June 16, 2016
(+++) THE LONG GOODBYE
The Long Earth 5: The Long Cosmos. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.99.
Fans of the late Terry Pratchett will want – oh, how they will want! – the conclusion of The Long Earth series to be a spectacular windup, a fitting capstone of some sort to Pratchett’s long and distinguished career. They would be the same fans who wanted Raising Steam, the last of the main-sequence Discworld books, to be wonderful and magic-filled and a summing-up of all the marvels that Pratchett invented and envisioned. Alas, what The Long Cosmos and Raising Steam have in common is that while both are perfectly serviceable novels that would be considered to “have promise” if written by an unknown author, neither is much more than adequate in a Pratchett context; and neither has sufficient heft – or, for that matter, sufficient lightness in the form of the satirical cleverness of which Pratchett was such a master in earlier years – to be dubbed a “classic” or to repay multiple readings.
This is not intended as a gloom-and-doom appraisal. The Long Cosmos is fine, really. It reintroduces characters with whom readers of this five-part series have become familiar, even if they have never been ones with whom anyone can strongly identify or come to care deeply about: Joshua Valienté, whose adventures are the core of the series; Sister Agnes, revived from the dead and determined to return there once her new work on Earth – or many Earths, that being the premise here – is done; Lobsang, the distributed intelligence with powers that sometimes seem godlike but at other times seem all too constrained by human feelings; the trolls, those noble savages who are not savage at all and whose wisdom exceeds that of humans in so many not-understandable-by-humans ways; and the Next, whose knowledge and wisdom exceed those of humans in ways that are understandable, resulting in ongoing suspicion if not outright conflict. The interactions of the characters in The Long Cosmos are plausible within the design of The Long Earth series, and the eventual outcome of those interactions is sensible and satisfying enough to bring the sequence to a perfectly reasonable close.
The real problem here is one of expectation. We expect (or expected) better than this from Pratchett. Stephen Baxter, while a competent writer, is in no way as distinctive an authorial voice or as clever a plot designer or language user as Pratchett, and although it is impossible to be sure how much of The Long Earth flows from Baxter and how much from Pratchett at a time when his creative powers were diminishing (as Raising Steam shows), The Long Earth for the most part reads too conventionally and moves in too many expected directions for it to feel like a Pratchett series. It is also much too long: the five books feel padded, then padded again – the whole plot would have made a solid single long novel, perhaps a pair, maybe a trilogy, but even with millions upon millions of not-quite-Earths on which to set stories, The Long Earth feels insufficiently rich and inadequately packed with events and characters to go on for five books. Furthermore, to the detriment of The Long Cosmos, the authors killed off two of the most-interesting series characters by the end of the fourth book, The Long Utopia: prickly, good-hearted and multi-world-spanning explorer Sally Linsay, and Shi-Mi, the artificial cat that, like Lobsang (and, for that matter, like Pinocchio), simply wanted to be a real one. There are glimmers of personality and attractiveness in the remaining characters, but there is really no one, not even Joshua, with whom readers can readily identify: even Joshua, after thousands of pages, seems more a figurehead protagonist than a fully formed human being.
What The Long Cosmos tries to do is to explore some of the grand questions of humanity’s meaning (if it has one) and importance (if any) – questions that the great SF authors have been asking for well over a century. To do this, Pratchett and Baxter create a specific way to widen the story. The Long Earth concept has always included a lot of arbitrary, unexplained elements. One such is the reason the authors give such exact numbers to various planets where events take place: why those numbers? The Long Cosmos gives a rather-too-cute answer for certain planets but not for the approach in general. And it does not even try to explain other elements of the story, such as the reason travel from world to world is possible for people and some but not all objects (notably, iron cannot be carried). But one unexplained item that does become crucial in this series finale is the apparent impossibility of world-to-world communication: it has been true throughout The Long Earth sequence that you can go to an alternative Earth but cannot tell anyone you are coming, and no one can invite you into another world or warn you away. The Long Cosmos is built around a violation of this lack of interworld communication, as the enigmatic message “Join Us” suddenly shows up throughout the linked Earths, in whatever language or form particular people and groups need it to be in for comprehensibility. Fans of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick will likely think, appropriately, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, although – to give Pratchett and Baxter credit – the authors do not simply adopt the “advancement of humanity” notion (which in any case long predates 2001) but adapt it in several ways.
The Long Cosmos is, in essence, about the response of individual characters and the human race (and the troll race and the Next) to the “Join Us” call. Joshua pretty much sits things out at first, being tended by trolls after breaking his leg and thus developing his insights through greater understanding of troll society. The Next are central to the plot, having realized that the “Join Us” message includes instructions on assembling a continent-size computer simply called The Machine; this in turn requires them to obtain the help of “dim-bulbs,” which is what they call ordinary humans. The Next – individually and collectively – are less interesting than Joshua and several other characters, so there is a certain disconnect of effectiveness between the main and subsidiary plots here, although Pratchett and Baxter are skilled enough to pull everything together eventually. For readers of a somewhat cynical bent, the notion of The Machine may recall Fredric Brown’s wonderfully pithy short-short story, Answer, in which humans build the most powerful, gigantic computer possible and ask it whether there is a God – to which it replies, “Yes, now there is a God.” That is not quite where the far-more-discursive story of The Long Earth ends up, but where the five-book sequence that concludes with The Long Cosmos does go is less clever and insightful, and much less chilling, than where Brown took readers in just a few hundred words in 1954. In the final analysis, there is nothing particularly “wrong” with The Long Cosmos, and it does a good job of bringing its over-long novel sequence to a satisfactory conclusion. But readers, whatever they may think of Stephen Baxter, have long since become accustomed to Terry Pratchett being far more than satisfactory. The Long Earth, including The Long Cosmos, is simply not memorable enough to feel like a story (or set of stories) to which readers will return again and again – neither in the short term nor in the long run.