This book caught me by surprise, mostly because I had no idea it was coming out. Which is kind of unusual, since I normally keep a pretty close watch on my favorite authors, but somehow this one slipped by me. Anyway, I liked this book, even though it was rather odd. And I don’t mean odd like most of Terry Pratchett’s books, where it’s weird but completely awesome and hilarious. I mean, it was awesome and funny in parts, but it was not like his other books. This one was apparently written because he and Stephen Baxter had an idea and decided to write about it. You know the kind of book I’m talking about. The kind where it’s a great concept, and the author talks at length, and with great eloquence, about that concept for several hundred pages before all of a sudden apparently realizing that they need to have a plot or a conflict in their book, which is when they toss in a sudden kidnapping or whatever, that is very quickly resolved and then all of a sudden the book ends. I have never encountered Terry Pratchett doing that before. I’m not sure how to feel about that. Normally I ding an author for that kind of behavior, but I have long since canonized Terry Pratchett so I don’t think I can do that. He is my very favorite author, ever. This is coming from someone who can never pick a single favorite anything, so the fact that he is my single favorite author should tell you everything you need to know. This book though… this book was different.
Okay, so- the long Earth. The concept with that is basically the multiverse, which, if you haven’t heard of it, is the idea that for every decision you make, or don’t make, every thing you do, or don’t do, somewhere out there there is a version of you that did the opposite. That, in some parallel universe, there is version of you that is living every single possible life that there is. Which is kind of a nice thought, really. Somewhere, somehow, everything has happened, and there are no true missed opportunities. Anyway, well this book plays with that idea. Basically, there are infinite earths and people have figured out how to go to them. You have the original earth, the Datum Earth in the book (datum is a reference point for measurements, like if you were saying “blank miles from Chicago”, Chicago would be the datum) and from there you can East or West, left or right, even though technically those directions mean nothing, it’s just a way to understand it. And from there, they apparently stretch on to infinity, or as near as makes no difference. And the further out, the stranger they can get. In one, the dinosaurs never went extinct. In several others, there’s an Ice Age going on. In another, there is no moon. It goes on and on. Evolution going in all different directions, creatures that we can only imagine, in fact every creature you can possibly imagine exists somewhere on the long Earth. And part of the reason it’s called “long” is that how you get there is by stepping. Most people use this little technological gizmo to get them there, but mostly that’s for show. You don’t actually need it to get there, it just tricks your mind into figuring out how to do it, like showing it this door that wasn’t there before.
Anyway, and in all these other Earths, there are no other humans, or there weren’t until people started going there. Apparently we are a unique phenomenon to Datum Earth. There are other bipedal humanoids out there, some benign, some malignant, but none that are human human. Which means, basically, that there is this whole new world, infinite whole new worlds, for us to explore, to colonize, to harvest from. There is suddenly infinite resources, for everyone. Any man can have a gold mine, if he goes out far enough. Any man can have anything, if he wants it. And all of a sudden, gold has no value except for how pretty it looks. All of a sudden, all the things that we have spent all of human civilization building up, seem kind of empty. How can you have an economy when a huge part of that is based on you having a limited amount of something that other people value? What would happen to our culture, our civilization, when anyone can have anything, when a huge part of the way we work, the way we look at and act upon the world is based on the fact that there are only so many resources and we have to do our part to get it. What happens when we no longer need to farm, because there’s enough resources that we can be hunter- gatherers forever? I have to tell you, reading it, it feels a bit like the apocalypse. Not necessarily in a bad way, because lots of good things come out of it, but it is definitely the death of the old world, the old way of life, and the birth of the new. In the book, they never really tell you what year it is, or what year the plans for making a stepper appeared online, but they always tell you, whether in a flashback or not, how many years it’s been since the Step Day, the day when so many people unwittingly stepped out of our world, our universe. There’s a very good reason for that.
And, beyond that, there’s the fact that there’s a full fifth of humanity that cannot step, no matter what. They can be carried to another world, but it makes them violently ill. A full fifth of the world that cannot take part in this new world, this new age of exploration, can’t go to another world, can’t experience the world as it is without people, the unspoiled beauty, the endless possibilities, can’t reap the rewards of unlimited resources, nothing. Well, they can’t reap the rewards directly. A big part of the book is actually an expedition that is being undertaken to find the end, if there is one, and it’s being done on board an airship, which can travel world to world. No one else had figured out how to do that yet, and if it worked out then it would revolutionize trade and Datum Earth’s flagging economy would be revamped, not only revamped but take off like a rocket. However, these people don’t know that. All they know is that they can’t go there, they are apparently evolutionarily backwards and they have been left on what must feel like a dying world, a world with taxed resources and an economy in the toilet. Which, when they describe it like that, makes you cheerful as all get out, let me tell you. So of course they’re angry and of course they make groups and of course someone does something stupid.
By and large, the book is overwhelmingly in favor of a return to a simpler lifestyle, and they make some excellent points about it. How, with less crowding there would be less crime. I have no statistics to back that up, but it does sound about right. How things would be more fair, that the working poor and worse could get away from their lives. That they could just walk away into what is basically unspoiled paradise. How you can just walk away and start anew, anywhere you want, on a whim. It all sounds great but they did forget a few things which would make it a little less than great. If you’re a pioneer and you get into an accident, what happens? You end up crippled or dead. If you’re a pioneer woman and you’re giving birth and things go wrong, what happens? You die. If you’re a new mother and your baby won’t nurse, where do you get formula? Nowhere. Basically, they forgot about things like medical emergencies, childbirth and infants. Inconvenient little details like that. But other than that, yeah, I guess it would be better. I would sure miss my air conditioning though.
It’s a very interesting book and I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I read it and I haven’t had much success since I finished it, but I have to say, there’s not a whole lot of plot. There’s the expedition, and there’s the hate groups back home with their developing story, but other than that it’s a bunch of vignettes of what the authors think the world, so to speak, would be like if this happened. Like I said, it’s like they had an idea, wrote about that idea, and then tried to shoehorn a plot in afterwards. That being said, it was wonderful and wonderfully written and a fascinating concept. If for no other reason than that, I recommend it.