The Long Mars
By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published by Harper Audio
Read by Michael Fenton Stevens
There comes a time in any series when the author (or authors) have pretty much covered the subject and that maybe it’s time to call it a night. I hate to say it, considering this series involves not an infinite number of Earths, but certainly an uncomfortably high number of them, but perhaps this series should have stayed at only two volumes.
Even though this time part of the book was devoted to a private expedition to explore the many alternative timelines on Mars, there was surprisingly anything new added to the series with this third volume. It is not that it is bad, it just has nothing to add. It doesn’t matter that this time around we are exploring Mars where it turns out the Russians have decided to colonize, but also where it turns out there is intelligent life… Well with all those alternative time lines, I guess intelligent life was inevitable.
Meanwhile back on Earth, much of the original Earth has been made uninhabitable due to the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano. This may once have been an original idea, but with various “How the World Will End” sort of documentaries, miniseries, movies and SF series, the idea has been done to death. However, there are six known super volcanos on Earth and while Yellowstone is the most well-known, and probably the most actively monitored one, why not at least give the readers a semblance of originality and use one of the others. You want to destroy North America? Why not let the Long Valley caldera in California go boom instead, or the Valles caldera in New Mexico. Want a really big boom with incredibly long-lasting results? Try Toba in Sumatra. There is good evidence that humans nearly went extinct last time it erupted. You can also use the Taupo caldera in New Zealand and there had been a lot of recent activity in Japan at the Aira caldera. However, somehow it’s always Yellowstone that erupts, which is odd since there is no indication that Yellowstone is approaching an eruption anytime some, although most articles I read do indicate that it will erupt again someday/
Also it seems that along with various other sideways time-stepping humanoids, a group of supposedly super-smart humans has sprung up among us, in an alternate known as “Happy Landings,” although, frankly, they did not sound all that smart to me, just very full of themselves, referring to themselves as the “Next” and normal people as “dim bulbs” which was both annoying and insulting to the reader.
However, after having listened to all three books, I have increasing trouble with some very important pieces of the basic premise. That iron cannot be stepped from one time line to the next. It’s an interesting notion but no good explanation is ever given for why iron alone cannot be moved and the big exception is that the iron in people’s blood is exempt from this restriction, probably because any life form with hemoglobin-base blood would die. However in spite of a glib explanation it still doesn’t work. Why iron and why not all iron? Also, while it should have made a major difference in lifestyle and technology, the best it really accomplishes, plot-wise is to provide a way to keep people being kept prisoner from stepping away, and other ways are mentioned so it turns out to be entirely unnecessary. That the first steppers were forced to start all over again as pioneers on their new worlds was almost a momentary inconvenience, considering once there, they could mine all the iron ore they wanted.
In this third book, we learn that the reason Earth has so many alternative time lines (apparently it is not infinite, but a very high number) is that at least one of them hosts sentient life. Yeah, okay. In the first two books we discover that while the vast majority of lines have no sentient life on them, there are also many intelligent species out there in probability land. And so we learn that some versions of Mars have life on them – transplanted from Earth originally via “gaps” in which Earth was either destroyed or never formed in the first place. Why they needed gaps in Earth’s existence to explain it, I am not sure, since the latest theories have it that Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is now and even more recently there is strong evidence that there was once enough open water there to cover one fifth of the surface up to a depth of a mile, but okay. In the multiple lines of probability it seems plausible that at least once there might have been intelligent life and the authors present. However the assumption that at least one would have inevitably built a space elevator is badly flawed.
However, that is not my objection. The alternative lines of Mars are not the same as Earth’s, because they are formed by intelligent Martian life, not human. Huh? The authors have proposed that Time’s lateral dimension is attached only to worlds with intelligent life. They seem to have overlooked that if you travel along probability long enough you will find intelligent life everywhere, but their way of doing it ties either planetary mass or gravity to probability. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. It makes more sense to me if you were to tie the alternative time lines to the intelligent creatures to whom it is due, so that they will take their set of alternative time lines with them. If the Martians have different time lines, it seems to me that merely going to Mars would not put humans on the Martian “Long Mars” but a human version of one in which some lines coincided but not in the same sequence the Martians might experience.
I understand the authors have attempted to do something very original and that the way I might have handled it is less so, but I really think my way works better. Besides if a human is somewhere, even visiting, wouldn’t that location obviously have a set of probabilities since there would have been intelligent life there at least once?
We also get to see old friends from previous volumes, but by now Lobsang, the Tibetan car mechanic(?) who was reborn as a computer or a program or something, is less interesting than he was. The authors did not seem to have anything to add about him, and yet he’s still there trying to manipulate everything. And Joshua is there, though except to intercede on the part of the “Next” (who comes off as a bunch of hedonistic, juvenile delinquents who only think they are smarter – does thinking faster really make you smarter – btw, recent studies have shown that the old saw about only using ten percent of our brains is untrue, it is obvious that we are constantly using all of our brains) he just wanders about and I was forced to wonder if he was there simply because the authors did not know what else to do with him.
Unfortunately, this third book has a cast of thousands and several plotlines none of which get enough time to be properly developed. What we have is an intensely interesting world with all sorts of original and interesting ideas that is being completely wasted. At least it is so far. If the authors want to stay at this much longer, they are going to have to break the pattern and write a new story rather than telling the same one over and over using the same template every time. It’s a shame, because I really like these authors, but maybe just not together.
Michael Fenton Stevens once again put in a listenable performance. He does use the occasional “funny voice” which always annoys me, but only does so for certain non-humans, so it is understandable, especially for talking dogs, which, I should mention were very hard to understand. Most of the time, however, his reading was clear and enjoyable.
So while I cannot say I enjoyed the book, it was a good reading that kept me listening.