Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter: The Long War

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s 2012 series kickoff The Long Earth tossed an intriguing science-fiction premise on the table, but never found a consistent plotline to go with it. The core conceit is that one man, Willis Linsay, designs a simple device that lets people traverse the “Long Earth,” a seemingly endless series of parallel Earths. Humankind didn’t evolve—or didn’t survive—on the other worlds, so each one is untouched by human development, and rich with resources. Once Willis posts blueprints for his device online and everyone has access to the simple technology needed to step across worlds, Earth’s various governments have no way of regulating stepping, and more than a billion people abandon their crowded, polluted homeworld to exploit or settle the new vistas.


The Long Earth spends time with various characters, including dutiful Madison, Wisconsin cop Monica Jansson; an AI named Lobsang, who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman; Joshua Valienté, a rare natural stepper who doesn’t need a device to traverse worlds; and Willis’ adult daughter Sally Linsay, who knows an even more efficient way to travel than stepping. But the book lacks a traditional story: There’s no problem to be solved, no situation demanding resolution, and almost no stakes, except in individual scenes where a threat arises and is quickly resolved. It’s a series of loosely related vignettes, like a shapeless setup for something else to come.

The sequel, The Long War, isn’t a payoff; it’s more of the same, on a larger scale. Joshua, Sally, Monica, and Lobsang all return, but fantasy author Terry Pratchett and hard SF writer Stephen Baxter add in many more significant characters, including a Chinese exploratory crew transporting a grim, Vulcan-like teenager; a South African paleontologist/minister following a string of puzzles to an assignation; and the captain of a dirigible-like military vessel charged with forcibly reminding the parallel-America colonies that their homeworld, now styled “Datum Earth,” still considers them subject to home rule and taxation. Many of the stories touch briefly or not at all, and nearly all of them blow by quickly. But two plot threads contribute to the book’s title. In one version of the Long War, the American vessels sent out to intimidate the parallel Americas seem likely to touch off an endless series of new American revolutions. In another, Sally and others fight for the rights of “trolls,” a sapient, ape-like species of natural steppers that humans are starting to enslave, outlaw, or otherwise abuse. Meanwhile, the trolls and other intelligent creatures on the Long Earth are making their own plans.

The Long War is frustratingly packed with ideas that don’t bear fruit, situations that don’t resolve, and characters who don’t spend enough time onstage to develop. There’s grist here for a dozen separate novels, with topics ranging from the fight to get trolls legally recognized as sapient (in a plotline reminiscent of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy) to a face-off between Sally, Monica, Joshua, and a race of intelligent semi-bipedal canines. Pratchett and Baxter spend a bare but telling handful of pages on the increasingly xenophobic, conservative Datum Earth government. Their look at an American system abandoned to Tea Party-esque rabble-rousers and their name-calling, contempt-laden rhetoric is timely satire with a mournful, accusatory edge. And their open mockery of Datum Earth’s version of security theater has as much to do with present politics as with parallel worlds. But that’s just one fleeting impression among many.

To the degree The Long War adds up into a single package, it startlingly resembles a late-era Robert Heinlein novel. There are a few glancing but overt Heinlein references, to his novel Have Space Suit, Will Travel and his famous aphorism “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But the influence is more specifically felt in tropes like the talking cat that’s actually a sophisticated AI, or Joshua’s beloved, ancient mentor Agnes, preserved on the brink of death and plugged into a new artificial body. The politics and mindset are pure Heinlein, from the near-worship of practical intellectuals to the implied belief that all politicians are sleazy charlatans to the expressed belief that women run society and most men haven’t figured it out yet. Lobsang is a particularly Heinleinian type: the benevolent, enlightened judge who’s only tolerable because of his self-effacing humor. But the book is packed with Heinlein characters: snappish but ultra-capable women, bumbling men, and people of both genders who achieve their greatest moral successes by following their hearts instead of the rules.

Still, even Heinlein’s most rambling late-life novels had some sort of plot, which isn’t true of The Long War. The book reads like an outline for a massive book series to come, the bible for a long-running TV show, or the seeds for a sprawling shared-world anthology. The individual scenes and moments are drawn well, and on their own, they hold together better than the ones in The Long Earth, with fewer gaping story holes and irrational behavior. And there’s an almost tangible excitement running throughout the book, as the authors contend with literally millions of worlds full of possibilities. But creative energy isn’t a substitute for a sense of direction. At this rate, it could take dozens of books to tease out all these disparate threads and characters and make them relevant to one another. But readers would be more likely to make it through dozens of books in this series if the individual installments were more cogent. Reading the first two volumes feels like trying to live on a dozen parallel worlds at the same time, without committing to any of them.