Earth is getting crowded – very crowded. In a special editorial series titled Seven Billion, National Geographic details how the human population, which has long since passed the seven billion mark, will cope with having all those souls living together on this blue marble called Earth. It discusses, in particular, issues connecting population growth to the consumption of resources, and none of the predictions made are positive. If human population growth does not at least slow down, humanity is looking at the abyss of environmental destruction, which leads to climate change, which leads to destruction of valuable food and water resources, and which, finally, culminates in destructive wars as countries attempt to control or usurp control of those resources. The website has a counter showing the number of new humans entering the world every second, and there’s no denying its rather ominous feel. Watching the numbers scroll by is like watching the countdown to a bomb explosion – except there’s no one who can diffuse this particular bomb, and, worse, the repercussions of the bomb will be felt throughout the world.
The most common answer to population pressure has been migration. It’s precisely what our ancestors did: when it was too crowded, or when they had picked a place over for resources, it was time to move on. Humans are, by nature, quite nomadic, and this need to change places in order to find a better situation for oneself is still in effect today: one need only to look at current human migration patterns to see that most people move in order to gain a better advantage in life. This used to be enough, but that’s no longer the case in the twenty-first century. Humanity has just become so dense on this planet that there’s not a lot of places one can go in order to find a better life.
Sci-fi writers have, of course, posited various interesting solutions to the growing problem of population, some of which might actually be viable. Moon colonies have constantly been brought up, as well as colonies on Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of the gas giants. Some have even suggested colonizing the ocean floor first – after all, seventy percent of the Earth is covered in water, which means that’s seventy percent of the Earth’s surface that hasn’t been utilized for living space.
But what of the multiverse? What if there were many, possibly infinite, parallel Earths out there, just waiting to be accessed and occupied? What if it were possible to access these parallel planes easily, and, moreover, cheaply? This would, of course, do a great deal to relieve population pressures, because then people would be able to just keep entering these parallel worlds, finding places that they like, and settling down to live life as best as they could, as they saw fit. If the multiverse is infinite, then humanity can spread itself as thinly as it needs, or even as it wants, thus eliminating forever the concept of population pressure and all the problems associated with it.
This is precisely what happens in The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. One day, plans for something called a Stepper appear on the Internet: a box consisting of some electronic parts and powered by a potato, of all things, that allows the user to “step” into a parallel version of Earth – a version that is almost exactly the same as the Earth the stepper left behind, except for a significant lack of people. One can step “east” or “west,” though these directions are entirely arbitrary; the stepper does not move one inch in space, and simply appears on the parallel equivalent of the universe he or she left behind in precisely the same spot he or she was standing in when he or she stepped. If one is standing in a spot that is blocked by some obstacle on the other side, like a tree, the step will not happen, and one has to find another spot that approximates a clear space on the parallel universe before one can actually step through.
The result of this, of course, is incredible. Children were the first to try the Stepper, since they’re apparently the first ones to make them, and many of them stepped for the first time – meaning, they just disappeared – in a phenomenon called Step Day, which in the book is treated with the same reverence Americans currently attribute to 9/11. When the children reappeared and told their parents everything they knew, the adults figured out that this stepping business was for real, and began to find ways and means of exploiting the undeveloped and therefore resource-rich Long Earth.
This is where things got really interesting – for me, anyway. With Earth replicated in seemingly infinite iterations, with all of its resources intact, one can only imagine how many people rushed out into the Long Earth in an attempt to make it rich on Datum (the term for the original Earth) – except when everyone is out there too, bringing back the same resources, the market gets flooded, prices dip radically, and economies pretty much collapse. This was the case with Jim Russo, who attempted to make himself rich by stepping out to a Long Earth version of Sutter’s Mill, which was where James Marshall first found the flakes of gold that sparked the Gold Rush. He’d hoped to mine the gold, take it back with him to Datum, and make himself a fortune on the metal – except he wasn’t the only one who had the same idea, and those other people had flooded the market with gold. This sent the price of gold plummeting, which meant the only point of visiting the area of Sutter’s Mill was for reenactments.
People are a resource too, and the effect on world economies of so many people leaving Datum to find a better place for themselves out on the Long Earth is stunning. While there are people who leave Datum in order to escape obligations like taxes and debts, a great many more leave simply because there is no opportunity for them on Datum. These are usually the poor, the dispossessed, people who have nothing to gain by staying in Datum, and so have very little or absolutely nothing to lose by going out into the Long Earth and find their fortunes there. Again, the result is the same as the flooding of gold into the markets: economies collapse because there’s no one there to tax, and it’s nigh-on impossible to tax those who’ve gone out into the Long Earth because it’s hard to fix things like borders, or even to find citizenry to tax in the first place. This is what happens to the United Kingdom: with so many people leaving the cities in order to find a better place for themselves elsewhere, entire cities are folding in on themselves, starting with the inner-city boroughs and neighborhoods where many immigrant populations and the urban poor lived.
