Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Stepping Out [Review: The Long Earth]

Step Day: the day a blueprint for a potato-powered circuit is released onto the Internet and everything changes. Thousands of people construct their own device and instantly vanish, travelling “east” or “west” along a chain of Earths in parallel universes. The chain may be endless, and although it’s full of life there are no signs of humanity anywhere. The ease of stepping, at least for most people, creates a land rush and a lawless frontier society as humanity expands into the Long Earth.

Two travellers – Joshua Valiente, a human with a natural ability to step, and Lobsang, a computer who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan, set out on a journey that will take them over a million Steps to the west. Along the way they meet other Steppers, explorers and colonists, and discover more of the secrets of the Long Earth multiverse. Joshua is ambivalent about humanity, drawn to silence, needing human contact but shy and awkward up close. Lobsang is another HAL 9000 or GERTY, human-ish and apparently caring but alien and difficult to trust.

The Long Earth is the first, much anticipated collaboration between two of science fiction’s greatest living authors, Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. This would be exciting enough, but this is no licensed novel in a franchised series – both writers have put their heads together to create something newer. Of course the idea of parallel universes itself is not new, science fiction writers have been exploring it for a long time. I've already reviewed Iain M. Banks’ recent novel Transition; also Pratchett and Baxter have both been there before. It’s fair to say that The Long Earth shares themes with Baxter’s Manifold novel Origin. However I don’t recall reading a novel that deals with colonization of parallel universes in this way.

The novel occasionally feels like the result of a brainstorming session, and indeed the authors did hold such a session at a sci-fi convention along the way. Some interesting limits are placed on Stepping – the device will only work for the human who completed its construction, suggesting that it may have a psychological or metaphysical mode of action. The chain itself, with only two directions of travel, instantly makes the whole concept easy to grasp. Iron cannot be Stepped although iron compounds such as haemoglobin seem to be OK – so every new colony has to set up its own foundry, and guns cannot be transported, at least for about ten minutes until humanity solves that particular issue. This seems to serve as a way of slowing the rate of colonization on each new world, and creating a more interesting narrative.

The Pratchett influence is more subtle, although the characters are very much in his style. I didn’t pick up on any obvious references to Discworld. However, while most parallel Earths are only slightly different from the last, each Step bringing gradual changes in the geography, evolutionary outcome or climate, there are occasional outliers where anything goes – a world dominated by tall forests, a crocodile-infested waterworld, etc. These acquire the name Joker Worlds - as a fan of Pratchett’s early sci-fi novel The Dark Side Of The Sun, this makes me happy.

No comments: