Fiction Reviews

The Long Mars

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


This is the third in what one may call the Long Earth series, which started with The Long Earth and continued with The Long War.

In The Long Earth we learnt that there is an infinity of parallel worlds and one has merely to 'step' between them. Whilst there had always been a few that could do so naturally, their ability tended to run in families and had been a very well kept secret - strange powers are not the sort of thing you would want your neighbours to know about, especially in superstitious times! Then Willis Linsay released onto the Internet the design of a simple, potato-powered device that anyone could make at home and which would allow them to step to other versions of the Earth. On that day, known forever afterwards as Step Day, thousands of humans took their first Step. As you could step in either direction along the line of Earths, they became known arbitrarily as East and West. It soon became apparent that our Earth, Datum Earth as it was referred to, was the only one to have produced humans - all the rest were empty and ready for us to move into. Amongst the early explorers were Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper, and Lobsang, an artificial intelligence, or at least an instance of him. They travelled in a specially designed airship, the Mark Twain, and their travels revealed that the other Earths varied slightly from each other, as if each successive one was the next variation on all the possible Earths that could exist. Also travelling, though independently, was Sally Linsay, Willis’ daughter, another natural stepper.

In The Long War, set some ten years later, mankind is slowly spreading to nearby parallel Earths and exploring further out, sometimes hundreds of thousands of steps away. Twains have been developed that can ship goods easily between the Earths so stepping is no longer restricted to what you can carry in your hands. Many commute from idyllic lives in woodland communities to their office jobs on Datum Earth. However, as mankind spreads, the major governments start to worry about the spread of their populations and, indeed, their own ability to govern them. The US Government sends a state-of-the-art military twain, under the command of Maggie Kauffman, to survey the many Earths in a Westward direction (and, whilst at it, gently remind everyone that they are still subject to the Government). At the same time, the Chinese send a similar twain on a long distance research voyage in the Easterly direction. As political tensions mount between the Datum Government of the US and the more distant settlers, the possibility of revolution increases. Fortunately, Maggie proves to be a peacemaker and the worlds settle into a (mostly) peaceful coexistence. We also discover that humans are not the only sentient race, there are also beings which we come to refer to as trolls, beagles, and kobolds and, whilst equally as intelligent, they have very different perspectives to us. There are also traces of long lost, technically advanced races. We mostly learn about them through the further travels of Joshua Valienté, Sally Linsay, and Monica Jansson, with Lobsang again involved.

Incidentally, the concept behind the Long Earth first appeared in 'The High Meggas', a short story which Terry wrote in 1986. This was at the time that The Colour Of Magic was becoming successful and the story got put to one side as The Light Fantastic was already in his mind. Many years later he was discussing the concept with Stephen, the Long Earth was developed, and the novels were born. The High Meggas can be found in The Blink Of The Screen, a collection of Terry’s short fiction (first published in Great Britain by Doubleday, 2012).

The Long Mars starts where its predecessor ends - in 2040 with the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera on Datum Earth. There is utter devastation for hundreds of miles around the caldera and much of North America soon becomes almost uninhabitable. It seems that stepping had been discovered just in time! Most stepped to safety immediately but not all could or would do so and so Joshua and Sally are amongst the many who rush in to help rescue survivors and take them to alternative Earths, now suddenly facing rapidly growing populations they were not expecting. Furthermore, the clouds of ash have a huge impact on the climate of Datum Earth and the whole planet will suffer for many years. Thus mankind is forced to spread out into the neighbouring Earths and, indeed, to spread out further and further from their original home.

The immediate crisis being dealt with, the story soon moves on a few years and two threads develop - another journey through the Long Earth and a similar journey through the Long Mars.

The theory has it that stepping to parallel worlds only works if the planet has supported sentient life and Willis Linsay decides to test that out on Mars. Sally receives a request to join her father on the Earth next to the Gap (so called because there is gap in the string of Earths, this one having been destroyed by a celestial collision). Without the influence of the Earth, the Mars of the Gap’s solar system has maintained its atmosphere and by stepping a spaceship through to the Gap, it is an easy voyage to the planet. 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 to the Earth and realising it is not one we know, it is obvious that the Long Mars does not run parallel to the Long Earth - it intersects with it. Therefore the Long Universe must be a very complicated place!

Joined by Frank Wood, who had trained as an astronaut back before Step Day, the Linsays travel the Long Mars in search of Martian technology, the hope being that the lower gravity may have lead Martians to develop in other ways. Whilst subtly different, mostly the worlds are as dead as our Mars, but there are exceptions and some of them have intelligent life.

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. As they travel, they find many worlds with many varieties of life, some of it clearly intelligent. They also find whole series of worlds that are so unlike ours that life as we know it could never develop, though some of them have life of a very different nature. To help her gain a wider perspective, her crew includes Snowy, a member of the beagle race discovered in The Long War.

Meanwhile Lobsang had noticed what he called 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. He persuades Joshua to join him in a search for them, wondering if they are the next step in human evolution. And indeed there are such people. The Next, as they call themselves, originated from a town called Happy Landings, hundreds of thousands of steps from Datum Earth, a town which has been there for centuries and is a natural magnet for natural steppers; it has also long been a home to the sentient creatures known as trolls. The Next are a very recent development and are highly intelligent, with mental abilities passing well beyond our own, but many have yet to develop socially to fit in with normal people and are potentially a very serious problem. Some though, such as presidential aide Maggie Golding, have for a while been quietly helping mankind towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.

As with its predecessors, The Long Mars is not simply the adventures of one person but the separate adventures of a series of characters (many of whom I have not mentioned), all of whom have their own paths to follow. More so than previously, the individuals’ stories and perspectives are linked to the overall direction of the story and this gives it a bit more drive and compulsion to keep turning the pages. In the previous volumes, some of the story lines seemed to be there just for the sake of illustrating the wealth of possibilities that the Long Earth had to offer whilst others appeared to be the beginnings of journeys yet to be made. As Lobsang observes to those he becomes involved with, those whom he encourages to explore the many worlds: they are long term investments. Some of those investments are now paying off.

It is not necessary to have read the first two books as all you need to know of them is dropped into the first few chapters as short flashbacks or simply by implication, though having read them will add to the enjoyment of this book as you can better appreciate how the ideas have fitted together and where they were heading. All the story lines remain interesting throughout; the various other Earths, their geography, climate, and life forms, are well thought through and there are again many interesting ideas.

With Terry's input you might expect it to be funny, in which case you will be disappointed as this is serious science fiction. There are, however, occasional jokes, or at least humorous references, buried within it.

As I finished The Long War, it seemed obvious that the story had further to go but I suspect that it has now reached its conclusion. On the other hand, knowing the inventiveness of the writers, I may well be wrong! They have clearly been enjoying themselves with the many ways in which societies can develop and there is still considerable scope for further stories – after all, the Long Earth, and now the Long Mars as well – are very big places. And there are now the Next to add to the mixture.

Whilst this not the most exciting of adventure stories (definitely not space opera), I found it (as with the others in this series) a very pleasant, enjoyable, and satisfying read, and it and its ideas held my interest throughout. All in all, a good, solidly-written story and another welcome addition to my bookshelves.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's review of The Long Mars.

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