Baby Steps In a Spacesuit: The Long Earth Series

I was really rather excited to discover a couple of years ago, in my local Exclusive Books in Cape Town and just in time for my Xmas present to me, a new novel called “The Long Earth” – by one of my favourite SF authors Stephen Baxter, and possibly my all-time favourite all-genre author, Terry Pratchett (see here for my in memoriam).  I read and enjoyed it, and was subsequently delighted to see that the series had gone on – and on – and on.  I reviewed these first at the Worlds Without End site; I am repeating them here as a unit in case anyone is interested.

Because if you aren’t, I still am!

The Long Earth

As an experienced Pratchett reader (I have ALL of his books), I am used to surrendering all idea of science-based interpretation of the universe, for a joyous confusion of mythology, magic and outrageous invention.

With Stephen Baxter, however, one is generally given a hard, logical, physics-based universe, even if sometimes the way in which things work is incomprehensibly vague (think: the Manifold series, where very mysterious things happen, but then play out in a hard physics universe).

It was a little strange, therefore, that these two worlds should marry – and that the central premise of the story, the device that allows people to Step sideways across the infinite series of parallel Earths, should involve some electronics, and…a potato?  Really?

OK, once you get past that Pratchettism – and it is never explained properly – everything develops as it should in a Baxter universe, and a logical progression of events follows the inevitable sideways diffusion of humanity, along the line of Earths.

Assuming, of course, that you buy into an independent AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic, and that mysteriously, iron doesn’t seem to be able to travel sideways – which would seem to be paying homage to faery myths, in an otherwise very uncompromising physics-based universe.

But that’s part of the charm of this strange and wonderful juxtaposition of talents B-)


The Long War

The Long War was an interesting addition to the Long Earth series – because it made it into a series, given there had only been one – and it advanced the story in interesting ways.  The logical progression of events in a world that is infinitely long sideways, and in which the authority of The Centre is very far away, are explicated pretty well – unfortunately, some of the political developments and the characters responsible for them seem to be caricatures, and not as well thought as they could be. Mind you, if you consider that in early 2016 an extremist real estate developer with a comb-over seems to be leading one arm of the US presidential race, maybe it’s not as much of a caricature as it seems!

In any case, using a US Navy revamped with steampunky airships for the task of patrolling the Long Earth (though how their electronics keep working is a little mysterious) was a good touch; so too was more detail on trolls and other Long Earth hominids, although some potential plot developments seem to have been lost, like the exploration of parallel Australia, for example.

While I class this as a great book – and a pretty good sequel to The Long Earth as it develops the storyline of an infinite series of parallel Earths  – sadly, the ongoing deterioration of Terry Pratchett was constantly in my mind as I read it.

Because it’s not as good as the first one.

Because some of the writing is sketchy; some of the story development seems arbitrary, a bit deus-ex-machina type of thing.

But it still grips you, and leaves you wanting…more.  And fortunately, there IS more.  The Long Mars awaits!


The Long Mars

I got this book with some misgivings – but it was like the Dune series; you KNOW they’re going downhill, but you have this fatal fascination with the characters and the universe, and surely things can’t get too bad??

The good news is they didn’t: this breathed new life into the Long Earth series for me, as it explored the Long Mars.  Baxter and Pratchett managed to recapture my enthusiasm, and interesting new things happened, and other characters were explored – even though the deus ex machina gambit was pulled again, as the original Stepper inventor was pulled out of hiding to do his inscrutable thing.  However, it doesn’t detract (too much) from the storyline.

What does jar a bit is how they dealt with The Next – the smart kids who look on us as children.  They REALLY got to rescue them as easily as they did?  Really??  The episode where it happens looks a little too much like something that got rescued as the book needed to go to print, from an unresolved plot development.

You know, I though this had to be the last one: Terry Pratchett had died, there was evidence from the last book that things were possibly not as tight as one would have wanted from a writing team – and some of that showed through here.  THEN I found there was ANOTHER one…!


The Long Utopia

And there I did what I had done with the seemingly everlasting, deteriorating and increasingly implausible Dune series – to say nothing of the apallingly bad Thomas Covenant series – and bought the last one, once I had chanced upon it unexpectedly in my local high-end bookstore.

That is to say, I bought something while thinking that I shouldn’t; that I was setting myself up for disappointment, and that I should have let my memory of Terry Pratchett fondly remain stuck with the previous book, and with his last Diskworld novel.

But I didn’t. And I’m quite glad I didn’t, in fact, because this one too took me up in its grasp, and galloped off across worlds with now-familiar characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I also enjoyed the back story, wherein the origin of The Next and free-steppers is pretty thoroughly explored, as this was both a novel departure for the series, and useful background.

OK, there were some niggling bits, like “So if people could shift between planets, why wasn’t that explored better??”, and HOW exactly the powers-that-be determined that – suddenly, and out of nowhere – one person could shut off access to a whole universe?

But given that enjoyment of SF is hugely aided by the willing suspension of disbelief, I suspended some of mine, and let it take me where it went.

And I’m sorry it’s over.  At least, I THINK it’s over…?

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About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
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