Fiction Reviews

The Long War

(2013) Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, Doubleday, £18.99, hrdbk, 422pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52011-1


This story follows on from The Long Earth, by the same authors, and is set about ten years later. Despite its title, this is not a war novel and there are no titanic battles between massive space fleets, but there is certainly a lot of misunderstanding that could certainly lead to many and serious conflicts. The title refers not to the length of such a war, but to war being on the Long Earth.

So what is the Long Earth? It is an infinite series of other Earths. The idea of parallel worlds is hardly new (Star Trek had its 'Mirror Universe' and Sliders visited at least one parallel world in every episode, to mention but a couple) but in this story there is an infinite number of worlds. Mankind evolved on just one world, our world, or Datum Earth as it has become known. It turns out that all you have to do is step to the next one; there are two 'directions', arbitrarily named East and West. Twenty five years earlier a Stepper device had been invented and made public; on Step Day suddenly anyone who wanted to could step to as many worlds as they wished.

Those who stepped soon found that these other worlds were empty of human life, ripe for settlement and exploitation, whether it be for heavy industry or an agricultural idyll. The ones closest to Datum became industrialised very quickly, and essential to Datum Earth, but the further ones developed in many ways (and often not successfully). Those closest to Datum were almost identical, but the further from Datum one steps, the more the little changes add up. It is as if you are looking at a statistical spread of how the Earth could have developed.

Furthermore, it turns out that, whilst most people need a Stepper to travel, there have always been a few individuals who could do so naturally; some of the Australian Aborigines, for example, went on far wider Walkabouts than had previously been realised. And whilst only a few humans can naturally step, and most creatures throughout the worlds cannot step at all, some worlds have produced beings that step as naturally as they walk and whose cultures and methods evolved around stepping frequently between worlds. Imagine how useful it is to the hunter, for instance, if on spotting his prey he can close the gap that separates them by stepping to another world, covering the distance undetected, and stepping back right next to it.

In The Long Earth, Joshua Valienté and Lobsang, an artificial intelligence, travelled between the worlds in a prototype vessel called the Mark Twain, a sort of airship with an integrated Stepper. It was created by the Black Corporation, headed by the rarely seen but exceptionally philanthropic Douglas Black. Following the success of the mission, the Black Corporation have steadily improved these craft, now known as twains, and donated them to mankind. As these can step at the rate of one world per second, this has allowed the transport of people and materials to many, very distant worlds. This in turn has had the effect of providing mankind with limitless land and resources, as well as very different ways of looking at life. 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?

This movement of people to new worlds has had lead to a sizeable drop in the population of Datum Earth and this lack of labour, and especially of tax revenue, has impacted on the Earth’s various governments. In particular, the Datum United States has decided that it is the government of all the worlds, or at least of the equivalent areas of land, and that anyone who has left the Datum has forfeited all their possessions and savings to the government though none-the-less must still pay taxes and obey them. Unsurprisingly this has not gone down well with the settlers of the other worlds and trouble is brewing. In particular, Jack Green in the town of Valhalla, on a world nearly one and half million steps away, has started an appeal for liberty, in a move that not only resembles but is deliberately based on the case that the American settlers made against governance from England. Whilst the irony might not be lost on the reader, it is certainly lost on the President of the Datum United States.

Whilst mankind spreads across the Long Earth, some of the more intelligent creatures of those worlds are far from pleased, not that mankind has generally noticed them. Such races include the elf-like kobolds and the dog-like beagles, both of which keep a low profile. The exception are the trolls; large, humanoid creatures that are very pleasant and helpful and seem happy to provide mankind with labour across the Long Earth.

Then, on a world two million steps away, a researcher pushes a troll too far and his cruelty is captured on video. Before long the recording has spread across the Long Earth and there is righteous indignation from many, whilst others simply regard it as an OK way to treat a pack animal. But the trolls have a hive mind and vote with their feet; they can step naturally and so they simply start to disappear to some other Earth - and that spells Bad News for those that rely on their efforts. Meanwhile, Sally Lindsay arrives in the small town of Hell-Knows-Where, home to Joshua Valienté and his wife Helen. Sally is intent on saving the trolls and is determined that Joshua will help her, even though that means dragging his family the million steps back to Datum Earth. And so Joshua and his friend Bill find themselves stepping between many worlds in a twain lent to them specially by the Black Corporation, trying to get a grip on what is happening and how it can be put right.

They are not, of course, the only people stepping between Earths with missions to perform. The Datum United States has decided to send a reminder of its might across the Long Earth in the form of a couple of formidable Navy twains, one in the command of US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman. She soon discovers that life out there across the Long Earth is rather different from the way it is seen by the Datum government; rather than being a public reminder of US might, she finds herself the travelling embodiment of law and order - and she learns a lot about the workings of the Long Earth in the process. And she is not the only traveller finding enlightenment with the help of the Black Corporation: they have resurrected the late Sister Agnes as an artificial intelligence and, along with Lobsang (or one instance of Lobsang - an AI can have many copies), she too finds herself travelling between the worlds. The Reverend Nelson Azikiwe also finds himself sent out there to explore, again in the company of an instance of Lobsang. Then there is the science mission created by the Chinese government who are sending an exploratory twain two million steps away. To add to the mix, retired police officer Monica Jansson finds herself teamed with Sally Lindsay, a natural stepper, as she searches for the missing trolls.

As a story, The Long War is not simply the adventures of Joshua but the separate adventures of a series of characters all of whom are making their way around the various worlds and for their own reasons. It is a set of stories blended into one book and through their many eyes we see the Long Earth from many perspectives. Whilst there is a main story concerning the possibility of a civil war across the worlds there are however a number of parallel story lines and because of this there is no compelling drive to the whole novel and so it did not excite me nor leave me desperate to know what happened next. It did, though, give the authors plenty of opportunities to look at many possible outcomes brought about by such a change to our way of life; they were inventive in their ideas and the book remained interesting as it ticked along enjoyably for a little over four hundred pages. Indeed, given the title, it was a surprisingly gentle book. Whilst some of the storylines continued on their way to a resolution, others seemed to be there just for the sake of illustrating the wealth of possibilities that the Long Earth offers. Yet 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. I think that is what the authors have succeeded in - creating the scope for many more stories of the Long Earth.

Whilst this book does not contain the concentrated drive of a single-themed novel, the various storylines do add up to a pleasant read and introduce some interesting ideas. The Long Earth concept allows the authors to play with a plethora of 'what if' scenarios and I hope they get on with writing some more of them.

The Long Earth has been on my reading list for some time but is, as yet, still unread. An important question for me therefore was whether The Long War would work as a novel in its own right or would it merely be 'part two' and thus dependent on knowing 'part one'? Certainly having read the first book would mean that the reader is already familiar with the concept of the Long Earth but it is by no means necessary - this second book stands well on its own. Whilst it makes reference to earlier events, it tells what you need to know by slipping in details as it goes along and succeeds in doing so without lecturing you on 'the story so far'.

By the way, if you are expecting it to be funny, in the way that Terry’s writing so often is, forget it. This is serious science fiction. However, there is humour in it and there are occasional jokes, or at least humorous references, buried within it (should you spot them).

It is not the most exciting of story telling, but it was very pleasant and enjoyable. All in all, a solidly written story and a welcome addition to my bookshelves.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's review of The Long War.

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