Monday, January 4, 2016

Down the Stacks #19: The Long Earth

This week on Down the Stacks, we’ll be looking at the first entry in a sci-fi series written by the late Sir Terry Prachett in collaboration with Stephen Baxter, an accomplished science fiction writer I plan to look into in the future.  For now, though, stick a fresh potato in your Stepper and come with me as we explore The Long Earth.

If you’re confused about the potato thing, just bear with me for a moment.  The explanation is forthcoming.  
The Long Earth is an exploration into the theory of the quantum multiverse, the idea that time bifurcates into different universes every time there are multiple ways a thing can happen, and each universe is the reality of one of the options occurring.  Theoretically, there are an infinite number of Earths identical to this one except for microscopically minor details.  For the sake of relative simplicity and narrative potential, The Long Earth cuts the number of variations down from infinite to mere millions, and makes our Earth the only one with homo sapiens.
Events in The Long Earth start with what comes to be called Step Day: the day when the blueprints for a strange device with a three-stage switch and powered by a potato appear online, dozens of kids and other curious types build the things, and discover that the devices make you “step” into an alternate Earth adjacent to our own.  What follows is major societal shifts as people learn there’s effectively an infinite number of Earths lined up both “East” and “West” of the origin point, or Datum Earth.  The terms “East” and “West” are admittedly arbitrary designations, since Stepping drops you in the exact geometric position on the destination Earth as the one you Stepped from (so stepping from above ground level is inadvisable, and impossible from below ground).  Governments scramble to adapt to mass emigrations and the logistics of trying to maintain law, order, and taxation across the Long Earth while the spirits of Manifest Destiny and wanderlust lead many to Step to Earths numbering in the high thousands.
The book moves between many focus characters, but the bulk of the plot focuses on a man named Joshua Valienté, who is something of a folk hero on the Long Earth for both his calm demeanor during the chaos of Step Day and his continuing habit of helping people who head out into the Long Earth ill prepared.  Joshua is often compared to Daniel Boone because he also tends to spend a lot of time alone in the higher-numbered Earths, away from the mental presence of other humans, which he can feel due to the circumstances of his birth.  He is also what is called a “natural stepper,” someone with the rare ability to Step without the use of a Stepper device and without suffering the extreme nausea that plagues everyone who Steps.  We’re first introduced to Joshua during his childhood Step Day adventure, but his actual story takes place a couple decades later when he’s hired by the Black Corporation to accompany one of their top men - simply named Lobsang - on an exploratory expedition to discover the West end of the Long Earth, if such a place exists.
Lobsang is an AI that claims he is the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist, and has both the memories and the ability to Step to prove his humanity.  Lobsang is the driving force of the expedition - literally, as he operates all parts of the Step-capable airship Mark Twain - and admits to bringing Joshua along as a backup plan.  Although highly intelligent and more aware of any given situation than Joshua ever is, Lobsang often acts like a kid in a candy store, and permitted unlimited free samples, as he and Joshua move through the Long Earth and come across the fascinating variations in animal evolution, the occasional “Joker World” where events created an Earth vastly different from its neighbors and generally inhospitable, and even primitive humanoids capable as a species of natural stepping.  He’s full of exposition, but his excitable nature and Joshua’s reactions to the same make him quite enjoyable as a character.
The other focus character of interest is Monica Jansson, a police officer who, through contact with Joshua on Step Day and beyond, is her department’s expert on Stepping and our viewpoint character for how a local police force adapts to the reality and accessibility of the Long Earth.  Jansson also provides glimpses into the geopolitical situation, and potential disaster from groups of people upset by their rare inability to Step at all, occurring on Datum Earth while Joshua and Lobsang on off on their trek.
Along the way, we’re also presented with single-chapter vignettes of other people whose experiences with Stepping and the Long Earth demonstrate additional facets of the whole situation, and how the Long Earth may have shaped the Datum’s history and culture even before Step Day.

If you’re expecting to see the witty satire that characterizes Terry Pratchett’s Discworld in The Long Earth, you will be disappointed, as this novel is not a comedy.  However, the wisdom and straightforward observations that form the foundation of Prachett’s wit are still in abundance, usually delivered through Lobsang.  In many ways, Lobsang seems to be the character that is the purest product of Prachett’s mind, and I would not be surprised to discover in retrospect that Joshua is primarily Stephen Baxter’s creation.  The Long Earth was planned from the start to be the first in a series, and so the two authors apparently decided to use this first volume solely for the purposes of showing us the multiverse they collaborated on while conversing with each other through their main characters about the cultural, historical, and moral implications of a Long Earth.  That doesn’t make this book a bad one; as I said, the characters are interesting in their own right and the stops they make along the journey Stepwise-West provide plenty of activity and interesting scenes.  The final few chapters reveal potential major conflicts for the next book in the series with proper hooking devices.

If you haven’t picked up The Long Earth, I highly recommend doing so.

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