After eight books I think it’s safe to say that I am not, and probably never will be, a fan of science fiction author Stephen Baxter. Just over a year ago I read his Manifold trilogy and was notably underwhelmed (see this post about book one and this post about the whole trilogy).
Recently I finished The Long Earth, a five-book series Baxter co-authored with my all-time, no-exceptions, favorite fiction author, Terry Pratchett. The series is based on an interesting parallel worlds idea from a short story, The High Meggas, Pratchett wrote back in the mid-1980s.
Much to my disappointment, I was also notably underwhelmed by this series.
Which was something of a shock; I’ve liked — really liked — everything I’ve read by Pratchett. His Discworld series is my favorite series of any genre, but I’ve really enjoyed all his other work, too. Until now.
In his defense, although the idea comes from an early short story, the series project with Baxter began in 2010, rather late in Pratchett’s career (he announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2007). The first two books came out a few years later, between the penultimate and final (adult) Discworld books. (The Shepherd’s Crown, a young adult Discworld novel, is the last book Pratchett published. It came out in 2015, the year he died.)
Here are the five books that comprise the series:
- The Long Earth (2012)
- The Long War (2013)
- The Long Mars (2014)
- The Long Utopia (2015)
- The Long Cosmos (2016)
It may say something that there isn’t that much war in the second book nor that much Mars in the third. In all five novels, Baxter divides our attention between several largely unrelated plot threads. The last two books seemed even more distracted. Pratchett was out of the picture by then, and Baxter’s heart doesn’t seem in the work any more.
It may also say something that the Wikipedia entries for the last three books are so scant, those last two especially. I found very little of Pratchett’s touch in any of the books, although there were definite glints and glimmers in the first two. (There’s a story told in one of the last books that seems pure Pratchett to me.)
I can’t help but notice Baxter published one of these per year, along with publishing other novels during that time. He does seem to crank them out.
One of the oddest aspects of my lack of connection with Baxter is that both series I’ve read are framed as hard science fiction, and I generally love hard SF.
But Baxter has a broad umbrella for “science” — sometimes, especially in this series, things are fantastical and without apparent explanation. (Hard SF authors don’t always have to explain stuff, but it has to be possible to imagine a reasonable “scientific” explanation given the reality the author presents.)
It affects how seriously I can take an author’s ideas. If they play fast and loose with the science in some places, how can I trust their science grounding in others? Some authors color inside the lines, some don’t.
Baxter seems to have a thematic attachment to consciousness and the power of the mind. It turns out that the Long Earth is due to sapient minds. So is the Long Mars and other Long worlds. As I recall, the mind played a role in his Manifold trilogy, too. He also seems to like the idea of parallel worlds.
In fact there are a number of repeated themes between the two series. The evolution of a new, superior, version of homo sapiens, for instance. Or von Neumann machines.
What’s especially odd is that the inventions — the very heart of hard SF — are intriguing (although Baxter does often feel derivative to me — reusing his own ideas and borrowing others), but despite such intriguing ideas, somehow the writing throws a wet blanket on the fire.
It may be that Baxter tends towards high altitude views of many different ideas, but never explores them in depth. (Could this be related to how he cranks out work?) Often I found myself thinking there could be an entire book about something that appears only briefly. The third volume, The Long Mars, is a good example. It’s surprising how much Mars isn’t in the book.
(It’s also a good example of pretty loose science. The technology to get to Mars is hand-waved into being, and the trip there and back is as trivial as a cross-country bus ride. The trip back, in particular, is just something that happened.)
((I’ll also note that The Long Mars came out several years after The Martian during our love affair with the idea of colonizing Mars. Again Baxter feels derivative to me.))
At the same time, his tendency to describe the mundane is endless. I skimmed over a lot of pages. The pointless descriptions are a big part of the wet blanket. For instance repeatedly describing a villages as if readers had never heard of such things. Meanwhile, interesting stuff is glossed over or hand-waved.
It presents as hard SF, but really isn’t. Somehow it never lives up to the ideas. Maybe it’s me, but maybe not. Perhaps it has to do with how much feels borrowed or reused.
The basic premise (Pratchett’s original idea) concerns the “Long Earth” — an apparently infinite linear chain of parallel Earths. It’s possible to move along the chain by “stepping” to the next or previous Earth. There are also “soft places” (wormholes) that allow jumping to Earths distant along the chain.
Neighboring Earths tend to be similar, creating bands of different styles (a band of ice age Earths, for example), but there are occasional “jokers” — versions of Earth radically different from those nearby (even different from any other known Earth along the chain).
It turns out that humanity exists only on one Earth, the original Earth, known as “Datum” Earth. There are other sapient humanoid species that inhabit the Long Earth — most of whom are natural steppers. They can flee danger — or even bad weather — by stepping to an adjacent world. (They also are the source of historical sightings of mythical or fantastic creatures.)
The series starts — and humanity at large discovers the Long Earth — when an inventor releases free plans for an easy-to-make potato-powered stepping device. A single spring-loaded three-position switch controls it. Normally kept in center position (“Off”), pushing one way steps “East” while pushing the other way steps “West” (arbitrary names provided to give the chain a direction).
As it turns out, there are natural human steppers. They don’t need a “stepper” device. Nor do they suffer the debilitating nausea that most do when they step. There have been natural human steppers for a long time. They’re rare, but they do exist. There is even a human village established some time ago in the Long Earth.
One twist is that you must assemble your own stepper, at least partially. In fact, stepping is a natural skill, and the stepper box aids and focuses that ability. Building the stepper is part of that focusing. Some humans can’t step, or even be stepped by others — they are forever stuck on Datum Earth.
