The much-missed Terry Pratchett and iconic Stephen Baxter return for the penultimate volume in their oddly misfiring ‘Long Earth’ quintet. In reviews of the first two I observed that the problem with the series is that the scope is potentially sempiternal and thus it would be improbable that, as great as combining the literary prowess of this pantheistic duo might suggest, it could be done justice. It would take an author dedicated to and skilled in the art of ‘space opera’ – such as Peter F Hamilton – writing thousands more pages to truly make this awesome.
Instead we witness, in a result that is arguably both maudlin in its prescience and prophetic in its conclusion, the beginning of the end of Pratchett’s literary twilight as his dementia took firmer grip. This is evident in the loss of consistent, brilliant, satirical humour that characterised his prosaic wit; it gives way to the weightier philosophy of Baxter’s imagination. Fantastical humour is giving way to precise science fiction.
So it is this eponymous utopian effort stumbles into the aging footsteps of Lobsang, Agnes, Joshua and Sally to show us that the Long Earth with its ‘soft spaces’ isn’t just a sideways step or ‘waltz’. Indeed, a ‘gap in the space-time continuum’ – to draw on a sci-fi parlance – means that Ben has found, at the Old Poulson Place, New Springfield on Earth West 1,217,756 a place where one can step across the galaxy and find an alien-race of silver beetles whose sole purpose is to recreate and spread, gaining mass through the wholesale destruction of planets. The race is on to shove this particular Long Earth out of the eternal chain so the ‘mindless’ beetles cannot infest Long Earth itself. Doing this will involve sacrifice – indeed the whole novel’s theme is one of death, life, and rebirth; a changing of the guard, of the seasons. That comes in the newly invented super-Next, Stan Berg, a self-proclaimed 11-word Messiah, who does his duty in intoning vague, cryptic, exegeses before saving the whole of Long Earth. On his left is the sardonic Sally, on his right is the reborn Lobsang…the Christian undertones are unmistakeable.
As a side narrative – likely written purely by Pratchett given the style – Nelson Azikiwe delves back into Joshua’s past, to Victorian London where he discovers his father, Luis is also a natural stepper. In atypical fashion of current literary representations of Victorian London, this story is portrayed through a romantic tapestry of cigar smoke, stiff British governance, gaslight ambience, intellectual exploration and general colonial arrogance that reaches its xenophobic nadir when one of Luis’ would-be cronies, Hackett, intones:
“it is my intention…to harness a talent that will ensure Britain will continue to be the dominant power in this globe…And who could deny that it would be for the betterment of all mankind?’…“’The difference, Sir, is we are British…We are a rational nation. We are scientific. We are disciplined.’
As Luis, agape, manages to squeeze out:
Really, indeed. I am not quite sure what the purpose of this look-back is for in the novel, other than to provide pages. Although, it feels better than the rest of the prose: lighter, satirical, humorous, punchy. All the hallmarks of Pratchett. It just has little place in the novel other than giving us Joshua’s familial back story.
Without giving away the action, plot or events of this novel, I found myself skipping faster and faster through it, seeking some of the joy that was in the first novel, or in Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ or in Baxter’s ‘Destiny’s Children’ – and came away…not disappointed exactly, but with a furrowed brow. I have the last book I front of me and will turn the first page with an alternating heavy heart, given it is likely some of Pratchett’s final words, expectation of a whimpering end to the series, but also hope for something that is a fitting literary tribute to one of the greatest fantasy authors to date.
Categories: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter