Fiction Reviews

The Long Cosmos

(2016) Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter, Doubleday, £18.99 hrdbk, 385pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52178-1


Back in 1986 Terry Pratchett wrote 'The High Meggas', a short story which was based on parallel worlds (it can be found in A Blink of the Screen, a collection of his short fiction (first published in Great Britain by Doubleday, 2012)). Due to the rising success of the 'Discworld' stories, the idea was put to one side until one day in 2010 when he mentioned it to Stephen Baxter. They decided that its time had come and thus the 'Long Earth' series was born; this is the fifth and final episode of the series. It was one of the last books that Terry worked on before his ‘embuggeranceclaimed him and it fell upon Stephen to do the lion’s share of the work to get it published. Sadly, like the Discworld, there will be no more.

As this is very definitely the last of the series, it seems appropriate to review not just this book but, somewhat, the whole series.

The sequence of books begins with The Long Earth and this sets the scene. We learn that there is an apparently endless series of other Earths and one can move between them in either direction (arbitrarily named East and West). In 2015, on what would forever after be known as Step Day, Willis Linsay released onto the Internet the design for a simple, potato-powered device that anyone could build at home and which would allow them to visit these other Earths; on that day thousands of humans took their first Step. Furthermore, we learnt that there were a few people who could step naturally, without needing a Stepper box. It turns out that Datum Earth (as our home world became known) is the only one to have produced human life; the whole of the Long Earth, countless millions of worlds, is ready for us to settle and exploit. The only major problems are that iron (as a metal) and steel cannot make the journey and everything destined for another world has to be carried by hand.

We also got introduced to the main characters who would appear throughout the stories, though there are many others who came and went as the narrative required. Joshua Valienté is a natural stepper and deeply in touch with the whole of the Long Earth, as is Sally Linsay (daughter of Willis); both travel far through the Long Earth and have strong preferences for being alone and well away from the populated worlds. Sister Agnes works in an orphanage and had helped bring up the young Joshua. The Reverend Nelson Azikiwe is a retired priest from England, with a penchant for solving puzzles and investigating the unusual. Lobsang is a self-aware artificial intelligence, created by the philanthropic Black Corporation, and has many instances as ‘he’ inhabits a number of human-looking ambulatory units; they act independently but update each other whenever they meet. He is Buddhist by nature and believes himself to be the reincarnated spirit of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. We get to see the scope of the Long Earth as Joshua and Lobsang undertake a journey through many worlds in an experimental, Stepper-equipped airship, the Mark Twain.

The Long War is set about ten years later and the impact of the many worlds is being felt across society. One can work in a downtown office on Datum Earth then afterwards step to an untouched world, making one’s home in a log cabin in a small village in virgin countryside. A number of airships, now generally known as twains, have been developed and voyage through the Long Earth delivering goods and materials to the many settlements. The spread of mankind has made governance somewhat difficult and, by virtue of twain explorations by the American and Chinese governments, this book looks at the problems that have arisen and the way life in general is changing. For example, why go to the trouble and expense of intensive agriculture when you can simply step to nearby worlds where there are more than enough berries to pick? Why farm when all you have to do is gather?

We find that, whilst there are no other humans, there are other intelligent creatures; we meet the elf-like ‘kobolds’, the dog-like ‘beagles’, and the large, hairy, human-like ‘trolls’, as well as traces of long-dead civilisations. The trolls, natural steppers, prove to be very pleasant and helpful and seem happy to provide mankind with labour across the Long Earth until one day on a world two million steps away a researcher pushes a troll too far and news of his cruelty spreads across the Long Earth, especially amongst the trolls! Joshua again finds himself on a twain travelling through many worlds, this time trying to get a grip on what is happening. Meanwhile, Sister Agnes has passed away but has been resurrected in the form of an AI inhabiting a Black Corporation ambulatory unit and, in the company of an instance of Lobsang, she too undertakes a long twain journey of exploration, as does the Reverend Nelson Azikiwe in the company of another Lobsang.

