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Friday, November 9, 2012
Reading List: The Long Earth
- Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter.
The Long Earth.
New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
Terry Pratchett is my favourite author of satirical fantasy and
Stephen Baxter is near the top of my list of contemporary
hard science fiction writers, so I expected this collaboration
to be outstanding. It is.
Larry Niven's Ringworld created
a breathtakingly large arena for story telling, not spread among
the stars but all reachable, at least in principle, just by
walking. This novel expands the stage many orders of magnitude
beyond that, and creates a universe in which any number of
future stories may be told. The basic premise is that the
multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally
exists (to be technical, Max Tegmark's
Level III parallel universes),
and that some humans possess a native ability to
step from one universe to the next. The stepper
arrives at the same location on Earth, at the same local
time (there is apparently a universal clock like that assumed
in quantum theory), but on a branch where the history of the
Earth has diverged due to contingent events in the past. Adjacent
universes tend to be alike, but the further one steps the more
they differ from the original, or Datum Earth.
The one huge difference between Datum Earth and all of the others
is that, as far as is known, humans evolved only on the Datum.
Nobody knows why this is—perhaps there was some event
in the chain of causality that produced modern humans which was
so improbable it happened only once in what may be an
infinite number of parallel Earths.
The ability to step was extremely rare, genetically transmitted, and
often discovered only when an individual was in peril and stepped
to an adjacent Earth as the ultimate flight response. All of this
changed on Step Day, when Willis Linsay, a physicist in Madison,
Wisconsin, posted on the Internet plans for a “stepper”
which could be assembled from parts readily available from Radio
Shack, plus a potato. (Although entirely solid state, it did
include a tuber.) A rocker switch marked
“WEST — OFF — EAST”
was on the top, and when activated moved the holder of the box to
an adjacent universe in the specified notional direction.
Suddenly people all over the Earth began cobbling together steppers
of their own and departing for adjacent Earths. Since all of these
Earths were devoid of humans (apart from those who stepped there
from the Datum), they were in a state of nature, including all of
those dangerous wild beasts that humans had eradicated from their
world of origin. Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper,
distinguishes himself by rescuing children from the Madison
area who used their steppers and were so bewildered they
did not know how to get back.
This brings Joshua to the attention of the shadowy Black Corporation,
who recruits him (with a bit of blackmail) to explore the far reaches
of the Long Earth: worlds a million or more steps from the Datum. His
companion on the voyage is Lobsang, who may or may not have been a
Tibetan motorcycle repairman, now instantiated in a distributed
computer network, taking on physical forms ranging from a drinks
machine, a humanoid, and an airship. As they explore, they encounter
hominid species they call “trolls” and
“elves”, which they theorise are natural steppers which
evolved on the Datum and then migrated outward along the Long Earth
without ever developing human-level intelligence (perhaps due to lack
of selective pressure, since they could always escape competition by
stepping away). But, as Joshua and Lobsang explore the Western
frontier, they find a migration of trolls and elves toward the East.
What are they fleeing, or what is attracting them in that direction?
They also encounter human communities on the frontier, both
homesteaders from the Datum and natural steppers who have established
themselves on other worlds.
I enjoyed this book immensely, but that may be in part because
I've been thinking about
for many years, albeit in a different context and without the
potato. This is a somewhat strange superposition of fantasy and
hard science fiction (which is what you'd expect, given the authors),
and your estimation of it, like any measurement in quantum mechanics,
will depend upon the criteria you're measuring. I note that the
reviews on Amazon have a strikingly flat distribution in stars
assigned—this is rare; usually a book will have a cluster
at the top or bottom, or for controversial books a bimodal
distribution depending upon the reader's own predisposition.
I have no idea if you'll like this book, but I did. And I want a
The concept of stepping to adjacent universes is one of those
plot devices that, while opening up a huge scope for
fiction, also, like the Star Trek transporter, threatens
to torpedo drama. If you can escape peril simply by stepping
away to another universe, how can characters be placed
in difficult circumstances? In Star Trek, there always has to
be some reason (“danged pesky polaron particles!”)
why the transporter can't be used to beam the away team out
of danger. Here, the authors appear to simply ignore the
problem. In chapter 30, Joshua is attacked by elves riding
giant hogs and barely escapes with his life. But, being a
natural stepper, he could simply step away and wait for
Lobsang to find him in an adjacent Earth. But he doesn't,
and there is no explanation of why he didn't.