Fiction Reviews

The Long Utopia

(2015) Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, Doubleday, £18.99 / Can$34.99, hrdbk, 361pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52176-7


This is the fourth book in the 'Long Earth' sequence of books concerning a 'one-dimensional' string of parallel Earths that can only be accessed each in its turn with its neighbour… OK, that's the basic set up, for further details of which see my earlier reviews of the previous books: The Long Earth, The Long War and The Long Mars.  But actually, if you have read these – Earlier Novel Spoiler Alert! – you will know that some can jump along the necklace (from one Earth skipping its immediate neighbours) and that the Long Mars does not parallel the Long Earth, and so multi-dimensionality is involved…

The Long Utopia begins with a teaser when, on Earth West 1,217,756 New Springfield, Cassie Poulson was digging out a cellar when she surprisingly falls into a cave and come face-to-face with a silvery, humanoid like, insectile type creature. Terrified, she scrambles out and covers the hole…

Years later, an elderly and cantankerous Lobsang – the one, now made mortal, aspect of the artificial intelligence Lobsang – is living on Springfield with the uploaded-to-android Agnes who also has a limited life span. They pass for human and have adopted a child… But there are strange sights in the sky: unusual auroras and flashes of the Moon (or 'moon' (sic) as Doubleday copy editors have it). What's more, Springfield is beginning not to 'feel' quite right. Something is up, and then the adults realise that the children are meeting strange insectile humanoids.

What is uncovered is a threat to the very existence of life across the Long Earth: a threat that must be nullified….

First, and to get this out of the way, a word on the book's production values. Now, one should never judge a book by its cover but a word or two is warranted. As I mentioned with my review of The Long Mars, the hardback editions not only sport decent full colour picture printed on a bladed art paper dust jacket but, take off the dust jacket, there is another colour cover printed directly on the hardback's boards. The first edition Doubleday hardbacks of this series really are value and serious collectors, not to mention ardent fans of Terry and Stephen, surely will not balk at spending a few extra quid for these. Now, back to the story.

I have to say that I have grown kind of addicted to Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's 'Long Earth' novels. They may not be the most vividly drawn novels, or feature – when thought about in some depth – the most logical detail in some of their subplots, but what they do have is a strong central concept with bags of throw-away notions as the authors expose their core idea to various considerations and whimsy. They also add in some SFnal jokes or references and generally have fun.

I have gradually warmed to these tales above and beyond that which I might do for a single book; this sequence of novels seem to be building to something that is larger than the sum of their individual works. I am not entirely sure as to why this is. It might be that, though they bandy ideas with gay abandon (even if they go down occasional plot lines that don’t' bear close scrutiny), and have much fun, they don't undermine to core concepts underpinning the central conceit of the Long Earth itself: there is a firm foundation and lots of enjoyment being had building on it. And so, heck, even if the plot logic can get a little frayed due to the tensions from the various heady notions brought to the table and some of the science (for instance, the Earth system science of a normal oxygen world without terrestrial, multicelled plants), it is still virtually a privilege to look into Terry and Stephen's playground.

Nonetheless, this novel does have a slightly – fortunately just a slightly – different feel to it than its predecessors. First up, the main action with which we were teased right at the beginning does not come to the fore until we are close to the book's latter third. And when it does it has an edge much darker than anything else we have so far encountered in the Long Earth and Mars.  Much of the novel's first half sees us play catch-up with the range of various characters we met in the earlier books mixed together with a new historical plot strand, set sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, that reveals the origin of 'The Next' through the adventures of one of the character's ancestors.

This is all well and good, but it does mean that when things do get going we race through quite staggering events that leaves the reader both breathless and wondering where things will go in the series' final book.

We do get some inside SFnal jokes – examples include name checking Asimov's Daneel Olivaw and Gerry Anderson's Robert the Robot – but not as many as in the earlier books in the series. Here I am hoping that the authors are saving themselves for the final book. And, yes, the next one will be the final book; we all know the why the partnership has been forced to evolve before being brought to a premature conclusion.

I vaguely recall it being reported that, when working on the early titles, Terry had apparently remarked to Stephen that it would take a few books before they discovered where the Long Earth was taking them.  This, if true, was a clear indication that Terry at least was contemplating a good number of Long Earth novels. Yet this was not to be. As we all know, Terry was struck by his embuggerance, so we ought to consider ourselves truly lucky to get the first three Long Earths. And then, earlier this year (2015) the inevitable sadly happened.

This brings me on to the second reason why the book seems to have a different feel. It is this dark edge of an encroaching doom that potentially could end the Long Earth as we know it. At time this book came out we had already lost Terry so in one sense The Long Utopia (along with the next final Long Earth book and one Discworld novel yet to come) is Terry calling from beyond. It is therefore hard not to see this as resonating with the novel's dark theme. The landlord has already called 'last orders' and opened the door – letting in the night's chill air – to encourage us patrons to leave. It is a door we will only get to cross twice more and then that will be the proverbial 'that'. So when I finished the novel's last page – dark theme or not – it was with a tinge of sorrow.

Anyway, it was fortunate for us, before Terry's decline took him from us, Stephen visited him to work on the remaining two 'Long Earth' books of which, as said, this is one. Apparently, if the reports are true, they did not get much writing done but did discuss at length the Long Earth's series future overall plot arc and possible implications of potential developments. So Stephen was able to come away with quite a few notes and a story trajectory.  The result is this novel together with the final one yet to come.  I suspect, I hope, that the best of these two is being saved for last.  Even so, Stephen has done a commendable job in shouldering the burden.  Certainly we have discovered that there are things out there beyond the Long Earth.  Where we will end up I do not know, but I am positively eager to find out, though I confess to sadness in the knowledge that we are in the process of saying goodbye to what seems to have become a favourite old haunt.

Jonathan Cowie

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