Steppers can bring other objects and beings with them when they step. The sole limit is iron; iron don’t step. The text hand-waves at a reason (the characters never know or really investigate; it’s just a fact of stepping): iron is the most stable element, so maybe that’s why it gets left behind.
The text never says, nor do the characters ever wonder, exactly what defines what can be brought along by stepping. Contact is definitely required, but the air and ground never come along, while clothing and objects do. It’s like how Star Trek phasers vaporized only what they were supposed to and barely affected anything nearby (maybe a little scorch mark).
Of course, humanity’s access to cheap, easy-to-make steppers is a game-changer. The Earths near Datum Earth are very similar except that humanity never happened there, so they are rich forests filled with animals and edible plants. (Also filled with dangerous animals and plants.) A kind of perpetual Eden — a lifestyle known as “combing” (after beachcombing) — is possible. Why work when one can just wander and get all they need? If something threatens, just step away.
On the other hand, security becomes a new proposition. One can step inside anything from an adjacent Earth. One solution: cellars. Assuming the adjacent Earths are solid ground, it’s not possible to step in or out of a cellar.
The consequence of stepper devices is that humanity begins to migrate away from Datum Earth in vast numbers. It’s like expanding to the stars but without space travel.
While this is a pretty neat idea, it has some fantastical aspects.
For one thing, the Earth versions are all synchronized. The Sun and Moon are in the same location as one steps along the chain. The stars also remain the same. The only other planet mentioned is Mars, and it appears to orbit the same.
It’s the Long Mars where the Long worlds thing get really interesting. There isn’t much detail, but what there is suggests that the Long Mars — which we access from a distant version of Earth — does not parallel the Long Earth! The only point the two chains have in common (the text suggests) is that one version of Earth and that one version of Mars.
(As an aside, that particular version of Earth is a “Gap Earth” — a joker world where a large asteroid destroyed the Earth and it isn’t there anymore. Stepping into the Gap Earth from either sides puts one in space in orbit around the Sun. And having the orbital velocity they had on Earth, so the tendency is to go shooting off on a tangent. Most steppers who accidentally step into the Gap are never heard from again. On the other hand, it’s a great place to get a free launch into the Solar System, which is why the Mars mission launches from such a distant version of Earth.)
That the chains don’t parallel seems to suggest multiple chains of Long Earths and multiple chains of Long Mars, although that possibility is never mentioned. Having a Long chain does depend on there being a sapient species somewhere along the chain which could have a limiting effect.
(Which all raises a chicken-egg question about how a Long world develops in the first place if the chain depends on a species somewhere along it.)
As the five-book series unfolds other chains of Long alien worlds turn up.
There are other curious aspects to the Long Earth concept. A big one is that it’s a linear chain. The parallel worlds notion is more or less the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The idea is that anything that can happen does happen in one version of reality or another.
The thing is, positing any kind of multiverse almost always leads to an explosion of uncountably infinite realities. Any given reality has uncountably many adjacent realities where something — but in each case something else — is different. There’s no chain with only two directions; there are an uncountable infinity of directions to step.
The chain is also said to be, in a higher dimension, twisted up such that distant parts are “close” together in that higher space. The analogy is of a long pearl necklace heaped into a small box. Random pearls touch, and it’s possible to jump along the chain.
The notion is similar to wormholes with the matching analogy of crumpled paper bringing distant parts of the paper close together in 3D space.
What isn’t addressed is how convenient the soft places are for the plot, since it’s always possible to find a soft place that does what the characters want. The skill of finding them is very rare — only one of the major characters has it — but she always seems able to find one near where they are that leads to exactly where they need to go.
Travel in general, along with the ability of various characters to find each other or communicate, often felt hand-wavy to me. Again, the weird combination of too little detail or thought in contrast with so much pointless description and digression.
One rough metric I use for fiction is how many consecutive pages don’t contain dialog or action. These books had way too many such sequences. So many details, excursions, flashbacks, and digressions! But no depth, no insights, no explanations. Ideas left and right, but no exploring them.
All that cruft made pacing a major issue. It made the story boring. Somehow Baxter, at least to me, manages to embody the worst aspect of hard SF with none of the juicy goodness. (But I’ll admit it could be just a matter of taste.)
There isn’t really a series arc. The main characters explore the Long Earth. In one book, three of them spend some time exploring Long Mars. In the last book, the whole chain receives a mysterious message, “Join Us,” and — ala Contact — we get instructions to built a continent-sized machine.
Also, fairly early on, Yellowstone in Datum Earth blows up hugely and seriously ramps up the migration away from Datum Earth. Somewhat before that some anti-stepper folks nuke Madison, Wisconsin. But most of humanity loves stepping and learns to get along with the sapient missing link type hominids.
One major character, Lobsang, is supposedly a former Tibetan motorcycle repairman who was reincarnated inside a computer. Or is an evolved AI that’s lying about its origins so it will be considered a legal person. It’s never made clear, but the motorcycle repairman act is convincing. Such a person did exist, did die, and Lobsang seems to act as he did.
But despite being a major character we never really get any insight into Lobsang. Or any of the characters, really. Part of what made the books boring was not caring about the characters. They, and their efforts, just didn’t engage me.
I don’t recommend this series unless one is already a Baxter fan. It’s definitely not an attraction for Pratchett fans — there’s very little of Sir Terry to be found.
I won’t go as far as to say I’m sorry I read it. Some of my lack of engagement may be due to my own tastes and not necessarily a reflection on Baxter’s writing skill. But eight books, and all I can say is Baxter bores me.
Stay stepping, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.