One of the greatest problems humanity faces as it heads into the twenty-first century is resource management. As humanity’s population grows, so does its appetite for a hundred different resources: some as basic as food and water, and others more esoteric, such as rare-earth metals. The problem is, there is only one Earth, one planet upon which to live, and as it gets ever more crowded, and humanity grows ever more hungry and thirsty, there will come a time when our species hits the breaking point, and we destroy ourselves in our pursuit of whatever resources are left.
As early as now, people are striving to come up with solutions. Some are basic, almost commonplace now, such as recycling or commuting; others are more radical, like mining asteroids or leaving Earth altogether to live on Mars. Whatever the case may be, more and more people are starting to realize that if something is not done now, then it is entirely possible that sometime in the not-too-distant future, humanity will destroy itself, more surely than any natural disaster can wipe out our species.
But what if that need not be the case? What if there were other places humanity could escape to – not other planets, but other versions of Earth: parallel universes almost exactly like ours, except without any of the exploitation and resource acquisition that humanity has done to its current plane of existence? And what if access to these parallel Earths was via a technology so ridiculously simple and cheap that children could build it?
This is the premise behind the concept of the Long Earth, as first portrayed in The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, and which is expanded upon in the sequel, The Long War. In the first novel, Joshua Valiente, a natural stepper (someone who can travel, or step, to the parallel Earths without the need for the aforementioned piece of technology), and Lobsang, a very human-like AI that may or may not be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, travel to the most distant parts of the Long Earth, making discoveries along the way – including friends, most notable of whom is Sally Linsay. After leaving Lobsang with a mysterious entity they dub First Person Singular, Joshua and Sally head all the way back to Datum Earth (the term used to refer to the “original” Earth) – only to find that someone has exploded a nuclear bomb in the heart of Madison, Wisconsin. Most of the population managed to get away, thanks to stepping, but the destruction of Datum Madison signaled a massive change in the matter of the Long Earth, and those who moved in them.
The Long War begins some ten years after the concluding event of The Long Earth. The protagonists of the first novel have each gone their own separate ways: Lobsang to running his projects for the Black Corporation (Lobsang, being an AI, has a multiplicity of existences); Sally has gone off into the Long Earth for her own reasons; and as for Joshua, he has settled down in a town called Hell-Knows-Where, with a wife and a son, living the life of a pioneer in the vast expanses of the Long Earth.
However, this idyllic existence cannot last very long. News reports are coming in of trolls being abused and killed, and the Datum United States government is attempting to exert control on the Long Earth in ways that those living there do not want in the least. The city of Valhalla, a city in the High Meggers (a term used to refer to the parallel Earths that are tens of thousands of steps away from the Datum), has declared independence from the Aegis of the United States, and this causes a fleet of twains (after the original Mark Twain, the ship that Joshua, Lobsang, and later Sally used on their journey in the last novel) controlled by the US military to be sent out across the United States’ footprint in the Long Earth. Such a state of affairs can only lead to war: the Long War.
The first thing that distinguishes this novel from The Long Earth is the number of plotlines and new characters. There is a main storyline involving Joshua and Sally, but even that branches out eventually, meeting up again further down the storyline. In the meantime, there are other stories, other characters: Maggie Kauffman, for instance, captain of the twain Benjamin Franklin, who forms part of the plotline connected to the abuse and killing of trolls across the Long Earths. There is Nelson Azikiwe, a British clergyman who stumbles across an intriguing mystery that leads him on a quest he did not expect to take up. And there is Roberta Golding, a young genius who goes on an exploratory mission with the Chinese. All of them are tied together to the main plotline involving Joshua, Sally and Lobsang – though Lobsang is not as “present” as he was in the first novel, instead being the one who “pulls levers,” as he says, behind the scenes.
And now that I mention Lobsang, his development here is quite interesting, mostly because he steps back from the spotlight. The concluding events of The Long Earth certainly left many questions unanswered, and I was rather hoping I would get to see a bit more of Lobsang, at least initially, just to find out what in the world happened the last time. He’s different from Lobsang as the reader knew him in the first novel, but the changes are subtle, and are only really noticeable when he’s interacting with certain specific characters.
But aside from the characterization and the plot, what really makes this novel stand out – and what made its predecessor stand out – are the themes. The themes of The Long War are a consequence of the events in The Long Earth: as humanity continues to spread across the Long Earth, as they were doing in the first novel, what happens to everything on the Datum? What happens to the concepts of “country” and “nationality”? And more importantly, given the destruction of Madison, how does a Datum government deal with its people going out into the Long Earth and gaining more and more independence? For that matter, what happens to the trolls, who do not look typically human?
What results is an exploration of humanity that is both chillingly familiar and heartwarmingly comforting. When discussing the fear of the Other, and the viciousness and cruelty that follow, Pratchett and Baxter are exceedingly accurate. Many of the scenes, and even some of the wording, will resonate with any student of history who is all too familiar with the evils of slavery and colonization – indeed, this is a question that some of the characters bring up in their own way. There is sentient life out in the Long Earth, after all: what is humanity doing, then, if not a repeat of the massive European colonization efforts, and for the same reasons, to boot? The event that kicks off the novel – the story of the troll Mary and her child, Ham – is a striking representation of the worst that humanity is capable of, if let out into the Long Earth. The politics of the Datum US, as well, will certainly chill the blood of anyone – mostly because, in some way, a lot of it feels terribly familiar.
But though the Long Earth can bring out the worst in humanity, it can also bring out the best. Valhalla is an excellent example: people bringing their skills and resources together in one place for the benefit of all. Hell-Knows-Where and Happy Landings (which was mentioned in the last book) are the same thing, except on a smaller scale, and therefore show the kind of work that goes into building a thriving community out in the Long Earth, cut off from everything that the Datum can provide. It is a hard life, but it is a good one, even a great one for some: everyone just has to be able to put in the work needed for the entire community to survive. This generally leaves little room for people to take advantage of others, and crime is almost nonexistent. In the Long Earth, where survival relies upon people trusting other people, one cannot seem untrustworthy lest one find oneself without vital support when one needs it. This aspect of humanity is comforting: the Long Earth is harsh at times, but humanity can come together and not merely survive, but even thrive.
I find it a good thing that Pratchett and Baxter have taken the time to portray these two sides of humanity – indeed, taking the entire novel to do so. It is altogether too easy for a book to slide too firmly into one side or the other, but The Long War is careful to ensure that humanity is depicted in a more-or-less balanced manner – and if there is a more positive spin in The Long War than is strictly accurate, I attribute this to Pratchett and Baxter being optimists, desiring to believe that, no matter what, humanity’s better nature to prevail. This is something I can get behind.
Overall, The Long War is a natural extension of The Long Earth, though it does feel a little different than the first novel – not least because the number of plotlines and characters seem to have expanded exponentially since The Long War; the novel feels very much like a trip through the Long Earth would; ever shifting, ever changing, but always, always linked. And, just as The Long Earth concluded with an explosive, world-changing event, so too does The Long War ends with an explosion – literally. And once again it raises new questions: what possible consequences could the Long War have, ending the way it did? What are the possible consequences of Joshua and Sally’s actions, going where and doing what they did? And what, precisely, is Lobsang planning now? Only the next novel can answer that, and I am very definitely looking forward to it.