Monday, 20 April 2015

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter- The Long War

The Long War

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

“Fear generates big profits.’
‘You’re very cynical.’
'Joshua, cynicism is the only reasonable response to the antics of humanity.”

Upon hearing and somehow absorbing the immensely saddening news Terry Pratchett's death, I had the creeping feeling that I'd need to write some sort of personal obituary. The news hit me as hard as the death of a person I'd never met possibly could; I'd grown up alongside Pratchett's words, he influenced my writing, my sense of humour and even my own ways of thinking in inestimable ways, and the thought of a future without him seems cold and alien, to be a tad melodramatic. Still, I haven't been able to write it, at least not yet, simply because I realised that this reviewing odyssey- which started as an attempt to just cover the core Discworld books but has since expanded to include Pratchett's entire bibliography and adaptations- is itself a much larger tribute... even if it might take a while to finish at my speed.

Stephen Baxter
To today's book- after a gap following reading its predecessor, I delved into the second installment in the The Long Earth series. Based on an incomplete Pratchett project named The High Meggas (now published in The Blink of the Screen collection), Pratchett and science-fiction author Stephan Baxter explore the concept of humanity collectively gaining access to infinite parallel universes through a planned series of five. The first mostly dealt with a small group of characters delving further into the depths of this unlimited multiverse, while hinting at further social and philosophical quandaries now facing the human race, who, as far as they know, remain the only truly intelligent species inhabiting these Earths. I enjoyed it, but it could've benefited from a lot of editing for length.

To cut to the chase, I enjoyed The Long Mars to an equal extent as The Long Earth, no more, no less. Obviously it's only going to appeal to people who read the first installment, but it's also only going to appeal to people who enjoyed said installment for what it was- and it's certainly not going to appeal to the many, many Terry Pratchett fans who read The Long Earth because his name was on it and then found it to be too dissimilar to the author's regular, more introspective and humorous style. If you're one of those people, I'd seriously consider reading something else. Oh, and if you don't like science fiction at all, give it up already. To be honest, I don't know for a fact how much input Sir Terry had in writing this book beyond contributing to the plot. I hate to insinuate, but by 2012/13 Pratchett was increasingly ill and somehow incredibly productive, seemingly determined to put as much of his imagination in print as he could before his final day eventually came. While I have no doubt Pratchett constructed the key aspects of the overall plot and characters, I think it's safe to say that Baxter put in the heavy lifting while Pratchett focused his solo novels.

I prefer this French edition
For me that was fine. I'm a long-time fan of science fiction and Baxter's style reminds me of genre luminaries Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. It's descriptive and imaginative, with a wry sense of humility in the face of the power of the unknown. It's far from lyrical, imaginative, or evocative, though it is occasionally witty. None of the characters resonate particularly well beyond the basics; all are essentially boring genre archetypes, though I did find them mostly realistic. As sequels are want to do, the authors add a handful of new figures central to the story, and ostensibly turn the focused aim of The Long Earth into a wider ensemble piece, as various characters play their part in a slow-moving plot.

For over three-hundred pages of this five-hundred plus book, plot progression is delayed for as long as possible in lieu of attempting to establish the new characters and an ominous, foreboding mood. The real meat of the action only kicks in closer to the end, where the plot lurches forward with the inclusion of a new set of antagonists. I won't spoil specific details, but I have to say that with this the entire tone of the series shifts somewhat into a more outrageous, fantastical  science-fiction that I imagine might be the final straw for non-science fiction inclined readers, though it didn't put me off particularly, as at least it gave a solid direction to the meandering plot, assisted by the incredibly dramatic ending.

With three books remaining in the series, The Long War suffers from Two Towers syndrome most of the way through, relying on the readers' interest in world-building for now. It may seem far more relevant eventually depending on how the story continues, but by itself I ultimately found it to be a by-the-numbers affair, just good enough with its prose and imagination to keep me reading. The title of the next book, The Long Mars, promises further sci-fi interest, but I doubt the series will ever be considered more than an interesting curio from a man driven to put his entire imagination to print before his departure, and his capable but unspectacular co-author.