Who hasn’t dreamed of escaping from their humdrum life and traveling to a less complicated time and place? Often we do it through books, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Or dream of time travel through the imaginations of Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke. Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, who co-authored several books with Clarke (not to mention a dozen bestsellers on his own), have teamed up to bring fans a fantastical adventure about planet Earth --- the Earth that was and still is, if only we knew how to get there.
"Pratchett and Baxter have concocted a fascinating and entertaining sociological, archaeological and anthropological shorthand history of Earth."
It is 2015, an unknown, mad, or perhaps just extremely angry scientist creates a personal time machine called a “stepper.” He loads the diagram with instructions for building this simple device on the Internet, and by the end of the first day, it has gone viral around the world. People are rummaging for a fuel supply --- a simple potato, besieging the local Radio Shack for a switch and copper wire. Within hours, they are pushing a button marked “E” or “W” and vanishing into thin air from homes, schools, playgrounds and offices as they step into an older version of their world, only a little further in the direction they chose.
Step Day will become one of those dates that people everywhere will remember where they were and what they were doing when time travel became possible to anyone who could read the instructions and get their hands on the parts. No need for a Back to the Future DeLorean or a secret laboratory to house a complicated Jules Verne flying machine. If you could assemble a model airplane kit, you could travel through space and time, and with the flick of a switch find yourself sometime else. The where is fairly predictable in the beginning because you stay where you started; the when is a little more complicated. For instance, if you live in a 10th floor condo in urban Madison and you “step,” you are likely to land on the vacant land 10 stories beneath you that was there perhaps a century earlier.
Joshua Valiente believes in doing things right the first time, so he follows the rules to the letter, pushes the button West, and suddenly pops up into chaos. Other young people who hastily slapped the deceptively simple device together, ignoring an important caution of “no iron,” risked blowing themselves up. Or one might step into a former swamp, or in front of galloping horses, or click frantically at a malfunctioning switch only to remain stuck in their new “when.” Joshua spent a good deal of time in the early days rescuing these careless folk until things settled down. The many basic casualties caused by the almost biblical Four Horsemen of this phenomenon were Greed, Failing to Follow the Rules, Confusion, and Miscellaneous Abrasions. An instant version of natural selection occurred as the careless and greedy were soon eliminated by their own stupidity.
Let’s say you had the brilliant idea of traveling back to 1848 to California just before the first gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. You weren’t the only one to have this bright idea, and you found yourself in a large host of very hostile company. And if you committed a crime in old Madison, or old London or old Beijing, for that matter, whose jurisdiction prevailed? Or say you hopped back a couple of centuries and homesteaded a large plot of land, owned in the 21st century by someone else, say a shopping mall or a bank. Who holds title? Who pays the taxes?
Joshua is recruited by a local policewoman to embark on a time and globetrotting journey with a former Tibetan monk called Lobsang, who now co-exists as a computer. Lobsang’s airship can step at astonishing speeds across the quantum earth to the far reaches of time, observing Earth and its inhabitants at treetop level.
Pratchett and Baxter have concocted a fascinating and entertaining sociological, archaeological and anthropological shorthand history of Earth. A bit of Pratchett’s signature wry humor is intact, along with the science fiction, clearly provided by Baxter. It’s no spoiler to predict that this is the first in a new series with this inspired collaboration.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on June 22, 2012