Book Review: The Long Mars, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

cover of The Long MarsThe Long Mars is the third book in the Long Earth series, a series with five planned books (total).  This series has always worked more as a conceptual experiment than as series of novels, and The Long Mars is the most glaring example of this in the series to date.  The concepts remain engaging but the story does not.

In The Long Earth, humans became able to “step” across parallel worlds.  They travelled as individual explorers and as pioneering groups who set up homesteads.  They mined new lands for resources and hid in them for refuge.  The economic, theological, social, and political ramifications of this are explored in The Long War and The Long Mars.

These ramifications are truly fascinating.  Pages and pages are devoted to nothing but descriptions of one world following another as airships step across them.  In The Long Mars, there’s an earth where jellyfish are the dominant life form and another one in which tiny crabs build tiny but elaborate cities in the sand.  There are boring earths consisting of endless fields or grass or algae.  There are worlds that are barren.  The book does a great job of conveying the diversity of the earths, and the combination of wonder and boredom that people experience when the take long journeys across thousands of earths in a year.

The problem with this installment is that, even more than in the past books, the story is too disjointed to make any cohesive or compelling narrative.  I skimmed a lot – and so did the authors, who often start paragraphs with “Four years later…”  The characters are engaging but there’s no time to build a relationship with them because the narrative keeps jumping around.  At this point in the series, they are barely characters at all – they function as plot propellent.  And the idea that living on one of the Long Earths caused the creation of a new human species is far less believable or interesting than the previous books’ depiction of how humans would struggle with this new technology.

The Long Mars isn’t terrible overall.  As a collection of concepts it’s wonderful.  But it was very easy to pick it up and put it down and skim over it.  It’s a great thought experiment but a fractured, disappointing novel.  I’m still looking forward to the next books, though, because I want to see what’s on the next Earth and the next Mars.  The thoughts stay compelling even when the characters and plot don’t.

Book Review: The Long War, By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

cover of The Long War

full cover (front and back)

The Long War is fascinating, but not engrossing.  The premise is an interesting one, but the story is so fragmented and slow-paced that it never seems to go anywhere.  From a cerebral standpoint, the book is a triumph.  From a story-telling standpoint, it tries to do so much that it doesn’t fully succeed with anything.

Here’s the premise of the series, as described in Chapter Three:

The Long Earth: suddenly, on Step Day, twenty-five years before, mankind had found itself with the ability to step sideways, simply to walk into an infinite corridor of planet Earths, one after the next and the next.  No spaceships required: each Earth was just a walk away.  And every Earth was like the original, more or less, save for a striking lack of humanity and all its works.  There was a world for everybody who wanted one, uncounted billions of worlds, if the leading theories were right.

Here are the central conflicts of The Long War:

1.  Trolls, beings who inhabit most of the Earths, are leaving those Earths that are settled by humans.  The trolls are frequently abused by humans and the question of what they are, in terms of their relationship to humanity, is controversial.

2.  Lobsang, an artificial intelligence, is manipulating many people who don’t want to be manipulated.  He has essentially brought Sister Agnes back from the dead so that she will keep him in line with her own strong personality.

3.  Back on Datum Earth, Yellowstone is behaving in a strange and ominous fashion.

4.  While Datum Earth is eager to solidify its control over the Long Earth communities, they are eager for more independence.

That’s a lot of plot for  a 420 page book, and as you can imagine, none of it really solidifies into a detailed story.  I do have a bias against books that jump from plot to plot, but I’m pretty sure even more flexible readers will find it frustrating that each plot line deserves its own book, and all of them get short shrift.  I love it that the authors try to figure out all the implications of stepping, but I think the book would have more emotional impact if it stuck to one or two implications and looked at them in closer detail.

Fans of Terry Pratchett should know that this book doesn’t have the zany quality of the Discworld books.  It does share a certain dry wit and the general worldview is similar.  Terry Pratchett loves protagonists with good common sense, and he has several in The Long War.  Readers should also know that although there are many characters, and most of them are enjoyable to spend time with, this isn’t a character-driven novel.  That’s not a criticism, just a fact.

The most emotionally involving storyline involves the fate of the trolls.  But the message of tolerance and acceptance is undercut by the fact that while many of the characters see the trolls and sentient individuals, the three characters who are most involved in reaching out to the trolls have no problem treating kobolds, who are clearly sentient individuals, with utter contempt.  And they don’t just show contempt for one kobold – they show contempt for the entire species.  I’m puzzled by this discrepancy.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Long War.  I like the idea that the authors take a concept and really examine all the permutations of that concept.  But it wasn’t what I’d call a page-turner.  I cared about the characters, but mostly in a perfunctory way, because there wasn’t time to get to know them.  I never felt invested in what happened.  But I did enjoy watching two brilliant people throw ideas around on the page, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.  So far, counting The Long War, there are two books in the series, and I recommend starting with the first one (The Long Earth).

cover of The Long Earth

The series begins with The Long Earth