Incidentally, there is no actual war. There was the potential for civil war between Datum governments and the Stepwise settlements as well as inter-species wars but all are averted. However, as the book ends, disaster strikes Datum Earth - the Yellowstone Caldera erupts!

The Long Mars opens where its predecessor ended. It is 2040 and the devastation is terrible, the air is full of ash and the world will soon become much colder; in time only a few will remain on Datum Earth. It seems that stepping had been discovered just in time as, with the launch of a major rescue operation, the great majority of the population steps to the safety of nearby Earths. The story soon moves on a few years and we follow two more journeys, one through the Long Earth and a similar journey through the Long Mars.

There is a theory that parallel worlds only exist if the planet has supported sentient life and Willis Linsay decides to test that out on Mars, accompanied by Sally. Once there, it takes only a moment to verify that they can indeed step - so somewhere out there in the Long Mars must be intelligent life, or at least the remains of it. However, looking back from various of the Long Mars to the Earth it is not one we know; it becomes obvious that the Long Mars does not run parallel to the Long Earth - it intersects with it, meaning that the Long Universe must be a very complicated place.

Back on the Long Earth, Maggie Kauffman has been put in command of the two most advanced twains yet built and sent out on another voyage of discovery, this time with a target of 250 million steps to survey. Meanwhile, Lobsang has noticed what he calls an outbreak of common sense during the Yellowstone crisis; mostly teenagers who did not panic but showed a surprisingly deep and calm understanding of what was happening. With Joshua’s help, he traces them to Happy Landings, hundreds of thousands of steps from Datum Earth, a town which proves to have been there for centuries and which has always been a magnet for natural steppers as well as a home to trolls. Perhaps as a result of the proximity of natural steppers to trolls, the Next, as Lobsang names these young people, are a very recent human development; they are highly intelligent and represent a step forward in human evolution.

Moving on another ten years or so, The Long Utopia opens as Joshua celebrates his 50th birthday. Lobsang and Sister Agnes, taking on the role of a normal couple bringing up their young, adopted son Ben, arrive at the settlement of New Springfield with the intention of leading ordinary lives. Almost from the beginning, Agnes feels something is wrong with the place and eventually they realise the days are slowly getting shorter because the world is gradually spinning faster. They find that a flaw in the structure of the Long Earth means that this Earth intersects with a Long Something Else and that ‘silver beetles’ from another galaxy are busy invading the planet. It transpires that these are some sort of self-reproducing cyborgs and they intend to destroy this Earth to utilise its materials. Lobsang calls on the Next for their help and young Stan Berg, along with himself and Sally Linsay, give their lives to cauterise this Earth from all the others to ensure that the replicating beetles do not reach into and destroy the Long Earth. On another track, the Reverend Nelson Azikiwe researches Joshua’s family background and discovers the formation of a group of natural steppers that worked for Prince Albert until they were hunted down by the authorities. They went into hiding but started a discrete programme of encouraging the families of natural steppers to interbreed, thus encouraging natural stepping in the general population.

And so we come to the final book of the series, The Long Cosmos. As with its predecessors, it is not necessary to have read the other books; all you really need to know is neatly slipped in as you go along. It is 2070 and Joshua, now in his late sixties, is in a small cemetery, standing over his wife’s marker stone. He feels a sudden, sharp pain in his head, as if someone is somehow speaking to him - ‘Join us’. The same message is heard in a multitude of ways all along the Long Earth; it shows up in radio telescopes and communication systems, it is heard by other sentient species and is echoed in the trolls’ songs, and even the Traversers respond to it. As best anyone can tell, it is coming from space, from somewhere in the vicinity of the galaxy’s centre. Furthermore, the message is sent in such a way that anybody, any sentient creature, will understand it. But who is asking? And why?

Answering these questions is, of course, the purpose of this book. As with the others in the series, the unfolding story is told by following a number of different characters.

