Fiction Reviews

The Long War

(2013) Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter, Doubleday, trdpbk, £13.99, 422pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52012-8


A troll cub is being forced through a portal into the vacuum of a neighbouring universe that has no Earth, much to the cub's distress and the cub's mother's. The (human) technicians doing the forcing are not surprisingly attacked by the mother who stabs one of the humans in the eye…  News of this episode soon spreads across the 'Long Earth', a seemingly infinite line of parallel Earths: at least no end has as yet been discerned. The troll cub and the technicians are part of a space programme: what better a way to get into space than to hop into a parallel universe that has no Earth with its steep gravity well. The trolls themselves are a species that evolved on a parallel world but it appears as if they evolved an ability to 'step' across parallel Earths and so are found in many. It also appears that a few humans can also 'step' naturally, but since 'step' day everyone can through technological means.

The problem with this news spreading is that it disrupts the relationship between humans and trolls on many parallel Earths. But this is only one problem. With humanity spreading across many Earths, humanity's relationship with the 'original', 'Datum Earth', is changing. Datum Earth needs the resources of the Long Earth but those in the Long Earth only occasionally need some things from Datum Earth (like medicines and access to the cultural hub). Tensions are building and war, it seems, looms but a war unlike any have seen before…

This book is the sequel to The Long Earth. I was sent both books at the same time, but deliberately chose to read this second book first to see if it could be read as a stand-alone novel. Here let me assure you that it can and quite easily. However, if you have the choice, do read the first book first. For though I quickly picked up what was going on – Pratchett and Baxter are lucid writers – my SF mind soon was working out implications of the 'Long Earth' scenario. This idea of many parallel Earths is not new to science (cf. Everett III) and in SF it has virtually become a trope of its own.  Many novels have parallel Earths with examples including: The Two-Timers by Bob Shaw (1968), parallel Earth futures in Timescape by Gregory Benford (1980); Hominids by Robert Sawyer (2002); The 'Merchant Princes' sequence of novels by Charles Stross; etc., and in comics famously with Bryan Talbot's The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (1982), not to mention Judge Dredd 'Helter Skelter' (1992). Furthermore, the sub-genre of steampunk frequently evokes an alternate if not parallel Earth as an underpinning rationale.  Indeed Stephen Baxter himself has used parallel Earth time-continua before in his authorised centenary sequel to H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1894) with The Time Ships (1995). So in one sense the basic premise behind 'The Long Earth' parallel Earths is familiar, which brings us to the question as to how does it fare in the joint hands of Pratchett and Baxter?

Within the set of parallel Earth novels, the 'Long Earth' idea of a long line of Earths that parallel our time but each slightly different so that those many Earths away from us are very different, is a similar premise to that of Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels. However with 'The Long Earth' there is only one Earth that has (as far as the first two novels are concerned) clearly human Homo sapiens sapiens species; many are devoid of intelligence and indeed intelligence it seems is rare in the Long Earth. So what we get are loads of Earths for real estate, interjected with ones that have a particularly interesting dimension. These include 'joker' worlds in which the oxygen content may differ markedly from our Datum Earth and giant insects abound. Also with many parallel Earth novels the parallel Earth is either singular and so next door to us or perhaps part of a web and so it is possible to travel from one parallel directly to a number of the others. With 'The Long Earth' it is only possible to access neighbouring Earths, so to go further afield one still has to go through these neighbouring Earths: it clearly is a line of parallel Earths and not a web or many Earth's superimposed on, hence directly accessible by, ours.

Neither Baxter and Pratchett are known for the fine detail of their characters, even though Pratchett is known for his many wonderful caricatures. And so it is with The Long War whose varied players are not detailed individuals despite their varied backstories. Nor is the plot particularly coherently combined into a single arc, rather it comprises of a number of interconnected adventures with both the premise, and that nearly all the characters know each other, providing the glue. And so the novel The Long War comes across not so much as a story rather as a historical travelogue: you get to travel the Long Earth and see some of the events that are shaping its development. This is not a bad thing and both Baxter and Pratchett are both accomplished writers. What makes this work well is that both the authors are ideas men and so the reader is presented with many 'how about this for a concept' moments and these are fun and for me made the novel. You see a third of the way in when I was getting the hang of the set up I started wondering about various possible options and wondering whether what was going on would be the best way to make things work. (I mentioned earlier that my SF mind soon was working out implications of the 'Long Earth' scenario, and such is part of the fun of reading SF.) However there is so much scope with the premise it soon became clear that the authors were going to be presenting me many more concepts within the framework they had established, that I gave up unduly wondering and sat back to enjoy the ride.

I will not present any spoilers suffice to say that the business with the trolls is resolved and that along the way there is more than sufficient new stuff for the authors to give us more should they so wish. I do hope so. We all know that Terry's time is precious but I do hope that enough groundwork can be done for both authors to give us more Long Earth: hopefully together but if not at least with sufficient Terry notes for Stephen to carry the torch a little further. The novel does end with a bang of a potential cliff hanger and Baxter-Pratchett cocktail works so it would be almost cruel not to continue the journey. Let's hope the people at Random's Transworld Doubleday will encourage them.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Peter's review of The Long War.

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