The Long Earth – Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

When I first read about The Long Earth, this collaborative effort between Terry Pratchett and hard SF writer Stephen Baxter seemed to me… a little odd. As it did to quite a few, I am pretty sure. But now that I have finished the novel, I realize my suspicion was absolutely unwarranted. In fact, now I see clearly that this co-authorship is a match made in heaven. The Discworld series is, if anything, one of the biggest arenas for fictional thought experimentation ever imagined, be it related to technology, society, art, etc. Stephen Baxter, on the other hand, has the know-how to take Pratchett’s skill and panache for world creation to the next level – science fiction and its stricter adherence to mimesis. I am happy to say that the brainchild of the two authors delivers spectacularly.

In the near future a most extraordinary and unexpected invention completely transforms life as we know it. Hours after the schema for Willis Linsay’s “Stepper” device is published on youtube, kids from all over start assembling the little apparatus, using parts bought in local hardware stores (don’t forget the potato to power it up!). Then, by pushing a single switch, they step to another Earth! It turns out that there are hundreds of thousands of alternative worlds, to the East and West, a mere shadow of a thought away from ours. But the even more striking thing about the discovery is that on none of those planets are there any humans! From that moment on the world is changed irrevocably. A new wave front of pioneers hails from Datum Earth to explore and colonize. Suddenly there is plenty of resources and space for everybody. Time to shift some paradigms! Economies struggle as the populations of most countries trickle over into the Long Earth, terrorists and burglars can now step into any building from out of nowhere, globalization comes to mean a whole new thing, families are torn apart as unlucky “non-stepper” children are left behind by their trailblazer parents.

A few years after the breakthrough, Joshua, a young man with low level of tolerance to company and a secretive “natural stepper”, is conscripted somewhat forcefully by the Black Corporation to explore the High Meggers, the worlds beyond the known versions of the Earth. Enter Lobsang, Joshua’s new immediate employer. Lobsang has won in court the right to call himself a “human being”, which he is not, in the strictest sense of the word. Once a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, Lobsang has been reincarnated in a supercomputer in MIT and by now is probably the smartest sentient being on Earth, and also a  full partner in the Black Corporation. Now something mysterious is stirring in the High Meggers and Joshua and Lobsang will soon have to figure that mystery out. But to get there they will have to step through hundreds of thousands of Earths…

The Long Earth is relatively short and it reads really fast. The reason for that is, I think, that Pratchett and Baxter have adeptly turned their novel into a high-octane idea generator. The world they have imagined into existence offers so much in terms of strange possibilities that it is ideal for the best strand of SF hypothesizing. We have read so much about the bleak future. How would humanity develop, though, in times when there is plenty for everyone? What would be the technological and social implications of that? What is our place as a species in the wider scheme of this apparently infinite multiverse? Such are the questions that interest Baxter and Pratchett and they get to ask loads of them along the characters’ trek across the Long Earth. Some by merely describing the many colonies and outposts sprung up in the alternative realities, others by observing the conditions on our good ole Datum Earth. Consider this new name of the Earth. Datum. Here is a definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “something used as a basis for calculating or measuring”. A core SF concept is embodied in that name – of using the familiar to make sense of what is strange and new. The authors use that principle a lot and to so many ends. This is the greatest thing about The Long Earth – it doesn’t just take you to many different worlds, it takes you to as many conceptual realms and guides you through them.

The topics touched upon are numerous, but they can be grouped with relative ease into a couple of crude sets. Chief are, of course, those about the social implications of that unexpected cornucopia. With the advent of the Long Earth millions of people are suddenly liberated from their economic slavery, they can just up and start a new life on some other Earth. Those who choose to stay, apart from the non-steppers, are, unsurprisingly, the comfortably wealthy. And even though in the new colonies some of the worst human behavioral patterns are repeated once more, the authors imply their optimism that such retrograde strategies will be naturally weeded out. This wealth of possibilities can liberate people not only financially but imaginatively as well. When your employers and governors can no longer monopolize resources, you can do everything, you just have to have the courage to make the step and the brains to make the smart step. In the New World smart has a much richer meaning, though. It can mean “brave”, “skilled”, “curious”, “hardworking”, “good leader”, “good human being”… People’s return to the riches of nature demands of them to work in teams and to value and rely on each other. In the colonies your best skill or profession easily sticks itself as a family name to your given one, because names need their ancient powers back in this new, much more immediate reality. At the same time, on Datum Earth unrest is stirring, as some of the uglier parts of human nature are exposed. Every revolution in thinking has to go through its birth throes, though. Pratchett and Baxter explore those issues and the new societal ethics of the colonized Long Earth through a slew of secondary characters, showing us mostly snapshots of their new lives, the good and the bad. There are points in the story where the rapid flicking between the multitude of viewpoints is a bit clumsy and pointless at a first glance, but later in the novel those threads are tied together relatively well.