Disturbed by the Invitation and feeling the need to get away to the peace and tranquillity of the High Meggers [that is not a typo, the spelling has changed since the original short story] Joshua takes another of his ‘sabbaticals’ to a world without trace of humans, more than a one and a half million steps away from Datum Earth. He has been there only a few days when, his reactions slowed by age (he is no longer the young adventurer), he badly breaks his leg and, being so very far from help, his condition strands him there. His circumstances are dire but fortunately he is found and befriended by a troll, Sancho as he names him, and his clan. Over a period of time they tend his injury and nurse him back to health though it is a tough process as trolls are big, muscular creatures with nothing in the way of finesse. Having been away far longer than expected, his son Rod sets out to find his missing father and eventually locates him but, before he can return him ‘home’, he is himself captured by a hitherto unknown but intelligent, naturally-stepping creature. Joshua and Sancho chase the creature to a very different world, one of giant trees that reach miles into the sky, buoyed up by cellular pockets of hydrogen. Rod duly rescued, they say goodbye to Sancho and head back towards Datum.

Meanwhile Lobsang drops a bombshell on the Reverend Nelson Azikiwe - he has a son. Some thirty years earlier, on one of their journeys through the Long Earth, they had come across a Traverser, an immense creature that naturally steps from world to another. It floats in the planet’s oceans and is so large that it is usually mistaken for a large island and, indeed, is home to a permanent population of animals and a primitive but very human tribe. During their stay on the ‘island’, Nelson had enjoyed a night of passion with a tribeswoman but had left without realising he had fathered a son. Now he journeys in search of the Traverser, finds his son Sam, and meets his grandson Troy. However, they are soon separated as the Traverser responds to the Invitation and steps away.

Also responding to the Invitation, researchers at GapSpace join forces with the Next to see how they can create whatever communication machinery proves necessary, based on information contained in the Invitation itself. Choosing Earth West 3,141,592, known locally as Apple Pi, they start a project to build a vast computational machine, the Thinker. To keep the whole show running and secure, the Navy draft in Maggie Kauffman (now a retired admiral) citing her considerable experienced in interspecies matters over the Long Earth. Utilising replicating technology learnt from the ‘silver beetles’, the Thinker has been assembled over half of this world’s footprint of the continental US and is still growing. Its purpose, they realise, is to help them step not through the Long Earth but out into space, to the galactic centre, and meet the Galaxy’s other sentient life forms.

And so they build ‘Uncle Arthur’, a space pod capable of stepping to other planets. Maggie forms a crew which includes Joshua, Lobsang, Sancho, and Indra Newton, perhaps the very brightest of all the Next, and they step ‘North’, towards the galactic centre. Although on this first ‘flight’ they ‘land’ on only a few planets, they find other forms of life (including the missing Traversers - thus reuniting Nelson and Troy) but, most importantly, they have taken the first step to joining a galaxy of sapient life. And there we leave them; no longer limited to the Long Earth, humanity and the Earth’s other sentients have the Long Galaxy to explore.

This has been a fitting end to a most enjoyable series. Throughout it has been good, straight, well told, science fiction, covering about two thousand pages in total. I confess it has never been exciting and there has been little tension in any of the story lines, there has been little in the way of violence and no battles, no space ships or devastating energy weapons, but it has been a good and interesting story that was well worth the effort of reading. The authors have thought long and hard about what could happen to society and how it might change and adapt in the event of a Long Earth, filled the books with both inventive little examples and major changes, and they have had obvious fun whilst doing so. It has been a serious story and the books have not displayed Terry’s trademark humour - it is straight SF not a comedy after all - but they have enjoyed and benefited from many small, humorous asides and SF references (should you have spotted them).

Although the pace has been slow in many ways, the story often being told by way of illustrations from here and there as we followed the various characters as they went about their daily business of exploring and surviving in the Long Earth, it has never stalled and all the books have been very evenly paced. This gentle pace has meant it was easy to put the books down as the eyelids dipped but equally enjoyable to pick them up the next day and continue with the story.

I have enjoyed following the Long Earth as its history unfolded over some fifty five subjective years and, the saga having reached its end, I shall miss it.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's take on The Long Cosmos.

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