Book Review: ‘The Thousand Earths’

Review by Duncan Lunan

First published in ParSec # 6, 28th January 2023.  

front cover of the book The Thosand Earths with the planet and a swilrling vortex in space along with other planetary bodies

Stephen Baxter, “The Thousand Earths”, hbk, 579 pp. + 5, £22.00, Gollancz, 2022

Reviewing Stephen Baxter’s Galaxias in Orkney News, 30th August 2022, I wondered whether later events would be played out during the collision of the Milky with the Great Nebula in Andromeda, starting 3.75 billion years from now, when they will merge into a huge elliptical galaxy termed ‘Milkomeda’.  Here Baxter uses the same dark matter ramscoop as in Galaxias, but he goes one better than my suggestion, sending his character John Hackett on ever longer voyages, during one of which the entire galactic collision happens in his absence.  

Hackett’s voyage to Andromeda takes him away from Earth for 5 million years.  Ten years out  (in ship time, thanks to relativistic time dilation)  he wakes from suspended animation to find all his fellow crew members dead.  He’s happy with his own company, but after completing the mission, he’s unhappy with the new version of humanity that he finds and ships out again, as in Joe Haldeman’s later chapters of The Forever War.  But he goes a great deal further than Haldeman’s character, all the way to the Perseus cluster of galaxies, returning after five billion years when the Milkomeda collision has run its course.  

In all the voyaging, even through the Local Group of galaxies and far beyond, no intelligent life has been found.  It seems that humanity is alone in the Universe, and mostly confined to a very small part of it.  The Solar System is still the principal home of humanity, although the Earth has melted due to the rising solar output, and most of the ‘incarnated’ humans – those still occupying physical bodies – live on a long-since terraformed Mars.  But the great majority, past and present, live purely mental lives in a vast organic and inorganic network called ‘the Substrate’.  The Solar System is the hub of big projects, and the biggest one is to take control of the star formation after the galactic collision, modifying the nascent stars into red dwarfs, with trillions of years ahead of them, rather than more massive stars with lifetimes of billions of years at most.   

It’s big thinking, and it meets big opposition.  The stars themselves are alive, and sentient, and they don’t want all their descendants to be quiescent red dwarfs, when at least half of them could have a short life but a merry one.  A war is starting which humanity can’t win, not when the stars themselves are ranked against them.  The only answer is to drop the programme, accept confinement to the Solar System and its immediate vicinity, and send Hackett and the ‘motley crew’ he’s gathered out again, for another five billion years, to explain to the humanity of that time what happened.  But on the way back, the ship is disabled by a chance collision, and it drifts for a trillion years before recovery.  Hackett wakes to a future in which the Sun is a white dwarf, Milkomeda is dying, and the rest of the Universe is beyond visibility, due to accelerated expansion driven by dark energy.   

The last great plan is to remake the Earth into a thousand lenticular discs, each bedded on a larger disc of Substrate, populate them with unmodified humanity, and set the whole new system running to see what will happen.  Consuming its Substrate for energy, each disc will last for ten million years, and as it breaks up, an organised evacuation will spread its occupants over the rest.  Adding new discs meantime, humanity can survive for a hundred trillion years, and in that time, hopefully, can think what to do next when all the stars are gone.  Hackett accepts a roving commission to travel among the Thousand Worlds in a smaller ship, to monitor how the great experiment is going.  

Throughout, Hackett’s story is interspersed with the misfortunes of a woman called Mela, on a disc which is rapidly disintegrating around the edges.  Her family are only concerned to gain all they can from the situation, commercially, through religion, or just personal power through violence.  The religion is a complete fake, seriously misleading the populace and the reader as to what the Substrate is.  Meanwhile, as the edges of the world disappear into the surrounding abyss, a population of millions is displaced, converging on the centre of a totally corrupt Empire which is hanging on to power at all costs.  

And the costs are frightful.  In his Afterword, Stephen Baxter says that he has “tried respectfully to reflect some historical instances of the forced displacement of peoples”, and he’s fully succeeded in portraying the grimness and the despair of it.  At least the historical displaced peoples had a solid world to be displaced on, not an ever-shrinking habitable circle surrounded by roaring chaos.  At least some refugees, asylum seekers and other exiles actually make it, in our world, but here only Mela, her sister and her father survive.  Nobody comes to the rescue, and while the Avatars who should have done so may have been disposed of by the Empire, the lack of response to the emergency by the other 999 worlds suggests that the big plan is in serious trouble.  But the reader has no idea what’s actually happening, and has to spend hundreds of pages trying to work it out, while still in the dark about whether Mela’s timeframe and Hackett’s will ever converge.   

As Baxter previously collaborated with Terry Pratchett, I eventually pictured the disaster as what would happen to Discworld if the Great Turtle died and the carapace rotted away.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Mela’s world could have earth like gravity, only to be told on page 493 that it’s “a Substrate field of some kind.  Don’t ask.”  The problem is that we don’t learn any of the explanations above until the last 100 pages of this very long book.   I enjoyed it more when I reread only the Hackett sections, and literally took Mela’s sufferings as read – but I don’t think that’s how the book is meant to be received.       

1 reply »

  1. Yes and… What do you do when you just can’t convince the parents that play based learning is meaningful. I teach Pre-K. Every year I have parents who are anxious and adamant that their child should be having daily reading instruction. I think this is poppycock but I’m not reaching them when I explain the importance of play. ☹️

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