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Literature Spotlight: Infinity in the Real World

I recently read a new-ish novel by one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Terry Pratchett, that provided me with some much-needed food for thought. The Long Earth, a collaboration between Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, centers around the invention and distribution of a simple contraption enabling its user to 'step' between an infinite number of parallel dimensions. Each of these dimensions is slightly different from every other, possibly depicting a series of 'what if?' alternate Earths, and the entirety together is referred to as 'The Long Earth.' One of the most curious things about the Long Earth, however, is that none of these alternate Earths have any humans on them – no cities, no civilizations, simply wild and beautiful vistas with plenty of local wildlife and a few enigmatic 'humanoid' races that are rarely seen. Forget space travel – mankind can simply step across the Long Earth and find millions of pristine new worlds to conquer!

The novel brings up quite a few intriguing issues stemming from the idea of the Long Earth being essentially infinite and available. It struck me as touching on the difficulty of pinning down the concept of infinity (see my Math Journey about Xeno's Paradox). Difficulties like: in all those alternate Earths, is the footprint of the United States still US territory? Do the people who strike out to 'colonize' those Earths have to pay taxes to a government that's not even in their reality? And if not, should the US government be sending taxpayer dollars to help fund these colonial expeditions? How do you police your citizens or exploit your cheap labor when disgruntled people can simply step out of reality and find another empty world? Add to that the fact that a small portion of the population are 'natural steppers,' who can travel the Long Earth without the nausea that usually accompanies stepping, and another small portion are so-called 'phobics,' who can't step at all, no matter what, and you've got the makings of a class war, complete with religious cults and propaganda surrounding the 'unnatural' act of stepping.

I've always felt that a book doesn't need to be “classical literature” in order to be ripe for essay-writing and English-class-style discussion. With summer break on the horizon, now's a great time to make a list of lighter, easier-to-read books that still have enough substance to challenge you over the summer. I like to read fun books with my students over the summer and encourage them to think critically about everything they read, and this book has just been added to my list of popular fiction worthy of a summer unit. What does it mean to have all of infinity at your fingertips, to be able to step away from all responsibility and carve out a new life for yourself at any time?
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