I consider Terry Prachett to be one of the finest English-language writers working today. I’ve never read anything by Stephen Baxter. So now we all know where I stand coming into this.
This book tells the tale of humanity discovering the ability to travel between dimensions. They can visit various alternate versions of Earth by going “East” or “West” from the home Earth. There they find the same geography (mostly), the same animals (mostly), and no sign of humans whatsoever. It appears that the original Earth is the only one with humanity but not, perhaps, the only one with sentient beings.
Some people view this as an opportunity to get rich fast. One of them decides to go to Sutter’s Mill in our world, then move a few worlds over, all the better to get the gold there. He arrives only to find that he’s far from the first person to think of this, and very soon the value of gold decreases dramatically.
Others view this as a chance to get away from the world; to start new lives in a new land. The Green family is one of these, moving to a world over 100,000 Earths away from ours to set up a new life. In doing so they leave behind their thirteen-year-old son, who is one of the 20% or so who cannot travel between worlds.
And others view this as a great chance for science and exploration. These include Joshua, a man who can travel between worlds naturally, without the machine that most people require. He and a sentient computer named Lobsang (he claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan man), travel across over a million worlds, dropping science probes as they go, and trying to learn about this strange new phenomenon.
I really like that the travel between worlds is done with a device so simple you can build it with parts from Radio Shack and power it with a potato. I also love that the authors explore the real-world ramifications of what would happen if people could travel like this. For example, within a day of the technology appearing, there’s an assassination attempt on the American President, and a bombing at the House of Commons in the UK. Then the cities start rapidly depopulating as people begin to leave for the new worlds. Some places end up as virtual ghost towns.
I was also pleased that they addressed the possible legal issues (ie: do America and other countries have jurisdictions over these new worlds?), dealt with the issues of those left behind and I found it interesting that they decided iron would not be able to travel between worlds. There’s no real explanation for this (except possibly a Celtic one), but I liked it.
What I liked less, frankly, was much of the story execution. The Green family is entirely unsympathetic. I can understand their desire to go out and start a new life, but the parents should have been arrested for child abandonment. You don’t leave your thirteen-year-old son behind so you can go colonize. That’s just not right. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just waited a few years. It’s not like there was a massive land and/or resource shortage on the first Earth. I’m also not at all clear on why they couldn’t take him with them. It’s established that people who can’t travel between worlds can, in fact, do so if someone carries them. It could just be me, but if I wanted to go colonize and keep my family intact, I would have been happy to tote my son between 100,000+ worlds if that is what it took.
I also got a little bored of the travelogue between Joshua and Lobsang. The conversations and the various worlds they were visiting were interesting, but it just kept going and going and going, and the little cut-aways to what was happening with the Green family or what was happening back home were more distracting than anything else, and not always in a useful way. I also found the ending very abrupt and an event that happens in Madison just before the end to be really unnecessary.
So why the positive review with those complaints? Because while the conversations do go on and on and on, they ARE interesting, as is the travel. I also liked the various almost-humans and the possible dinosaurian civilization that are encountered. I like that some of the various problems these new worlds create with the old one are addressed. I also really liked the characters of Joshua and Lobsang, and Lobsang’s very human nature. He seems the most “Pratchettian” character. I also liked the general concept overall. It’s just interesting to think that there could be well over two-million alternate Earths, and possibly a lot more, that are out there, and of those, ours is the only one with humans.
But my favorite part of the book comes near the very end, when we learn what has been driving various non-human intelligences “Westward” over the last few years. It leads to something which reminded me very heavily of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 2001 and various episodes of Doctor Who, and I mean all of that in the best possible way.
While this book is not perfect, and is very different from what I’ve come to expect of Prachett, it is ultimately quite good and the flaws and complaints I have with it are minor indeed. I’m not sure if this book is meant to be the start of a new series, but if it is, sign me up for all the following installments!