Fiction Reviews

The Long Mars

(2014) Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, Doubleday, £18.99 / Can$32.95, hrdbk, 357pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52174-3


This follows straight on from The Long War which in turn follows on from The Long Earth: it is a sequel and newcomers to this sequence should really start back at the beginning. The Long Earth basically sets up the premise that there are parallel Earths that we can visit. Newcomers are advised to stop reading now as there is no point re-capping the earlier books and what follows constitutes major spoilers for these preceding works

If you are still with me, I'll take it you have read The Long Earth and …War.  Things start of in The Long Mars with the immediate aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption. This seems to have only taken place on Datum Earth (our 'original' Earth) with only minor geological activity on the immediately neighbouring step Earths. Many have migrated from Datum Earth as is plunges into a volcanic winter. Meanwhile, the space programme one step from the gap Earth (the parallel where no Earth ever formed) has continued with the construction of a brick space station that was stepped into the Gap Earth and so now orbits the Gap Earth Sun in-between Mars and Venus. The idea is to assemble a spaceship there as in that parallel there is no need to climb into Earth orbit: there is no Earth from which to climb. Needless to say, given this novel's title, there is a mission to Mars and then an exploration of the myriad of parallel step-Mars: the Long Mars.

At this point queue visiting various hypothetical SFnal Marses. This could very well have ended up as being a homage to the many SF Mars of the past, but Terry and Stephen have restrained themselves and so this is not their version of Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars. We do though get a brief mention of Bradbury's Martians and Clarke's obelisks are (almost) visited. As one of the astronauts is into films there are also a number if cinematic references/script quotes, some of which (such as Kubrick's Dr Strangelove) are not referenced and so are in-jokes for genre-knowledgeable readers.

But this Mars plot line is not the only plot strand to the novel: two others each carry as much weight and so the bulk of the book is in fact set on Earth or its step alternates. One of these concerns a mission exploring millions of steps using an airship of the sort used in The Long War. As with the exploration of the Long Mars, and furthering the explorations of many steps in The Long War, we get to see many imaginative alternate Earths as well as 'joker' (wildly different/exotic) worlds. It is all good sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) stuff that carries the reader along. The final strand concerns the emergence of super-bright humans, and I will not begin to spoil that strand for you by reviewing it here.

The downside to this very engaging novel is that there are a number of what seem to be plot holes. Given the Long Earth set-up, there were a couple of times when one wonders why the characters did not do something else, or alternatively – given what we know of the set-up – how come such-and-such happened? Now these were a little annoying but such is the flourishing of the authors' ideas (and one could almost sense that they were having SF fun writing this) and such was the novel's pace that one was soon past these and onto the next idea or progression of plot. Indeed, one can play the game of trying to think up an SFnal explanation to get around these plot difficulties. And one can also try to make some kind of sense of the Long Multiverse. (I got as far as it being frame and brane related within a bulk that was itself multi-dimensional (which, of course the real hypothetical bulk is), but them I'm a life scientist, so what do I know of such physics.)

OK, so this is mid-level SF and not a great shake for seasoned hard, and wide-screen SF readers, but it is thoroughly entertaining and does firmly speak to an SF readership: neither Pratchett or Baxter fans will be disappointed. Yes, there are a few flaws but, let's face it, we all know one of the author's circumstances and that time is a diminishing resource. If I were to choose with the authors slowing down or cracking on and getting as much done, then I'll plumb for the latter any day: veteran readers can fill in any logic gaps themselves and we can easily be forgiving to having to do some of this legwork ourselves.

I must just briefly mention this particular hardback, first edition's production. Nice cover artwork. But wait, this is artwork on the dust jacket; take off the dust jacket and there is a different colour cover picture embedded on the board cover beneath. Neat. (We won't get that with the paperback editions.)

As to where things end up? Well, I can say that while some plot strands come to a temporary conclusion, there is much mileage in the Long Earth (and indeed the Long Mars) yet for the authors to explore. Will there be another Long Earth book? Alas, as I write this in the early summer (2014) the news is confusing. There is some pre-publicity referring to Children of the Long Earth 3… '3'? Actually The Long Mars is the third in the sequence but one can see there being a fourth involving the new, super-bright humans many of whom are children. Alas the current Transworld catalogue has no mention of another title in this series, but it would make sense and one can but hope.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Peter's review of The Long Mars.

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