Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Thickness of a Thought: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth

As humanity grows well past seven billion people, our small planet begins to feel smaller. Many millions of us cluster around densely packed urban centres, with personal space – let alone land – an uncommon luxury. But what if the opposite were suddenly true? Instead of one Earth, we could walk between millions, with possibility of one day waking up as the only human mind on an entire world?

The Long Earth springs such an event on us one not-so-distant tomorrow, with the consequences explored by two renowned British imaginations: Terry Pratchett, known for his other, more fantastic alternate world in the Discworld series; and Stephen Baxter, a science fiction author with several trilogies under his belt (you may also have heard of his previous co-author, some fellow named Arthur C. Clarke...). Their first collaboration, The Long Earth brings out some of the best elements of each author's style – although those expecting the sillier, more outlandish aspects of Pratchett's fantasy won't find it here. Instead the novel follows a solid, if somewhat predictable science fiction exploration of how humans cope with the technological development of "Steppers": devices that allow instantaneous – if slightly nauseating – shifts from one version of planet Earth (and surrounding universe) to another. When the designs for such a machine get posted online, everyone from tech geeks to inquisitive children start building a way out of our congested world. With gold and natural resources now aplenty – but un-Steppable iron suddenly needed – the traditional ideas of value and wealth get turned on their heads. In search of both, people set out across a line of Earths that are much like ours, but with one small difference... none of them appear to have humans.

Among those ‘Stepping’ into new worlds is Joshua Valient√©, a young man who appears unique in both his ability to cross these worlds without a Stepper box, and his comfort in the solitude he finds on a planet without civilization. Raised by an unusual group of nuns, as Joshua grows up a number of parties begin to take notice of his talents, from a pragmatic Madison detective to a cybernetic billionaire explorer. The latter of these, a charismatic computer who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan named Lobsang, uses his influence to mount an expedition across the many worlds of the Long Earth, and convinces Joshua to come as his guide.

The book sets Joshua’s quest among the accounts of many others, with some people departing eagerly out into the long Earth, others remaining behind to solve the resulting conflicts. These plotlines begin broken up by chapter, and feel more like a collection of short stories set in the same world before they start to get woven together halfway through. As a result I found the pacing early on a bit strange, reducing the traditional dramatic action of a sci-fi adventure in favour of a more cerebral approach. The book’s premise raises enough philosophical and social challenges to intrigue, and its attempt to address them takes a while to play out. The first book of a proposed series of two, The Long Earth reads very much like a compelling 'part one' cliffhanger, more so than a complete standalone work. The characters have voices sufficiently distinct to avoid redundancy, although I did occasionally find them dragging to get back to the main line of the narrative.

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
For overall, the desire to learn more about these distant Earths drives not only the reader, but these characters. Pratchett and Baxter effectively present their conflicting desires for independence and companionship, with the allure of more physical land as tempting as a fresh start socially, as an essential part of their human nature. As with any great migration, there are those left behind; people who for whatever reason cannot Step between Earths. A particularly poignant thread follows a family – a mother – that abandons one son while seeking a better life. Whether in cities or wide open countryside, many of us struggle with that sense of isolation or abandonment; The Long Earth proposes that while each experience of loneliness may be uniquely individual, we all share an innate desire for community. Joshua, for all his journeys far out into seemingly empty worlds, always returns to settlements, and seems to genuinely value the friendship he finds with Lobsang. The android’s desire for a companion, for someone to join him on his adventure, is much of what humanizes him, even if his methods seem a bit otherwordly. Though only machine to pass a Turing test in front of a jury, Lobsang’s story of being ‘truly human’ comes into question in moments of uncanniness. We’re left wondering how blurry that line will get, as we approach a time where something without conventional biology can make such a claim.

The Long Earth starts to address its questions slowly, yet thoughtfully. As is often a stumbling point for science fiction, the novel occasionally succumbs to an excess of exposition: an 'infodump', which strangely leaves the reader with more questions. Pratchett and Baxter keep their descriptions focused enough to avoid this, though I did wish the scope of the novel would branch beyond the English-speaking world and tap into the reaction of more cultures to this new reality. The writing mostly steers away from the temptation to be flowery, sticking to an accessible, practical language to match their protagonist view of the worlds he encounters. Since they travel to alternative Earths, the creatures Joshua and Lobsang encounter take a new angle on the concept of ‘alien’; if they evolved on our planet, what does that make them? Could certain humanoid creatures (called ‘elves’ and ‘trolls’ but more like graceful, musical apes) qualify as another kind of human?

If the authors have answers, they haven’t tipped their hands in this volume. The novel’s climax feels like a bit of a quick rap-up, glossing over some convenient solutions. The explanations we do receive come up rather fast, and therefore don't deliver quite as much impact as I would have hoped. The final chapters take a more satisfying turn, resulting in a new, much-needed sense of urgency for what has otherwise been a fairly leisurely exploration. With potentially infinite worlds to explore, The Long Earth presents an enchanting, if unlikely possibility to address a very real set of problems. Their solution – and our own real ones – will take some very clever thinking. Pratchett and Baxter, at least, appear up to the challenge.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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