There are big ideas about biodiversity, too. One cannot help but think how insignificant humans are painted on the seemingly infinite canvas of the Long Earth. There are millions of versions of our blue planet (some of them leaning more toward the green, some without any water at all), but homo sapiens have developed on just one, as if we are just a statistical wrinkle in the sea of possibilities. However, that doesn’t mean that different forms of life that are at least as interesting couldn’t have evolved, and, in fact, Joshua and Lobsang come across many of them during their expedition. Are there universals of nature (except from the obvious fact that there are always crocodiles in the water!) and what is the significance of the so-called “speciation events”? At the incomprehensible scale of this astounding multidimensional frame, another logical question raises its head: is our existence pointless or is there some purpose to it? The Long Earth doesn’t pretend to have the answers to such big questions, rather it puts them on the discussion table, as any good SF story should aspire to do. A question like that is certainly not an isolated one, but goes hand in hand with many others. Like, what exactly are the criteria for humanhood? How will we know a truly sentient living thing or AI, and what will future advanced consciousness look like? And, of course, one of the core questions in a SF work about parallel worlds: is there a mind-matter interface that determines the shape of the quantum universe? Amid all that great material is weaved in a rather favorite topic of Pratchett’s – the fact that people are often much too dull to notice the wonders that surround them. In fact, I think this quintessentially Pratchettesque (Pratchettian?) motif deserves its own name: inattentional dullness sounds like a decent one to me.

But the book is also about the people who do appreciate those wonders and actively try to understand them. Curiosity and wisdom are, I think, two of the qualities most valued by Pratchett (and possibly Baxter, pity that I haven’t read anything else by him, other than his collaborative work with Arthur Clarke). Informed curiosity is maybe a good label for that combination of traits. It is with such attitude that Joshua and Lobsang explore the Long Earth and all the ramifications opened up before our race. The most powerful engine of that often speculative exploration is Lobsang, who is always asking questions (sometimes so many, that he comes across as a mere narrative kludge, whose main function is to spew out SF ideas; but mostly he is just awesome). I find the authors’ decision to write him as a Tibetan simply great – to make the most powerful mind across all human-inhabited Earth also a Buddhist. Great power comes with great responsibility, also, humility and all that, I guess. In addition to Lobsang, the book boasts an ensemble comprising of a robot cat that catches mice in the Buddhist way (“Adapted for light conversation, proverbs, rodent securement and incidental chit-chat with a thirty-one percent bias towards cynicism.”), Harley-Davidson-riding, rock-listening, sharp-shooting, Keats-quoting nuns, and a world-spanning Wikipedia made of song. Also trolls, elves and aboriginal songlines.

The Long Earth is probably worth your time even only for its conceptual vistas. It has other great qualities as well, like Pratchett’s epigrammatic genius and ability to paint a vivid personality in a single paragraph. The book is quite witty at times, although it is not very funny, not nearly as much as Pratchett’s other works. But I don’t think it should have been so. Baxter too shines through with his scientific sensibility and erudition. Thanks to that the SF ideas in the novel feel truly SF. I was impressed with the range of topics integrated into the fabric of the story: there is quantum mechanics, embodied cognition, AI, various kinds of engineering, even some ideas about the future of space faring, despite the fact that the nature of the Long Earth seemingly obviates that core SF dream. True, most of those are not explored in detail and the fine-grained structure of this particular Technologiade is not in focus, like in a Reynolds, Clarke or Brin novel. Still, The Long Earth is good SF.

There are downsides too. Many storylines feel a little superfluous plot-wise, although they have their purposes as bearers of important ideas. Many of the point-of-view transitions are rough and the dialogue feels somewhat awkward and too infodumpy. The characters too are not very convincingly fleshed out. There are fine scenes of bonding between Joshua and Lobsang, but those feel more like an exception to the overall pattern. The rest of the characters are just plain two-dimensional. As good as Pratchett may be at blitz portraiture, a couple of paragraphs are not enough to transport you in another person’s shoes. Big on concepts, not so big on plot and characters, that would have to be my one-sentence review. Also, in the sea of ideas The Long Earth sails in, there swims a slightly amorphous sense that a lot was left untold and underdeveloped, but we are lucky that the authors plan to write two more books at least. And even if this were to remain a stand-alone book, I would be more than happy to have read it. It is a work of authentic SF fiercely in service of that great function of the genre – to expand the mind and invigorate the imagination by challenging it.

Here is a link to a talk with the two authors: http://richannel.org/collections/2012/terry-pratchett#/the-long-earth-terry-pratchett-and-stephen-baxter.

7.5/10

One comment on “The Long Earth – Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

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