The Long War
(Book 2 of The Long Earth Series)
By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published by HarperAudio
Read by Michael Fenton Stevens
What is it with some authors these days? I have complained about this before, but generally Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors, knows how to tell a good lineal story from start to finish. However, as of late more and more authors have chosen to try to tell a story by fragmenting it up into several plot lines. I could list the recent reviews in which I pointed out that short stories were expanded into very long novels using that technique, but if you are a new reader to this blog there are probably two or three sitting over on the right-hand column for you to read.
In some cases this allows the author(s) to give the reader a multiplicity of points of view which in theory can increase the depth and impact of the story. In practice, most of the time it just makes the story longer.
It is also a popular technique when two authors are collaborating, so maybe I should have seen this coming. In Good Omens, which Mister Pratchett wrote with Neil Gaimen, it was fairly obvious which author wrote which parts of the story, but they fit together well. Here they fit together very well too, but there seems to be something missing. Even when writing a serious story, Terry Pratchett usually slips in his distinct sense of humor and fondness for word-play, none of which appears in this book. It made me wonder just how much of it he really wrote. I admit that aside from the first book of this series I do not recall ever having read any of Mister Baxter’s work, so it is possible that this is unlike anything he has written as well.
Now none of the above is meant to say that I did not like the book. I did think that the first book, The Long Earth was better, but maybe that is just me. I admit that in some of my own stories I sometimes follow more than one character too, but I really think it is important to bring it all together by the end of the current volume, even on a multi-volume story.
The previous book concluded with Madison, Wisconsin being destroyed by a wacko with a back-pack nuclear device. I thought that was rather far-fetched, although the question “Why Madison?” was well-answered. I just sort of balked at the concept of a single individual being able to acquire enough bomb-grade nuclear material and to build a device he could carry (and also not die of radiation or chemical poisoning in the attempt), but okay. It’s just a story, let us go with it. It was a powerful cliff-hanger and left us, the readers, with a strong image in our minds. Naturally I wanted to know much more about the incident and the name of this book, The Long War, seemed to imply that first bomb was just the first.
Sorry, that is not the case. Ten years have passed since the bomb in Madison and things seem fairly quiet as the story starts. Joshua Valiente is now a happily married man and the mayor of his local colony city. It turns out that the survivors of Madison have been relocated across the Long Earth to a new Madison, five steps to the “Stepwise West”… Okay, I’m all over the place… pause for explanation.
In the first book someone has discovered a way to move through the worlds of what might be infinite probability using a device that is cheap and easy to make by anyone. These devices are called “Steppers” and can be set to probability directions that are arbitrarily called “East” and “West.” Each time to use one you go one “Step” in the direction of your choice. Apparently, the evolution of sapient hominins is very low probability since even one step takes you to worlds without humans running around. Later it turns out there are other hominins running around and able to step naturally (like our protagonist, Joshua) but it turns out they evolved from natural steppers probably two or three million years ago and spread out on their own. These related species are called trolls, elves, kobalds, etc.
The only form of matter that does not seem to be able to go from one world to the next is iron and iron alloys. Why? An interesting plot-point, I suppose, though it seemed a bit too much like Superman’s allergy to Kryptonite or Green Lantern’s weakness when confronting the color yellow – I’ve always wondered if he was able to drink lemonade…
Anyway, Joshua teams up with an artificial intelligence named Lobsang who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan janitor (or was it plumber? That is a definite Pratchettism in my book) and goes off on an airship to explore the Long Earth as the multiple worlds are called. They go out to the far West and after their adventures return to find Madison is radioactive.
Back to this book. So, ten years later it turns out that the destruction of Madison was a rather minor event, except, I suppose, to the people who lived there and has almost nothing to do with the title of this book. Instead, since it appears all the intelligent and well-adjusted people have left the original or “Datum” Earth, as has anyone who just wanted to go off on “walkabout”, the ones left back on Datum have elected an idiot as President of the United States.
Yes, okay, that’s nothing new. If all we have to choose from are politicians, our options that way are limited, but in this case the pandering to the electorate has caused the various nations of Earth to claim their own footprints throughout the Long Earth as part of their territory or “Aegis” and therefore have decided they have the right to tax the people out there, in spite of the fact there is very little money in use once you get more than a few steps off the Datum. So to collect those taxes the president decides to send a military mission to unite all colonies in the US Aegis.
Meanwhile the Chinese are also sending an exploratory mission deep into the Stepwise East, because apparently no one has been looking very far in that direction. Also, the trolls, who until now have been peaceful and musical servants, porters, field workers and what not in the Long Earth are disappearing because they have been widely abused by humans, even though Joshua and others have been campaigning on their behalves. So Lobsang contacts Jushua and others to go find the trolls.
It’s an interesting story, but I found myself wondering why we even followed the Chinese mission. The so-called Long War did not have a satisfying conclusion and the book of the same name ended on a similarly sour note to my way of thinking.
Did the authors really have to do their best to destroy Datum Earth by having the Yellowstone supervolcano explode? That plot device has been used so many times in the last half century that I am surprised to see Old Faithful gushing as usual every time I visit its webcam… then again I just thought to take a look and got “200, Stream not found…” so maybe it isn’t? Seriously, though, this story is taking place less than thirty years from now (2040) and the chance of a major Yellowstone eruption between now and then is pretty slim and as spectacular as such an eruption will be when it happens, I think it’s no longer an original idea to use as a major plot point. And actually, it might have been interesting had the eruption not taken place on the datum. With all the parallel worlds out there in the Long Earth, Yellowstone or its equivalent probably is erupting on one line or other.
On the other hand, much like the nuclear destruction of Madison, the next book (The Long Mars) will probably only mention Yellowstone in passing and say that’s why so many more people have left the Datum Earth, now…
All told, though, while it was a very readable story, I was disappointed by the fact that there was very little new. Okay sentient wolf-descendants, called Beagles, were newish, but nothing I had not seen elsewhere. After the entirely new concept of the Long Earth and the Steppers, the second book just sort of plodded along. Also, there was never really a Long War. That may have been the authors’ point, that a real war across all those worlds would never work out, but it only fizzled out because the people involved really did not want to fight and found an alternative. Different people would have fought like demons.
Also while I accepted the idiot president and his intention to tax the colonies – that seemed very realistic – it was predictable that the colonies were going to find a way to resist. The situation was very similar to the situation in the New England and New York colonies following King Phillip’s War. Just as England had sent off the colonists without a trace of help, but happily raked in the profit from trade, the US in this book did the same with its colonies. Then when trade fell off to a bare trickle, they tried taxation. In the American Colonies, the colonists resented the taxation, not so much because of the usually stated “Taxation without representation” cause that became a slogan leading up to the American Revolution, but because England had offered no assistance to the colonists until the very end of the war when they had already won it and now knew they could protect themselves. By then they knew England had nothing to offer them they could not do for themselves. In this book the colonies of the US Aegis similarly were left alone to succeed or fail without assistance and after the usual colonial struggles the survivors realized they needed nothing from the Datum government nor owed that government anything. When seen from that perspective of course the attempts to tax the colonies would be resisted. The only twist here is that the Long Earth colonies won by passive resistance. I’m not sure that really would have worked, though, but it’s the story. Was that really a Long War? No, but I guess the story needed a name.
Despite my misgivings about the book itself, I did enjoy listening to Michael Fenton Stevens reading it. In fact I think I would go so far as to say his reading saved the experience of listening to the story. He read well, made each character distinct from the others in their scenes without resorting to funny voices most of the time. There were some “funny voices” such as that of Finn MacCoul, the kobald and those of the Beagles and since those characters were not human, or at least not members of H. sapiens sapiens, it is understandable that their voices would be very different,
So… Much as I hate to admit this of any story with Terry Pratchett’s name on the cover, this was, at best, a so-so story, but it was mildly entertaining and only really disappointing to me because by the time it came to an end I felt like it had never really gone anywhere even if the trip was interesting some of the time. However, Mister Stevens read it well so if you are planning to listen to it, you could do much, much worse!