Terry Pratchett is best known for his ‘Discworld’ series – an immense collection of novels set in a satirical fantasy realm filled with wizards who can’t wizard, evil elves, salt-of-the-earth witches, and aged heroes who have arthritis after a life of fighting demonic creatures from the nether realms.
Behind (and within) the absurdity one can find an interest in the complexities of individual morality. In quite a Biblical way Pratchett formed, through his ‘Discworld’ series, the basis of my general thought (from the deeply philosophical age of nearly-eight right up into my twenties). He taught me Right from Nice, and Wrong from Easy, but also that we all fail our own moral code. He taught me that human society is one big snowballing mess of us all failing our codes at the same time – but that there’s no reason not to have a good laugh about it all sometimes.
So it seems fitting to me that Pratchett’s latest and last series, written with Stephen Baxter, reaches further, concerning itself with more than individual moral dilemmas, and attempts to save the world(s).
Pratchett came up with the concept for ‘The Long Earth’ series (the fifth and final book is due to be released in 2016) back in the early 80s, but put the story to one side to continue the ‘Discworld’ series. The idea came up again while Pratchett and Baxter were at a dinner party in 2010, where Pratchett proposed that Baxter could help him with the ‘hard science’ side of the idea. The two authors kept their host up until 2am while they chatted excitedly, nutting out how they would write the book together.
If Pratchett had attempted ‘The Long Earth’ in the 80s, they would have been very different books indeed. Stephen Baxter’s influence on ‘The Long Earth’ cannot be understated. Baxter’s hard sci-fi background is as comprehensive as Pratchett’s fantasy oeuvre, and (as should be expected from someone who writes a 640-page sci-fi book called Evolution) is often concerned with the long view of things – a trait used to great effect in ‘The Long Earth’ series.
II – The Long Earth
The Long Earth’s premise is based on the many-worlds idea, an interpretation of quantum mechanics that deals with probability of outcomes and posits that for every possible observable outcome, a separate universe exists for that outcome to occur. This is also known as Schrodinger’s Unfortunate Cat.
The story begins in the near future, when a simple device has been invented that will change the fate of the human race forever. The device, known as a ‘stepper’, gives humans the capability to move between ‘probability’ universes. The schematic for the device was distributed on the internet, allowing anyone with an internet connection, a small box, a collection of wires, a potato and the ability to follow instructions to ‘step’ through the membrane of the universe and into another version of our world.
After Step Day (the beginning of the human migration from one earth into many – the long earth), humanity spreads out quickly – there’s a lot of space to go round. Each Earth exists on a slightly different probability curve – with one anomaly. Datum Earth, as they call the Earth of origin after Step Day, is the only world in the long earth chain where humans have ever evolved.
It’s a difficult transition, despite (or because of) the abundance of worlds now only a step away. The Datum Earth’s poor begin to migrate en masse into parallel earths, leaving economic and political systems in ruins. In the face of the radical possibilities inherent to people stepping whenever they like into another world, cities, nations and families begin to unravel.
The changes on Datum Earth, as well as the different lives communities create for themselves in the Long Earth, are seen mainly through the eyes of Joshua Valiente, a slightly OCD orphan who discovers that he is a natural ‘stepper’, able to move at will through the dimensions without the use of a machine. Joshua’s natural ability brings him to the attention of Earth’s newly born first Artificial Intelligence, Lobsang. The sentient computer program (who is convinced that it is the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman) needs Joshua’s ability to help it explore far along the iterations of the earth. The books follow Joshua and Lobsang’s attempts to help smooth humanity’s transition, documenting both the teething period surrounding the large-scale migration and the necessary mental and social adjustments that occur when humankind finally discovers another sentient species.
III – Utopia
One of the greatest anxieties in science fiction is the concern with the utopian ideal – with the idea that out there somewhere is a perfect scenario, a perfect point of civilisation where humans as a race can be truly happy. Where the world is truly saved from our own destructive traits.
Science fiction, as a genre, has always had a conflicted relationship with this idea of utopia. In particular it has been fascinated by the technological utopia – where technology will provide the means to free humankind from the struggle for day-to-day survival. This theoretically leads to labour-saving devices and instant gratification, but is also linked to the dystopian themes of hyper-surveillance, scarce resources and the devaluation of human life.
This preoccupation could be argued to have begun with HG Wells’ 1923 sci-fi novella Men Like Gods. In it, Wells illustrates a utopian society where politics have become obsolete, especially those political systems concerned with war and the allocation of resources – two sectors which are often inextricably linked. In Wells’ golden world, humans are as gods in their magnificence and capability; they have turned the world into bountiful farmland and there is no need to war over food or space – allowing humans to extend the boundaries of science and eventually to colonise other planets.
Nine years later, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World to provide a scathing counterpoint to Wells’ utopian vision. Huxley’s response was the story of test-tube-bred humans who believe that they have the perfect world, but who are perpetually drugging themselves to forget that they are not free to control their own lives. Huxley’s novel is typical of the utopian anxiety in science fiction, which sees any attempt to create a utopia as innately suspect – and more likely to create a dystopian world than a perfect reality. This anxiety has always been held in tension with science fiction’s attempts to reach towards the possibility of a technological utopia. Yet, while these stories explore the possibility of technology as the saviour of humankind, the utopian dream is still held in distrust and is often crushed as a delusion of the weak-minded.
