of Willis Linsay's expedition across the Long Mars turns out to be finding one of these - based entirely on his conviction that it logically had to exist somewhere in the chain. He was right.
  • The Unfettered: Willis Linsay is determined to change the course of his species. Everything else is secondary.

     The Long Utopia 

  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Lobsang really wants to be, or at least act like, he's retired. But he ends up in the middle of events anyway. Because it's happening within a mile of where he settled down. And it's unintentional on Lobsang's part.

Alternative Title(s):

The Long War