I spent the week burning through The Long Earth, the most recent work by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I almost but not quite wish that I hadn’t.
The premise is simple: infinite Earths just a step away from our own along an “East” or “West” axis. They’re all ours, the planet is the same, along with the geography, and they all occupy the same time. But due to variation of circumstance along the same time span, some are very close to ours while others are just plain weird. The one thing that none of them seem to have (except ours, of course) is people.
All this was made apparent after a rather eccentric scientist posted plans for a stepper to the internet. It’s a simple device made from a varnished wooden box, ten dollars’ worth of parts from Radio Shack and a potato. Days later, two millon children put these things together and disappear from the planet.
One of these kids, a boy named Joshua Valiente, is hyper attuned to stepping, and it turns out was liteally the first person born while his mother was stepping. Joshua only feels truly at home in the absence of other people and spends more time visiting other Earths than he does on this one. Which is why he’s recruited by the transEarth Corporation to find out just how many worlds there are and what they are like. That’s where he meets Lobsang, a reincarnated mind inside a computer who plans a bit of hard core exploration of the new worlds with Joshua in tow.
Step Day changes everything but not in the way you might first think. There are limits to stepping, for instance. Step boxes must be hand made by their owners. Some people step far and wide with no afteraffects but most get violently ill after each transition. Some people can’t step at all and are stuck at home forever. You can take anything with you as you step like your clothes, or a bag of goods, or your unborn child, but metallic iron can’t. The iron thing prevents the industrialized nations from exploiting the natural resources of a billion new earths as logically as they might want. Having to step to a new world then start from scratch slows things down.
People head to the new frontier. The slums of London empty out, the Australian aborigines head out in huge groups to live like their ancestors did, blending modern sensibilities with ancient dreamtime memories. A few folks go out to carve empires. Entire convoys go to create new communities and suddenly having an MBA doesn’t get you very far at all.
But the further out you step, the stranger the worlds get and some of them are just plain bad places for humans to visit much less settle.
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. The story is told along a multitude of axes, much like the nature of the Long Earth. The main thrust of the action is centered on Joshua and Lobsang and their journey towards the far reaches of the Long Earth. It’s never boring but it starts to drag around page 200 and never truly recovers. Throughout the book we get glimpses of what else is going on: Officer Monica Jansson keeps tabs on an anti-stepper hate group; the Green family moves out into the Long Earth to play frontier folk while abandoning their thirteen year old son at home (he can’t step); entrepreneur Jim Russo aims to build a trading empire in the new worlds and just doesn’t have the hang of it. All of these folks get their fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but we don’t stick with any of them long enough to really care about them.
I had a similar problem with the nature of the Long Earth itself. We are constantly shown Earths that might have been but we don’t stay in any of them long enough to process the implications. There’s a rush to get to the next world in the chain. To be fair, one of the characters Joshua picks up in his travels chides him for this. Through her we find a settlement in the middle of the distant realm of the Long Earth where people have been accidentally stepping and congregating for millennia, and it’s interesting but it doesn’t last long enough to satisfy.
This is not too unlike the way that Baxter wrote Evolution a few years ago, but at least there he was dealing with a single environment that was being looked at from a few poignant time-frames over a single four billion year history. In that respect, The Long Earth is a book about dimension hopping the way that Evolution was a textbook on biology.
And yet there is a fascinating discussion of community and individuality, the nature of consciousness and how it shapes reality, and how that truth of quantum physics shaped the Long Earth in the hands of non-human sapient species. It also quickly became clear which portions of the story were written by Baxter and which were devised by Pratchett. It never stopped being entertaining.
But I wish I had liked it more than I did.