The Long War: Searching the High Meggers for a plot

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterThe Long War by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

The Long War, the second installment in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s five-book LONG EARTH series, is more tedious than the first one, probably because I have already seen the inside of their bag of tricks and I am no longer impressed.

This sequel happens about 12 years after the events of The Long Earth. Joshua, now married and with a son, has been summoned by his old friend, Lobsang (the AI reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman) to go on another journey through the Long Earth, all the way up into the High Meggers, the worlds over a million “steps” from Datum Earth.

The Long War also follows a lot of other characters, some from the first novel and some just introduced, on un- or loosely-connected journeys of their own. For instance, the US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman, who wants to figure out how to protect the trolls, who have started suffering violence at the hands of humans. Or the Chinese expedition headed to the East to explore 20 million Earths. I kept thinking that some of these plot elements would be developed. For instance, Roberta, the sad, socially awkward teenage genius on the Chinese mission — what is her deal? The book gave me enough to be curious, to feel like she might be a linchpin of a sort, before leaving it all hanging.

I actually cared about the plotline with the trolls. They begin warning each other via the “long call,” a way that they can communicate across worlds, to avoid humans. Some humans think of them as animals, and use them as experimental subjects or harvest their bodies for organs; other want to offer them citizenship as sapient beings. Maggie ends up enlisting some into the Navy, granting them crew-status on her ship. This story arc felt realistic, like Baxter and Pratchett were exploring the diversity of potential human reactions to alien life.

But I don’t understand why two British authors would center their series, which is about the ultimate shake-up of the structure of human civilization, around the continued existence and dominance of the American government. The Long Earth, a space without meaningful boundaries, begins to erode ideas like national borders. And Baxter and Pratchett do address this complexity head-on, diving into the politics that might surround such a paradigm shift. However, in the restructured civilization they imagine, America has found a continuation in a Long Earth settlement called “Valhalla,” and the kind of government they portray is, in most of its values and practices, no different from America as we know it today. A large chunk of The Long War revolves around the political battles of Valhalla — but the politics and governmental structure of the rest of the world is scarcely mentioned.

The characters in The Long War were also less believable and less likeable than they were in The Long Earth. Lobsang changes from a quirky AI being exploring the limits of his consciousness and the universe into the omniscient, omnipresent creepmaster-general who reincarnates his friend, Sister Agnes, into a big-breasted female body without (it seems) her consent, just so he’ll have someone else to talk to. His old pal Joshua seems to have turned into a married sad sack who can’t really decide between his former traveling companion Sally (although her allure is beyond me, and apparently beyond the writers, too, who describe her as “greying,” “wiry,” and constantly tell you how many pockets her outfit has) and his wife Helen, who is jealous of Sally. Joshua’s adolescent crush on Sally was not developed enough in the first novel for it to be such a big issue in this book, but an issue it is. Still, I can’t muster up enough engagement with any of the main characters to feel sorry for Joshua’s split longings between his home life and his adventurer life.

Finally, the title is misleading, since there is no war to speak of in this book.

A better read are some of the GoodReads comments on this book. My favorite one came from reader Graham Crawford, who references the series’ premise of infinite worlds where the forces of nature have created different Earths. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “we live on the ONE world where the forces of nature did NOT prevent this book from being written.”

~Kate Lechler


The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterWarning: May contain spoilers for The Long Earth.

Another day, another Terry Prachett novel — this time the second instalment of his Science Fiction collaboration with author Stephen Baxter. A multiverse of alternate worlds is not a new concept, but it is a cool one, one which Pratchett and Baxter explore the endless possibilities of. The Long War picks up a couple of decades after where The Long Earth left off. The premise behind the books is that William Lindsay (an as yet unmet rogue scientist) had designed a potato-powered device that allows users to ‘step’ between worlds. Oh, P.S., there are a bazillion worlds.

In the first book, we meet Josh Valienté, orphaned prodigy with the ability to step naturally between worlds without a stepping device. In The Long War he’s all grown up with a wife and child of his own, but still the quietly reassuring presence we know. Sally Lindsay (William Lindsay’s prickly lone-ranger of a daughter) is back too, attempting to lure Josh off on another adventure across the Long Earth, which is pissing off Josh’s wife, Helen Green (the same Helen Green, coincidentally, whose childhood diary entries we read in the previous book as she was trekking out into the Long Earth to settle on a remote new earth with her family).

New characters are introduced amongst the ones we return to. US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman is on a mission to the Long Earth settlement Valhalla, to assist with peacekeeping in the name of ’Murica. Her presence among the new settlers is not always welcome, and she will eventually cross paths with the enigmatic Lobsang — the reincarnated Tibetan monk/gel-based artificial intelligence.

Then there’s Nelson Azikiwe, a South African minister that was briefly introduced in The Long Earth. Roberta Golding is a hostile teenage genius selected to go on a Chinese expedition across the Long Earth. Sister Agnes, the Harley-riding nun, makes an appearance as well.

The premise of having endless myriad earths to choose from and travel across is absorbing, and The Long Earth explored the possibilities of such a multiverse with pace and creativity. The Long War fell short of the intrigue that its predecessor sparked. The plotless novel feels aimless in its ramblings, often picking up character threads and discarding them before they amount to anything. Like the millions of earths Pratchett and Baxter have described, there are just too many characters, too many plot seeds planted without any room for growth. We have been presented with a series of disjointed scenarios that don’t ever really form into a coherent story.

The Long War reads like a cross between Doctor Who and The Little House on the Prairie. I wasn’t sure whether to keep my eye on the pioneer re-enactment of the great American frontier or the sci-fi resurrection of an exploded nun. Some thought-provoking themes are explored: this is a novel about new starts, about second chances, and about humanity’s inevitable way of ballsing them up. Still, I needed some plot. And where was the war the title promised?

I love a good Pratchett collaboration (Good Omens is amongst my favourite books), but The Long War didn’t quite live up to expectations. With two literary juggernauts there shouldn’t be much room to go wrong, but somehow it fell short. The Long Earth was a highly enjoyable read; perhaps The Long War is just that stepping-stone in a series that sets up stories and threads to be explored over the next however-many books. We’ll just have to wait and see.

~Rachael McKenzie


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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RACHAEL “RAY” MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well — a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette — those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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One comment

  1. Oh, this is sad! Thanks, Kate, for the review. I wasn’t very interested in starting this series, and now I won’t bother.

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