I’m partway into the last book of the The Long Earth Series and I just had to take a break to rant about part of it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting premise and there’s a good story in there — after all, I have stuck with it through three and a half books now. The idea is that there are multiple parallel worlds, each differing a tiny bit from the last. But humans only developed on “datum Earth”, so when people “step” to a parallel world they find the world as it would have been, without the effects of millennia of humanity. Forests where cities stand, mammoths roaming North America. So people spread out to colonize the new parallel worlds, with full knowledge of where the gold and oil is hidden.
However, the point the authors then try to ram home multiple times and that just doesn’t catch with me — that’s immersion-breaking for me — is that beyond that, a great many people decide to drift further and further into the parallel worlds and become hunter-gatherers, living off the untouched land. They try to make it sound like an idyllic life, that the plants will provide, and all the squirrel you can eat. So many people are drawn by this new/old way of living that civilization is being hollowed out and at risk of collapse.
Sure, there would be more big game without over-hunting, many of which would have no fear of humans, but people would be giving up all our infrastructure: clean water, shelter, the internet, medicine. I just can’t see it.
I mean, yes, part of why this is immersion-breaking for me is just how much I am not that foraging type, so every time they try to sell that point about half of humanity just walking away from everything civilization offers I go “hells no!” There are some people even in the city who are all about foraging, with jealously guarded secret spots in the Don Valley where edible mushrooms and wild chives grow. That’s not me — I can barely deal with you-pick-em apples/strawberries at an orchard/farm where they are ripe and ready and thick upon the plants. And I’m still like “This is too much work just to eat, someone give me something to edit and I’ll hit the grocery store later.”
If you’re really, really into hunting (and all the nasty business of skinning and butchering that comes with it) then maybe, but I can’t swallow the notion that wandering into the forest and living on the fruits and berries you find is in any way appealing. Without humans spreading the plants we like, there wouldn’t be that many of them to make foraging all that easy. Moreover, plants and berries just don’t work the way they say — most of what we eat has been shaped by human cultivation. If I could barely be buggered to pick delicious Royal Gala or Empire apples from a tree in full ripeness, ancestral corn (pitiful and tiny), wild bullrushes (technically edible), black spruce (who doesn’t love a good black spruce porridge?), stinging nettle (nope), dandelion (they grow wild in my lawn and I pick them anyway and I still can’t be bothered to eat them), or wild grapes (you thought the seeds were a problem when you accidentally bought the non-seedless cultivated grapes) would just be giant fuck yous.
Sure, if you had no other choice, many of those things are technically food. If you pathologically loved the open, empty world, you may run off to a parallel universe and live off the land. But I absolutely cannot see something like half of earth’s population abandoning industrialized farming to go forage in the long earth. There are many other interesting potential calamities the authors could have explored based on the discoveries. For example, what would happen to climate change if we could tap three or four Ghawar and Permian Basin oil fields from neighbouring earths, and put all the CO2 into our atmosphere? What economic shocks would happen if precious metals were no longer quite so rare? What tensions would there be between establishing suburbs in the “parallel footprint” of existing cities, versus using those areas for farming (as many of our cities were founded on prime farmland)? Some of these issues are touched on lightly in the books, but nothing is hammered as hard and as often as the hollowing-out of humanity for the call of foraging.
To give you an idea of how hard they try to sell the idea, here’s a blockquote to leave you with:
“Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support orders of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering. On a single world a comber community, even if natural resources are rich, would necessarily spread out, diffuse; the concentration of population needed to sustain a city would be impossible. Here, it is sufficient for the combers to be spread out, not geographically, but over many stepwise Earths — over a hundred parallel Valhallas, left wild for hunting. […] The city is a product of a layer of worlds, each lightly harvested, rather than the product of a single intensively farmed world. This is intensive gathering: a uniquely post-stepping urban solution.”