Escapism is incredibly important to just about every form of fiction. It’s what makes us want to step over into the carefully designed worlds of books and films. We need a break from the mundanity and unpleasantness of our own reality, to such an extent that sometimes the made-up worlds we enter are far worse than our own. Take The Hunger Games as an example – a world where children are made to kill each other as entertainment for the high classes. A pretty dark concept, but people willingly immersed themselves in the world that it was based in. As with almost all dystopian novels, the world presented in The Hunger Games is a clear allegory for our own, and one that features a rebellion toppling the corrupt regime. That’s why people enjoy the idea so much – to an extent, they can relate to the issues of the world, whilst agreeing with and supporting the rebellion. Perhaps it’s even something they wish would happen in the real world. Escapism provides a look into a world not too dissimilar from our own, but with enough differences to make people wish they could be a part of it, just to be somewhere where they don’t have the same routine and responsibilities.
Escapism can get even more extreme. The ‘Gone’ series of novels features a west coast American town, and all of its population under 18 years old ripped from the universe entirely and stuck in their own little bubble. Of course, a group of kids and teens in their own separate universe didn’t go well. Due to the really quite extreme nature of their separation from the rest of the world, the books ran with the tagline ‘Escapism doesn’t get better than this’. I think it does.
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Long Earth’ series focuses around a fictional device developed in 2015, which allows humans to ‘step’ from one universe to the next with the flip of a switch. It relies heavily on the idea of a multiverse – the concept that our universe is one of many, each different from the next. In the case of the Long Earth, this chain of universes continues seemingly forever, meaning that upon the invention of the stepper box, humanity was suddenly granted access to an infinite amount of worlds. With the exception of ferrous metals, everything can be carried down the chain of worlds, and so humanity spreads out, bringing an industrial revolution to every world they reach.
The book series itself could be seen to be about escapism. Huge amounts of the population leave the original – or ‘Datum’ – Earth, seeking a new life in words not too dissimilar from our own.
It’s the ultimate escapist fantasy – with a box small enough to fit in one hand, you can step out into a limitless selection of strange lands. Worlds with trees stretching for miles into the sky, or where the ground you stand on is that of a moon orbiting a colossal gas giant, or where a race of bipedal lizards was wiped out because they didn’t realise the rock they were worshipping was uranium. You could keep moving through the worlds forever, never coming to a stop, even millions of universes from anything that resembles humanity.
The metaphor for escapism goes deeper – the stepper box itself is a strange device. All the pieces can be bought easily from a shop with even a limited range of electrical equipment. As long as your wires and transistors carefully placed, you could build one in a matter of minutes. Oh, and don’t forget the most essential item, the box’s power source – a potato. There’s instructions at the front of the book, so you could easily create one if you wanted to. Just don’t be too disappointed when it doesn’t work.
But the reason it does work in the novels is because of our own minds. We have the ability to imagine these worlds, and as such, the latent ability to travel to them. The box just provides the last bit of circuitry we need to Step over to them.
It’s a story about perfect, impossible escapism. We’re provided with an infinite new frontier, with no limits to the insanity that the worlds can reach, even though they’re all just different versions of our own. It’s not so much about people travelling through other universes – it’s about people escaping into our own stories.
The Long Earth is an encapsulation of the human desire to escape. We make our own stories to forget about the mundanity of life, and in doing so, pollute worlds with so much potential with our own problems. They seem to say that no matter how far we travel, how far we advance, we’ll always have some sort of struggle. This is probably the ultimate problem and beauty behind escapism – when we step over into these new worlds, we take our imperfections with us. Because without them, where is the story?
An article by James White