In the midst of all of this is an interesting question regarding human civilization as it is understood today. Most civilizations, with all their advantages and disadvantages, emerged because people stayed around long enough to build towns and then cities – a result of the more sedentary lifestyle that agriculture allowed. This setup, of course, created many of the issues associated with urban living today: crime, corruption, and disease. That same setup, of course, also allowed for art and science to flourish. But in the Long Earth, everything changes. Money means nothing because there’s no centralized economy in which to use it, so people have returned to the original barter-and-favor system because it’s the one that works the best. Crime rates are also very low, because survival on the Long Earth relies on being trustworthy. If one is not trusted, one does not receive help, and if one is unable to receive help when one needs it the most, then one will almost surely die.
And what about Datum? Well, that’s the thing: Datum is gradually folding in on itself. The rich have remained because they are the ones with the most to lose if they leave, but they’re suffering because the population required to support cities and their economies (which the wealthy need in order to remain wealthy) is gradually disappearing, heading for better horizons where life might not necessarily be easier, but at least it’s fair. Civilization on Datum collapses – and in the most horrific way possible.
In the midst of all this are Joshua Valiente and Lobsang. Joshua is, for the most part, the central character: a natural stepper (a person who can step without the need of the Stepper, and can do so without the ill effects of stepping with a Stepper) who became the hero of Madison, Wisconsin on Step Day when he rescued several children by guiding them back to the Datum. An orphan raised by a group of very eccentric nuns (which is classic Pratchett, according to Hope), he’s also an independent, somewhat antisocial person, who frequently escapes out of the Datum and into the Long Earth in order to listen to the Silence, something he’s heard – and sought – all his life. His natural stepping ability is what brings him to the attention of Black Corporation, who send him off on a long Westward expedition of the Long Earth, accompanied by a character named Lobsang.
Lobsang is, hands-down, the most intriguing character in the entire book. He (and Lobsang is very specific about this pronoun) claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle mechanic, his soul finding its new home in an organic gel-based computer processor created by Black Corporation. The mechanics for this transfer are better laid-out in the book, but the gist of it seems to be that, at the precise moment of Lobsang’s death, Black Corporation turned their computer on, and it was apparently sufficiently organic in nature that Lobsang’s soul found it suitable for reincarnation. The story’s just silly enough that the reader will wonder whether or not it’s true. After all, it’s entirely possible that Lobsang is only a super-intelligent AI, and the whole reincarnation story is a ploy in order to ensure he isn’t shut off or reprogrammed. It also doesn’t help that Lobsang isn’t the most trustworthy character, since he has an annoying tendency to hold back information to his advantage. But it’s all of this that makes him intriguing, and while some readers (myself included) might be creeped-out at first, he does become endearing enough, in his own way. Also, if he was human originally, he raises the question of what happens humans when they suddenly become demigods: Lobsang isn’t omnipotent, but he’s certainly omniscient, and capable of doing a whole boatload of things that most humans can’t do. What’s it like, to be a human whose brain is suddenly the Internet with supercomputer processing capacities? The possible result is Lobsang.
There are, of course, many more things that could be covered and discussed about The Long Earth: the question of natural steppers versus nonsteppers, for instance, which is crucial for the ending of the novel. There is also the question of the Silence, and what it is, precisely, which is also crucial to Joshua’s storyline and to the larger outlook of the story. But covering them all would lead to questions that lie beyond the scope of the novel itself, and since it’s just the first book in a series (hopefully a duology or a trilogy, because if there are more books than one or two more I think I might cry from the wait necessary to get them), it might be better to just wait for more explanations to discuss those intriguing issues. And given the, shall we say, explosive nature of the ending, there will definitely be some interesting explanations to current questions, and likely even more questions that will need answering.
Overall, The Long Earth is a fascinating, brilliant introduction to a new version of the world, with a very interesting take on the potentials of a multiverse Earth, one which raises questions about humanity itself and how it reacts, not only to truly endless horizons, but to the potential collapse of everything we’ve built up until this point. The ending is a violent and disheartening confirmation of the worst of human nature, but it does then raise questions about how humanity itself deals with the realization that endless horizons aren’t necessarily the solution to the darkness that lingers in people’s hearts. Joshua, Sally, and especially Lobsang, will definitely be at the center of answering that question, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.