#CBR4 Maneuver #29 – The Long Earth
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction
Summary: From goodreads.com, “1916: the Western Front, France. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wind in the leaves in the trees. Where has the mud, blood and blasted landscape of No man’s Land gone?
2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Cop Monica Jansson has returned to the burned-out home of one Willis Linsay, a reclusive and some said mad, others dangerous, scientist. It was arson but, as is often the way, the firemen seem to have caused more damage than the fire itself. Stepping through the wreck of a house, there’s no sign of any human remains but on the mantelpiece Monica finds a curious gadget – a box, containing some wiring, a three-way switch and a…potato. It is the prototype of an invention that Linsay called a ‘stepper’. An invention he put up on the web for all the world to see, and use, an invention that would to change the way mankind viewed his world Earth forever. And that’s an understatement if ever there was one…
…because the stepper allowed the person using it to step sideways into another America, another Earth, and if you kept on stepping, you kept on entering even more Earths…this is the Long Earth. It’s not our Earth but one of chain of parallel worlds, lying side by side each differing from its neighbour by really very little (or actually quite a lot). It’s an infinite chain, offering ‘steppers’ an infinite landscape of infinite possibilities. And the further away you travel, the stranger – and sometimes more dangerous – the Earths get. The sun and moon always shine, the basic laws of physics are the same. However, the chance events which have shaped our particular Earth, such as the dinosaur-killer asteroid impact, might not have happened and things may well have turned out rather differently.
But, until Willis Linsay invented his stepper, only our Earth hosted mankind…or so we thought. Because it turns out there are some people who are natural ‘steppers’, who don’t need his invention and now the great migration has begun.”
After Action Report:
The Long Earth is easier to define by what it isn’t. It isn’t the epic collaboration that Good Omens was. It isn’t really sci-fi, or at least not sci-fi that most of us would recognize. It definitely isn’t comedy. And it isn’t bad. I think a lot of readers went into the book expecting another Good Omens, and were disappointed, but the critical thought that went into crafting this off-beat novel is solid and the story is engaging and interesting. Really, the book is an exercise in concepting; posing a scenario and extrapolating the consequences from as many angles as are relevant. In that context, The Long Earth is a great success.
The primary dramatic arc looks at the life of Joshua Valienté, a natural Stepper who can move between the millions of parallel Earths at will. Joshua gained notoriety when the Stepper technology went global and he saved the lives of a large number of local kids who had stepped into hazardous situations. Since then, he’s adopted the life of an explorer and a pilgrim, walking into the far removed iterations of our planet. Hired (and blackmailed) by the sentient computer Lobsang, Joshua’s current expedition into the Long Earth will take him millions of iterations from home in search of… whatever is out there.
The feel of The Long Earth is halfway between The Oregon Trail and Star Trek. Joshua’s story is very similar to the exploration storylines in both the Original Series and Next Generation iterations of Trek, but the side stories of human pioneers, carving out places to live in the unexplored wilderness of thousands of distant Earths evokes a much more realistic sense of exploration and pioneering. Without any of that pesky moral consternation. Because iron can’t make the transition between worlds, these trans-planar colonists have to make their journeys without the aid of heavy industry, a little gimmick that does more to inform the feel of the novel than any other singular element.
The Long Earth is heavily influenced by the ‘American’ experience. The story resonates with the ideas of the expansionist period of U.S. history, but the reaction on ‘Datum’ Earth is very informed by the economic, environmental and political messages coming out of the United States right now. Not just the U.S., of course, but certainly we’re being the loudest about it. The revelation of the Long Earth prompts an immediate economic collapse, as thousands of middle class workers flee to escape debts or just make new lives for themselves. Industries take advantage of the pristine resources present on the immediately adjacent alternate Earths, and begin extracting and transporting a wide variety of raw materials. This further collapses the global commodities markets, as rare materials are suddenly made plentiful. At the same time, approximately one fifth of the world’s population discover that they are incapable of Stepping at all, locking them to the Datum Earth forever.
Pratchett and Baxter explore these various economic and political implications with short, effective scenes that deflect their importance to the narrative. Joshua may be the protagonist, but the larger story is about our own Earth and the people on it. Functionally, Joshua’s plot serves as an elaborate McGuffin, while the real story is set up and foreshadowed. It’s impossible to say if the payoff will be worthwhile, as the story comes to an abrupt cliffhanger, necessitating a sequel. I’m looking forward to it, but I can see how some readers could feel as if they’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath them. Still, any competent reader will understand what Baxter and Pratchett are trying to set up here, and just because they didn’t write a love letter to their fans, doesn’t mean that they didn’t write something amazing.