The Long Utopia: by Terry Pratchett & Steven Baxter
I read this book thinking it was, finally, the end of Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter’s LONG EARTH series. Unfortunately, I have since read that one more is going to come out. In some ways, this is fine. The Long Utopia (2015) in no way provides a conclusion to many of the plotlines that Pratchett and Baxter have set in motion in previous installments and about which I am still, despite my better instincts, curious. In other ways, though, it is tedious, since my experience of these books cannot really be described as “enjoyment.”
In The Long Utopia, life on the Long Earth continues as it did when we left it. The Next, the evolved super-smart humans we met in The Long Mars, have found a home up in the High Meggers, tens of thousands of Earths away from Datum Earth, our Earth, the planet where humanity started. In the wake of the Yellowstone explosion rendering much of Datum Earth uninhabitable, communities of regular humans eke out frontier-style existences on different versions of the planet all along the Long Earth. It’s not really a utopia so much as it is regular human life, plagued by conflict and contradiction, plugging along in its new circumstances.
The new mysteries The Long Utopia sets before us are two-fold. First, someone goes back to Datum Earth to find documents related to our hero Joshua Valiente’s past. How did this boy, one of the first natural steppers (meaning, he can “step” to other earths without a device called a “stepping box”), gain his powers? Where does he come from? Second, what does the ability to step have to do with the presence of insectile aliens discovered by American colonists on a version of Earth out in the High Meggers?
As usual, Lobsang the AI puts together a lot of the facts surrounding the mysteries, assisted by characters we’ve met — like Sally Linsay, Sister Agnes, Nelson Azikiwe, Roberta Goldberg, etc. — and new characters. Ultimately, he ascertains that the aliens pose a threat to the Long Earth and, with the help of some of the Next, he neutralizes that threat, preserving the “long utopia” of the title.
Some of the more interesting plot points are that stepping, apparently, is not limited just to East and West, meaning, side to side along on the Long Earth. Some natural steppers have learned to step “North” or “South,” meaning, away from Long Earth entirely, to different places in the universe. These aliens are such steppers and they have found their way to the Long Earth from a planet many thousands of light years away. We can assume that this information may come into play in the final installment, The Long Cosmos.
Reading these books is, for me, an interesting writing exercise. We learn a lot from reading great books but the thing about great books is that sometimes the skill it takes to write them, the craft that goes into them, lays just below the surface. As you read a great book, you’re not supposed to be aware of how much conscious thought and labor went into the authorial choices. It’s supposed to feel natural, easy, elegant, like breathing.
Reading bad books, on the other hand, can be a useful peeling-away of the unconscious expectations we bring to stories. When the elements aren’t there, we notice, just as we would notice if our lungs were suddenly stopped up — or missing entirely. So, as much as it pains me to say this about anything Pratchett wrote, I think these are bad books.
And in reading The Long Utopia, I was finally able to put my finger on one element that is missing for me: characterization. It’s not that we don’t “know” things about these characters. We know Sally is cranky, Joshua is conflicted, Roberta is unemotional. It’s that these characteristics function more as makeup slapped onto a cardboard cutout than anything that provokes or motivates action. Sally’s crankiness, Joshua’s inner turmoil, Roberta’s difficulty processing emotion — none of these affect what they do.
And other than Sally, who really is just unremittingly angry (and why? We never find out!), their characteristics don’t seem to affect what they say, either. Stripped of speech attributions, most of the dialogue in these books is interchangeable. The characters seem more like plot devices or info-dumps, meant to enact the authors’ will like puppets rather than real people with agendas.
All of this comes down to literary taste, which is subjective. Detailed characters who act out of psychologically consistent motivations are just part of the realism movement that has dominated literature for the last hundred and fifty years. It is no better or worse than any other writing styles; I just happen to prefer it. And many sf fans will enjoy The Long Utopia as another in a series of rollicking, hard-science-based adventure stories and will look forward to The Long Cosmos as its conclusion. I’ll be looking forward to it, too — just for different reasons.