June 27, 2013
(++) MORE OF MUCH OF THE SAME
The Long Earth 2: The Long War. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.99.
The pleasures (occasional) and frustrations (frequent) of The Long Earth are present in abundance in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s sequel, The Long War, which picks up a decade after the nuclear disaster that ended the first book about Datum Earth (the original planet) and the many millions of other Earths reachable by “stepping” from world to world – either through one’s natural ability or, in more cases, by use of a potato-powered stepper box.
Not to give too much away, but the story arc of The Long War follows that of the previous book so closely in some ways that this second book also ends with a disaster on Datum Earth and also concludes with a very clear setup for the next book in the series. One would like to think that Pratchett and Baxter – the one a real genius of science fiction and fantasy, the other a more-than-competent craftsman in the same fields – could come up with greater plot creativity than this. Unfortunately, no.
It is important to understand that The Long War is not a bad book but a disappointing one. It has many elements that are attractive – personality conflicts, portrayals of alien races, mysteries, views of alternative societal arrangements – but there is nothing particularly creative about any of this, and while the formulaic nature of so much of the storytelling would be forgivable in a tyro writer, it is not in two consummate professionals. The Long War and its predecessor read like “cash in on our name recognition” books, and while there is certainly nothing shameful in bowing to economic necessity – especially when one’s name is sufficient to guarantee substantial sales – it is a bit of a shame to see the legacy of a writer like Pratchett (who has an unusual form of Alzheimer’s disease and whose future production of books is therefore highly unpredictable) tarnished by works this amateurish.
So what we have here is the still-unexplained existence of millions of Earths, many containing alien races (several new ones are introduced here), but none containing humans beings until the steppers from Datum Earth arrive. And arrive they have in this time period a decade later than the original explorations of natural stepper Joshua Valienté and distributed intelligence Lobsang, whose nearly godlike abilities did not result in prevention of the disaster at the end of The Long Earth and who explains in The Long War that there is a reason for that: “‘Even then, when the Twain returned, ten years ago, you were…’ Joshua groped for the old religious word. ‘Immanent. You suffused the world. Or so you claimed. Yet you let those nutjobs walk into the city with a nuke….’ Lobsang nodded. ‘All the time I could have snapped my metaphorical fingers and put an end to it. …I am not God, Joshua. …I cannot see into the souls of men and women. … And even if I could have stopped those bombers – should I have? At what cost? How many would you have had me kill, in order to avert an action that would have remained entirely hypothetical?’” And so forth. This is what passes for wisdom here, and if you agree that it is wise, you will enjoy the dialogue in The Long War.
The story intentionally spreads every which way. The “war” angle comes largely from a planet more than a million “steps” from Datum Earth, called Valhalla, that resents centralized control from a distant planet (or, control not being much of an issue, simply resents paying taxes to the home world) and intends to declare independence along the lines of America in Revolutionary War times. But there are also warlike aliens interested in throwing out the interloping humans from various planets. And there is a sort of unintentional war being waged by the human race against the sweet, gentle humanoid trolls – regarded as animals by narrow-minded humans and as fully human by the more enlightened. The trolls are hive-mind creatures that are disappearing as humans advance, and this is clearly a metaphor for the general dissonance caused by human expansion, since the trolls not only live in perfect harmony but also communicate through music. Joshua has been deeply estranged from Lobsang since the disaster at the end of The Long Earth, but when summoned to help avert the multiple potential catastrophes (Lobsang is everywhere but still insists that Joshua come to a particular place), Joshua does his duty and shows up, incidentally abandoning his family in the process.
The authorial hand moving the characters and events of The Long War about is far too apparent. Characters have their personalities because Pratchett and Baxter want them to have personalities, but few seem even close to three-dimensional. There are occasional interesting situations here that showcase characters neatly – just not enough of them. “Jack Green, aged about sixty, was a bookish firebrand of a guy, it seemed to Nathan Boss. He stared down Lieutenant Allen on his doorstep – actually stared down this huge, armed marine – before allowing him and his troopers into his house. Even then they did indeed have to leave their weapons at the door, and take their combat boots off at the porch. So they were all in their socks when they walked into the house’s big living room….” By and large, descriptions of people are done pithily so Pratchett and Baxter can get on to actions – with the result that many characters seem like replaceable parts. “Nelson had rather misjudged Ken when he had first met this suntanned, rugged, rather taciturn man, a local whose ancestors had lived on these hills since there were such things as ancestors. It was only by chance that he found out that Ken had been a lecturer at the University of Bath….”
And what are the actions for which Pratchett and Baxter clear the decks of descriptive material as quickly as possible? Sometimes what happens here is simply a matter of exploration, of discussing ways in which this world or that differs from Datum Earth. “And off in the distance he saw movement. A herd of some huge, slow-moving, rather lumbering creatures, seen in silhouette against a pale blue sky. Walking on all fours, they looked like rhinos to his untrained eye. Presumably they were some marsupial equivalent, perhaps hunted by a local version of a lion. …The world was intensely silent, save for the distant bellow of one giant herbivore or another. …And it was a different sort of world, without humans.” By and large, though, the activities here connect loosely to the idea of a heretofore unimaginable sort of war and to the further exploration of parts of the many Earths that remain inexplicable, such as the Gap where an Earth ought to be but isn’t. In addition to Joshua and Lobsang, the other key character from the first book of course returns this time: Sally Linsay, daughter of the man who gave the world the stepper box. And there is a new and quite interesting character here in the person of Sister Agnes, a reincarnated and notably strong-willed person who even tells Lobsang, or one part of Lobsang, what to do, as Lobsang explains to Joshua: “‘If I wanted to be part of humanity, I had to become embedded in humanity. Down in the dirt, at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak.’ ‘And you went along with it?’ ‘Well, there wasn’t much point going to all the trouble of reincarnating the woman if I’m not going to listen to her advice, was there?’”
The Long War sprawls, just as The Long Earth did, and is equally earnest and – unfortunately – often equally dull. One seeks almost in vain for some of the trademark Pratchett humor, at once good-natured and distinctly snide (quite a combination), that is ever-present in his Discworld novels. From Baxter, a lesser stylist, one hopes – again, almost in vain – for some of the fast pacing and complex plotting that he has produced elsewhere. It is disappointing to find this second book in The Long Earth series to be, like the first, less than the sum of its parts, and it is even more disappointing to realize that as currently structured, this series can go on and on and on, like the multiplicity of Earths, ad nauseam if not ad infinitum. A more-apt title for the whole sequence may turn out to be The Long Haul.