June 18, 2015
(+++) THE LONG, LONG, LONG STORY
The Long Earth 4: The Long Utopia. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $26.99.
The late Terry Pratchett will be remembered for his creation of the thoroughly wonderful and bizarre Discworld, which rides through space on the backs of four elephants (there was once a fifth) that in turn ride on Great A’Tuin, a truly enormous “star turtle.” Although the most-recent Discworld books have not quite been up to the quality of earlier ones, the series as a whole, with its thoroughly winning and decidedly peculiar mixture of magic, science, fantasy, sarcasm, satire and stylishness, is a gem. And it is good that Pratchett’s memory will long be tied to Discworld, because otherwise it might be too strongly attached to The Long Earth, a co-production with Stephen Baxter that is as lurchingly unattractive as the Discworld books, taken as a whole, are admirable.
The third Long Earth novel, The Long Mars, showed some promise in pursuing multiple plot threads in ways that actually became periodically intriguing, but the fourth book, The Long Utopia, is back to the large-scale incoherence of the first two, compounded in this case by an altogether predictable (and overdone) “space-age Christ” story; the death of a couple of key characters (so dully handled that it is the end of the cyborg animal, not that of the human, that is genuinely affecting); and the introduction and eventual dismissal of yet another significant plot strand, this one involving aliens that suddenly show up on one world of the Long Earth and that, while not actively hostile, are busily engaged in a cataclysmic enterprise that could eventually spell doom not only to that particular world but also to all the others – however many millions there are.
One significant misstep here is the authors’ decision to downplay the importance and role of Lobsang, the artificial distributed intelligence who in some ways has godlike powers but in others is all too human – indeed, in The Long Utopia he decides to die, then reincarnate himself in entirely human fashion, only to discover eventually that his more-powerful form is needed to counter the incipient (if largely unintentional) alien threat. Lobsang also comes to terms here, in rather too facile a fashion, with the Next, post-human denizens of the Long Earth who turn out in this volume to be just as purblind in their way as ordinary humans, whom they usually dismissively call “dim-bulbs” or “these others,” are in theirs.
It is hard to know how much of what happens in The Long Utopia is from Pratchett and how much from Baxter, but certainly the plodding pace and formulaic characters point more toward the latter than the former – which would scarcely be a surprise near the end of Pratchett’s life. The book, when it is not actually bad, is simply ordinary. Take the title: the story offers more of a dystopia than a utopia, but it is not even very convincing on that basis. “All humans needed, some Next argued – all they needed to turn the Long Earth into a true Long Utopia – was a little gentle nudging from their intellectual superiors.” Or, as one character asks a member of the Next, “A Long Utopia. Is that your goal?” The response: “We don’t have a goal.” Neither does this novel, at least much of the time. The opening chapter sets the tone, more or less, of the whole: “It was only a coincidence, historians of the Next would later agree, that Stan Berg should be born in Miami West 4, the Low Earth footprint city where Cassie Poulson had grown up. Cassie Poulson, on whose High Meggers property the primary assembler proved to be located – an anomaly which, in the end, would shape Stan Berg’s short life, and much more.” Berg, a thoroughly uninteresting character, is this book’s Christ figure, so identified quite explicitly by other characters. He is thus heroic in a way different from that of Joshua Valienté, a recurring central figure who has less to do in this novel than in the three previous ones: his main contribution here is to inspire another character to research the Valienté family tree, the setting-forth of which produces the most interesting sections of the book. But all this eventually leads only to a meeting between Valienté and his father, after which another character comments, “You atoned with your father, Joshua. Important step on your spiritual journey as a mythic hero.” Oh, please.
The other “mythic hero” here, Stan, is more unidimensional than Joshua, his obvious Christ-ness made super-explicit in his very own Sermon on the Mount type of scene, which occurs beneath an under-construction space elevator that is known as the Beanstalk. This is a place where some listeners call him Master and, as one character observes – just to make things blindingly obvious – “I think we just heard the Sermon Under the Beanstalk, delivered by a messiah called Stan.” And of course a messiah must conclude his earthly (or Long Earthly) mission by dying for a great and grand cause, and of course must go to that death willingly after satisfactorily being offered the world by Satan and turning it down (the Next actually make an offer much like this to Stan). And so things happen here, after Stan delivers with down-home pomposity a three-part philosophy that a member of the Next says is “the basis of a creed that even the Next could embrace.” It is all so well-meaning and so very, very trivial, and it is all so far beneath the brilliance that was (at least for many years) the work of Terry Pratchett that The Long Utopia ends up as a kind of footnote of embarrassment for a fine writer in precipitous decline. The (+++) rating for this book actually includes one (+) in memoriam. But there are so many other Pratchett works (including collaborations) that are far better than this that readers need not court disappointment here unless they are quite determined to read as much by Pratchett as they possibly can.