(2016) Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter, Doubleday, £18.99 / Can$35, hrdbk, 389pp, ISBN 978-0857-52178-1
This is the final in the 'Long Earth' pentalogy concerning humans in the near future developing the ability to 'step' into a parallel Earth that itself had a parallel Earth beyond. The series sees humanity move out into and explore the necklace of parallel Earths that make up the Long Earth. If you have not read these earlier titles (which include The Long Earth, The Long War, The Long Mars and The Long Utopia) then you are strongly advised to read these first as the sequence is one story albeit effectively compartmentalised by each title: what follows in this review will make less sense without knowing the background.
The Long Cosmos is also the last of Terry's writing albeit with Stephen sensitively shouldering much of the weight. So readers contemporary with Terry, especially those fortunate enough to have met the man be it once briefly or through a series of varying encounters at a number of conventions over the years, will come to this book with some sadness. Personally, I often find coming to the end of an enjoyable book and turning the last page can be something of a melancholic moment: one can never read that work again with the spirit of novelty not having an inkling of what is to come next. So coming to the end of a book by an author whom you know will never pen another makes for a truly thoughtful moment. To cut to the chase, The Long Cosmos does a worthy job of bringing closure to 'The Long Earth' sequence though had Terry more years then I am sure that there would have been more mileage in these books with Stephen.
The Long Cosmos sees life more or less in business as usual across the Long Earth. The low Earths (near Datum – or our – Earth) are developing industry and the Datum Earth itself is recovering from the Yellowstone supervolcanic winter. The higher Earths are seeing a variety of small societies with exploration still continuing outward. The Next are doing whatever it is they do somewhere secret and the Trolls are doing what they do all over the place but less near the more populated Earths. And there are still 'joker' Earths to find.
And then in one of the gaps – the parallel Earth without the planet – a radio telescope has picked up a message from the direction of the heart of the Galaxy. It is on the surface a simple message, an invitation: 'join us'!
The thing is that this message has not just been detected by the radio astronomers, but also by the Trolls (albeit in a different way) and indeed the Next. This message is being broadcast in multiple ways but always conveys the same meaning, 'join us'.
And so it is time to assemble the various protagonists and lead characters from the previous titles to respond to the communication. This call to arms takes up much of the book before the final leap.
I have to say that I started reading the 'Long Earth' books as something of a lightweight adventure, although one packed with ideas, some plays on words, references to other genre works and tropes. However, as I read more of the novels, the series began to take on something of an epic feel and I became more attached to the stories. The Long Cosmos does a sound job of wrapping things up and there is much reference to Carl Sagan's novel Contact (1985) and the Arthur C. Clarke 'Odyssey' series let alone some of his other works: one theme that clearly shies through The Long Cosmos, and some of the others in this series, is that of our being in just one point in our species evolution and that there are others out there who have journeyed further but willing to lend a helping hand should we have the wisdom to recognise and accept it.
It has to be said that though a hugely worthy part of the 'Long Earth' sequence, The Long Cosmos does not have quite the sparkle of the earlier titles: Terry was clearly not all there. And this is doubly saddening because the Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter partnership worked so well with each bringing a set of skills that complemented the other. Yes, Baxter has worked with others and notably Arthur C. Clarke himself, but one felt that with that liaison Baxter was simply enabling Clarke to have a voice in the final years of his retirement. Conversely, Terry and Stephen were more equal partners and it was quite simply a natural tragedy that placed Stephen in the lead role of bringing closure to the series with The Long Cosmos, though Terry certainly makes his presence felt. Had Terry continued to be with us I am sure that the Terry-Stephen partnership would have continued to flourish, if not with more 'Long Earth' novels but other works; both their imaginations are so fertile and they clearly enjoyed bouncing off each other. The 'Long Earth' was their playground and it was a positive privilege to see the pair of them create and take joy in it.
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