Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter just published The Long Mars, the third installment in their Long Earth series about uncountable millions of versions of Earth, set in uncountable millions of versions of the Universe.
In the 2011 film Another Earth, a lookalike planet is discovered, and the more our Earth learns about it, the more it seems to have come somehow from a parallel cosmos. In a key scene, a scientist trying to make contact with the planet suddenly finds herself talking to herself.
There are a wide variety of ways in which to envision alternate universes. The Long Earth and Another Earth are of the type that posits the existence of different versions of the same place at the same time, each slightly or hugely different based on chance happenings.
That’s the concept at the heart of Andre Norton’s 1958 Star Gate, an early attempt to see how this theory might play out in life. Rather than Earth, her story is set on Gorth, and one of the characters explains:
“As it is with men, so it is also with nations and with worlds. There are times when they come to points of separation, and from those points their future takes two roads. And, thus, Kincar, there are many Gorths, each formed by some decision of history, lying as these bands, one beside the other, but each following its own path — .”
Star Lords and Gorthians
Kincar, Star Gate’s central character, is a half-breed. His father Rud was a dark tall Star Lord. His mother Anora was a light-skinned native Gorthian.
The Star Lords are people who came from space several centuries earlier. They are much taller and stronger than the natives, and they can live for many hundreds of years without visibly aging. The Gorthians were a primitive race when the Star Lords arrived, but, with the help of the visitors, they have developed rapidly and now are at a level with the Middle Ages from our own history.
The two peoples have lived together amicably, but the Star Lords have realized that their presence is warping the development of the natives. For instance, technologically sophisticated weapons are falling into the hands of some Gorthians.
So, to remove their negative influence on the planet, most of the visitors re-board their ships and return to space. Some, though, decide to take another route — to leave this Gorth for an alternate version. The method: two portable star gates.
Thirty-six years after Norton’s novel, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich developed the Stargate movie, and, later, a television series of the same name. Their stargate, however, didn’t permit travel from one Earth to another, but from Earth to another place in the Universe.
Nonetheless, both Norton’s star gate and the Devlin-Emmerich stargate represent wormholes in the fabric of the cosmos that permit instant movement through the vastness of space that, otherwise, would require centuries or more of normal travel. Other books and movies have envisioned the use of wormholes or black holes for traveling through time, as in the 2009 Star Trek movie in which a younger Spock meets an older version of himself.
In Star Gate, there’s no possibility of Lord Dillan, one of the Star Lords, bumping into himself at an earlier or later age. But he can — and does — some face-to-face with an alternate Lord Dillan.
One who, up to a moment of historical divergence, was himself, but is no longer.
Good guy and bad guy
Lord Dillan is among the small band of Star Lords and half-breeds who plan to go through the star gates to find an empty Gorth to settle on. However, they are attacked by outlaws who follow them through the first portal. So the travelers destroy that gate and, after going through the second one, demolish it as well.
As a result, they are stranded in a version of Gorth where evil Star Lords rule, enslaving the Gorthians with cruelty and savagery. Even their cities appear from a distance “faintly corrupt and debased.”
Kincar’s Lord Dillan is a good guy, but the one on this Gorth is malevolent.
Norton doesn’t try to explain what might have happened to give the Star Lords who came to Gorth two such drastically different evolutions. It’s a knotty question, made knottier by the existence of many individuals, such as Dillan.
Let’s say the branch in the roads occurred after the Star Lords landed on Gorth. When that happened, a version of Dillan went on to live a helpful life on Kincar’s Gorth, but another warped into someone vile and vicious. Both had the same genetic makeup and environmental influences, but, after the branching of history, they developed very differently.
Is that likely?
There’s a lack of nuance here. Yet, in her defense, Norton was early in trying to wrestle with such problems. Plus psychological subtlety was never her strong suit.
Suffice it to say, she offers here a rollicking adventure.
In addition, there is an interesting edge of religious belief to much of the action. Kincar, for instance, finds himself the custodian of a sacred relic, and one character expresses an openness to all right-minded faiths:
Good thoughts and beliefs have the respect of any man, whether they be his own by birth, or native to his friends and kinsmen.
That’s fairly progressive for a novel of the late 1950s. It’s also possibly significant that Norton chose to make the Star Lords — the god-like space travelers — dark-skinned. The Civil Rights Movement was starting to gain speed in the U.S. as Star Gate hit bookstore shelves.
One of Norton’s better novels, Star Gate is inventive, adventurous and fun — a formula she excelled at for more than 70 years as a writer.
Patrick T. Reardon