Friday, August 11, 2017

The Long War - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

   2013; 422 pages.  Book #2 (out of 5) in The Long Earth series.  New Author? : No, and No.  Genre : Science Fiction; Multiverses.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    The Colonials are revolting!  Some of those “steppers” who have transported themselves ("stepped") into parallel universes have sent a sort of Declaration of Independence back to this world (aka “Datum”).  It seems they’re tired of being taxed by the Datum government for some very minimal services.

    The Datum government is reacting!  They’re sending a bunch of military airships, including the Benjamin Franklin commanded by Maggie Kauffman, on a “goodwill tour” to those uppity otherworlds, reminding them of their taxation responsibilities and showing them a sample of the armed protection it provides.

    The trolls are retreating!  Apparently being used as cheap and menial beasts of labor, they’re stepping away to other multiverses.  Or maybe just one specially-chosen dimension.  Nobody is quite sure where they’ve gone to hide out.  Hey, someone should talk Joshua Valienté, the original stepper and a living legend, into heading out to find them trolls.

    But Joshua’s retired now, happily married and raising a kid out in the sticks in some piddling little town called Hell-Know-Where.  And while he still might have a wanderlust bone or two left in him, it’s a good bet that his family won’t be thrilled if he gets talked into to travel again.

    Especially since it’s an old lover who comes knocking on his door, calling him to adventure.

What’s To Like...
    The Long War is part of a “hard” Science Fiction pentalogy that explores the popular Quantum Physics concept of multiverses.   It is a collaboration of the talents of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, two of my favorite authors.  It feels like Baxter contributed a lot more to this book than Pratchett, possibly due to the latter’s health issues, and it's set in 2040 AD, 25 years after the first “Step Day”.

    The reader is introduced to a slew of characters right away, and it is advisable to take notes of who’s doing what and traveling where with whom.  The characters quickly separate themselves into 4 or 5 storylines, mostly dealing with exploring the millions of other dimensions, which was also the main theme of Book One, The Long Earth.

    The main topics addressed whilst everyone goes exploring are: Slavery – using the trolls as the persecuted race; Colonization – presented with a rather balanced viewpoint; and Sentience – when is a species intelligent enough to be communicated with instead of eaten?

    The chapters are short – 69 of them for 422 pages, and the book is written in English, not American.  There are lots of creatures to meet – the aforementioned trolls, elves (who are baddies here), kobolds, bipedal wolves, walking tortoises, some nasty beagles, and crest-roos.  Oh yeah, and a talking cat named Shi-Mi.  I also liked the music references – Jim Steinman, John Lennon, Bonnie Tyler, The Kinks, and Buddy Holly.  And I appreciated the tip-of-the-hat to Robert Heinlein and the esoteric Ginnungagap.

    It would’ve been nice to have a brief “The Story So Far” section at the beginning, and even a Cast of Characters, since it’s been a while since I read Book One.  I liked the thread of a western child prodigy exploring with a Chinese expedition, even if there was a bit of trite stereotyping of Chinese culture.

    Pratchett’s wit shines through at times – such as the naming of one of the characters Bosun Higgs, and the concept of “the Outernet”, sort of a multi-world Internet.  But Baxter’s influence predominates in epic sci-fi fashion.  It should be noted that there is some cussing.   The focus is on the diversity of the multiverses, and it was a joy to watch Pratchett/Baxter describe the various worlds.  I never got tired of visiting a new world.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Glebe (n.) : a piece of land serving as part of a clergyman’s benefice, and providing income.
Others :  Irruption (n.); Scry (v.).

    “Lobsang did this to you.”
    “He did,” she said warningly, “though he used some careless talk from you as an excuse to do it, young man.  We’ll have to have a serious chat about that.”
    “How?  I mean-“
    “Either I was downloaded from my poor dying brain via some kind of neural scan into a bucket of gel, or I was brought back by Tibetan monks chanting the Book of the Dead over my already interred corpse for forty-nine days.  Lobsang tried both ways, he says.”
    Joshua smiled weakly.  “That’s Lobsang, all right.  Always have a backup.”  (pg. 164)

    He knew how she felt.  It was the way he felt, sometimes, if he woke in the small hours, at three a.m., a time when the world seemed empty and stripped of comforting illusion.  A time when you knew you were a mote, transient and fragile in a vast universe, a candle flame in an empty hall.  Luckily the sun always came up, people stirred, and you got on with stuff that distracted you from the reality.
    The problem for Roberta Golding was that she was too smart to be distracted.  For her, it was three a.m. all the time.  (pg. 343)

Humanity … was nothing but the thin residue left when you subtracted the baffled chimp.  (pg. 238 )
    The Long War gets low marks from lots of reviewers over at Amazon, and deservedly so.  First and foremost of the issues is what I call “PWP?”, or “Plot?  What Plot?”  Basically, there is none.  Our various teams of protagonists traipse all over the multiverse, but mostly they're just on sightseeing trips.  Some token action befalls Joshua late in the story, and there’s a seismic occurrence (on several dimensions) at the very end, which is essentially a cliffhanger (I hate cliffhangers) and presumably serves as a teaser for the next book.

    I kept waiting for the titular “Long War” to start, and was informed with about 50 pages to go that it had come to an end, which totally astounded me  There wasn’t any shooting and killing in this “long war”, and I’ve yet to figure out if the title refers to the uppity colonists or the disappearing trolls.

    Maybe this is an inherent drawback from two authors collaborating on a novel.  Perhaps Pratchett thought Baxter would provide the plotline and Baxter thought Pratchett would.  In fairness, it should be noted that Baxter epics are sometimes light on the action and long on the drama, but that’s Hard Sci-Fi for ya.  It’s also possible that Pratchett’s health issues prevented him from adding a ton of his trademark wit to the series.  He did a much better job of that when he collaborated with Neil Gaiman in Good Omens (reviewed here).

    6½ Stars.  The somewhat-blah storyline is saved by the masterful writing skills of both Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, but just barely.  I’ve read the first two books in this series, and have #4 and #5 on my Kindle.  Now it’s just a matter of deciding whether to skip Book 3, The Long Mars, and "step" directly to the last two books in this series.

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