The Long Utopia, Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (Harper 978-0062297334, $26.99, 368pp, hardcover) June 2015
I inadvertently drifted away from this splendid series, a collaboration between Hard-SF guy Baxter and Funny Fantasist Pratchett, after the second volume, strictly from the usual cause of “not having enough damn time to read everything.” The appearance of the fourth installment happily gives me reason to catch up.
For those interested in what I thought of volumes one and two, my piece is archived at The Barnes & Noble Review, an online venue which dispenses brilliant criticism daily, for free, and with which I am most proud to be associated.
The Long Mars is book three in the series, and it unrelentingly and thrillingly continues the radical destabilization of Life As People Know It in the 2040s.
Datum Earth—our origin world in the multiverse, where the cross-dimensional Stepper device was discovered—has just experienced a cataclysm (the long-predicted explosion of the Yellowstone volcano) that renders much of the planet uninhabitable. Survivors and refugees are being shuttled to alternate colony Earths, which are strained under the influx. At the same time, a mutant race of sociopathic genius humans, the Next, has been born and is making plans to take over the multiverse from their locale at Happy Landings. (If any reader is flashing on Asimov’s Mule, times many, I think your intuition is correct.)
The Aegis—the loose confederation that seeks to coordinate the human diaspora—has mounted an expedition to set a new record of Stepper travel and exploration, and the dual-dirigible mission will, after many adventures, eventually reach a continuum some 250,000,000 universes removed from Datum Earth, then make a safe return with much knowledge.
A vastly smaller expedition elsewhere provides the rationale for the book’s title: three explorers have voyaged to Mars by conventional means and begun Stepping across the timestreams from that locale, surveying alternate versions of the Red Planet, until finally they reach one that boasts an ancient space elevator, their Grail, which will give humanity the same technology to reach space more easily.
If that sounds like a lot to cram into one book—a book not even particularly large in this age of 800-page hypertrophied tomes—your feelings are once again correct. Pratchett and Baxter are writing in “info-dense” mode that seeks to overwhelm and inspire wonder with sheer plentitude.
They certainly do not switch horses in The Long Utopia, volume four, a book with a slightly inappropriate title insofar as it depicts no conclusive settled state of perfection. But despite its similar generous overstuffed condition, the book nonetheless has a bit of a different feel, insofar as its venues are more compact, less spread-out: no journeys across millions of continua. But this does not preclude cosmic visions. As to whether this book concludes the series or not, especially in light of Pratchett’s death, the evidence is non-determining.
Throughout the series one of the main foci has been the exploits of that pioneering pair of “natural” Steppers (they do it sans machinery), Joshua Valienté and Sally Linsay. Their prickly friendship has been a dominant chord, and its sees its melancholy closure here, through developments I shall not reveal. It’s a truly affecting piece of the book. And in another aspect of character development, we get some Victorian backstory to Joshua’s powers (readers might think of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long at this juncture), and some more ruminations on Sally’s role as “the conscience of the Long Earth.”
Other threads picked up from prior installments include the ultimate fate of Lobsang, the guiding artificial intelligence who houses himself in various humanoid avatars. You might recall that one of those avatars was left talking to First Person Singular, another deific type. Get ready for that avatar to resurface. We also learn more about the Next mutants and their hidden home, the Grange.
The new developments in this book, which has moved ahead to the 2050s, concern the discovery of a race of self-replicating assemblers and disassemblers and the threat they pose to the entire Long Earth “necklace” of universes. Baxter and Pratchett rousingly approach Greg Bear territory here.
This series has shown a rare desire not to replicate familiar thrills from one volume to another, but rather to always be moving into new frontiers of plot and future history, a strategy congruent with the very nature of their SF novum. This volume, more than the previous three, really drives home the weight of the changes, the resonance for the characters of all their shared weird history, and so perhaps ultimately does justify its Grail-assonant title.
The Outward Urge is the title of one of John Wyndham’s lesser-known novels, and I always felt that the phrase captured one of the core qualities of science fiction. “Beyond this horizon.” “The lights in the sky are stars.” “The day after tomorrow.” “The door into summer.” “Ten thousand lightyears from home.” All of these other coinages express the innate human desire to see what’s up the bend and over the next mountain. It’s a trademark SF theme.
Baxter and Pratchett have found and reified the perfect objective correlative to this overwhelming and undying desire, providing readers with a new model for the same valuable and life-affirming vision of infinite frontiers that has motivated both the genre literature and the reality of the human condition since the first hominid contemplated leaving the hearth for parts unknown.