In 2012, Pratchett and Baxter took the utopia ideal in their teeth and ran away with it, creating the multiverse of The Long Earth. Much as new technology prompted the industrial revolution, the creation of stepper technology in The Long Earth sets the human race off on an entirely new trajectory. This trajectory, and the freedom it offers, is informed by one strange but notable restriction: large quantities of iron cannot pass from one universe into another. This law echoes a number of superstitions about the use of ‘cold iron’ to deter unnatural things like witches, ghosts and fairies, and is hypothesised in the story to be due to a trait of atomic stability inherent to the element.
Whatever the case, as humans are unable to take iron with them through the dimensional barriers (and, it follows, steel tools of all kinds), they step into a pre-industrial existence. However, far from being a barrier to colonisation and expansion, this situation lends itself to a more fluid existence – one where low-tech pioneering settlements go hand-in-hand with hunter-gatherer style methods of stepping from world to world and procuring food as it is needed.
This plot device allows the authors to play with the very idea of utopian anxiety. While stepper technology provides humanity with the ability to create utopian societies, these societies are inevitably constrained by the lack of readily available tools and machinery. Thus, these technologically accessed ‘utopias’ must (at least at first) begin as pre-industrial villages with primitive mining and smelting industries. This difficulty in replicating our own technologically dependant society works to balance ‘too good to be true’ Huxleyian paranoia against the gritty ‘reality’ of agrarian life.
Much like Wells, Pratchett and Baxter have created a utopian world that is representative of the concerns of their age. Unlike Wells’ ordered and conquered utopia, the lifestyles of the long earth are a product of our contemporary concern with preserving a natural equilibrium between humanity’s desire to shape the environment to its needs and the belief that nature is valuable in and of itself. Pratchett and Baxter suggest that without the constant hunt for resources, and with the ability to simply ‘step’ away from repression and conflict, humans have the ability to excel without negatively impacting the world around them.
IV – Dystopia
With their creation of the world of the long earth, Pratchett and Baxter have identified one of the major dystopian tropes of science fiction: the concern with Earth’s insufficient resources. Dystopian stories – typified by George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and, more recently, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl (2009) – often use scarcity of resources to highlight the glaring inequality between dominant and lower echelons of society.
The idea of parallel dimensions offering a technological escape from this anxiety was demonstrated in Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (1972) and Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats (1986). Pohl’s and Asimov’s novels discovered a new format for the creation of a possible utopia: the exploitation through technology of the resources of a parallel universe. In each of these books, the ability to move between parallel universes was immediately recognised as a way of stealing the resources of another world. For Asimov and Pohl, the possibility of a perfect way out of war and hunger is inevitably ruined by the human inability to look beyond short-term goals like the accumulation of power and wealth. Access to these new universes and even knowledge of their existence is hidden from the general public, and the developments are turned to weaponisation rather than to the betterment of humanity.
Similar to Asimov’s and Pohl’s novels, Pratchett and Baxter have used the ‘alternate worlds’ trope to explore the possibilities inherent in an infinite abundance of resources. Despite these similarities, however, the result of these possibilities could not be more different. A key divergence between Asimov’s and Pohl’s dystopian tales and Pratchett and Baxter’s relative utopia(s) is the democratisation of stepper technology. In The Long Earth, everyone has the ability to move between worlds because the information was freely shared from the very beginning. This is contrasted with the monopolisation of paratravel in Asimov’s and Pohl’s novels, where petty politics reign and only a select few are privy to the new technology. There, efforts to conceal rather than share the information cause disaster. In The Long Earth, it’s suggested that while violent and cold-hearted people also have access to this technology, there’s hope that a growing democratic awareness of the ecosystem of the Long Earth will prove to be a stronger force.
V – What if?
Science fiction, also known as speculative fiction, is the art of ‘what if’. What if the world were otherwise? Would we be any different? How would we arrange ourselves, our society? What would our greatest challenges be? Are we truly capable of saving ourselves from the snowballing mess of inter-species savagery, fossil fuel reliance and widespread ecological destruction? Can we look outside our own individual lives and attempt to save the world?
‘The Long Earth’ series is one of the purest attempts at following the ‘what if’ precept. Each consecutive book in the series explores a new facet of humanity’s adaptation to its new environment. The series spans the decades of profound upheaval after Step Day, with Pratchett and Baxter putting forward fascinating hypotheses for the future, as well as chilling insights about the darker sides of humanity which even abundant natural resources may never eliminate.
From the beginning, the reader is aware that the Long Earth is not free from tyranny, politics or conflict. The utopian value of the Long Earth is that freedom and the possibility of survival, for any individual or group, is only ever a step away.
Sadly, however, it seems that for Pratchett and Baxter, building a utopia is only possible in the unlikely instance that humankind is supplied with infinite resources and land. That only when the metaphorical stars align will humankind be able to save itself from its insane tendency for self-destruction and realise its potential in the universe.
Despite the fantastic and compelling utopia that is the Long Earth, its unlikely origins show that Pratchett and Baxter still cling to the pessimism that characterises dystopian science fiction. For all its humour and hope, it could be said that The Long Earth is the saddest tale yet, giving us a window to a future that we can never realise.