Bring­ing It All Back Home

SFX - - Reviews - Jonathan Wright

re­leased 30 June 385 pages | Hard­back/ebook Authors Terry Pratchett and stephen Bax­ter Pub­lisher dou­ble­day

So here’s how the story ends. And, con­sid­er­ing this is the fi­nal new novel that will ever have the Terry Pratchett moniker em­bla­zoned on its cover, a pause for re­flec­tion is prob­a­bly in or­der. Okay, done that. Now, down to the nitty gritty, be­cause this is also the fi­nal book in the five-vol­ume se­quence that be­gan with The Long Earth, a se­quence that’s proved to be one of the un­ex­pected de­lights of the later Pratchett ca­reer for those that have paid at­ten­tion.

For those that haven’t, the story runs as fol­lows. Pre-Dis­c­world suc­cess, when he still har­boured dreams of be­ing a fa­mous SF writer, Pratchett came up with the idea of a story about peo­ple step­ping across a chain of par­al­lel worlds. Circa 2010 he re­turned to the idea and de­vel­oped it with Stephen Bax­ter.

With each suc­ces­sive novel, the scope has grown larger. While the first book was es­sen­tially about the dis­rup­tion step­ping would cause to hu­man so­ci­ety, the fourth novel, The Long Utopia, found hu­man­ity – and var­i­ous other clever apes – con­fronting an ex­is­ten­tial threat.

This idea of the uni­verse be­ing a dan­ger­ous place also un­der­pins The Long Cos­mos. Here, though, the plot doesn’t riff off im­mi­nent dis­as­ter, but its pos­si­bil­ity, as the in­hab­i­tants of the Long Earth re­ceive a mes­sage from the stars: “JOIN US”. But who’s out there get­ting in touch? Are they friendly? Or is this the pre­lude to a meet­ing that will end badly?

Some of those grap­pling with these ques­tions will be fa­mil­iar to fans. Here’s Joshua Valienté, a man who trav­els the Long Earth al­most as eas­ily as if he were pop­ping down the shops and whom we first met as a young­ster, fac­ing up to his own mor­tal­ity as a six­tysome­thing. Here’s Lob­sang, or at least a facet of him, a ma­chine in­tel­li­gence con­vinced he’s the rein­car­na­tion of a Ti­betan mo­tor­cy­cle re­pair­man. Here’s Nel­son Azikiwe, a priest and Lob­sang’s some­time travel com­pan­ion.

Oth­ers are less fa­mil­iar, notably the troll (a kind of ape) San­cho, who bears at least a pass­ing re­sem­blance to a cer­tain Li­brar­ian. We also meet again with the su­per-in­tel­li­gent Next, who can’t help but re­gard hu­man­ity as hope­lessly slow.

Which isn’t to say this is a book about dif­fer­ence. Rather, this is a novel more con­cerned with what traits dif­fer­ent kinds of in­tel­li­gent life might share. With­out giv­ing too much away, it’s also (al­though there’s room for doubt) a glass-half-full view of first con­tact.

It’s a sub­ject that Bax­ter – who wrote most of the book, to an out­line agreed with Pratchett – is em­i­nently qual­i­fied to tackle. He is, after all, one of the undis­puted Big Brains of hard SF. Yet, and this seems in keep­ing with the spirit of a project that’s been about re­al­is­ing and then build­ing upon Pratchett’s orig­i­nal vi­sion, he turns to an­other au­thor for help.

Not only does this book fea­ture a space­craft called Un­cle Arthur, but there are nods to Rama and 2001. The re­sult is a novel that comes across as a love let­ter to science fic­tion it­self, one suf­fused with a Clarke-like op­ti­mism about the fu­ture. Bax­ter, you’d guess, is salut­ing two old friends here.

This seems en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate. When Pratchett first dis­cussed The Long Earth with SFX, he thanked us and looked pleased when we put for­ward the idea that writ­ing SF again was like com­ing home. And now, in Bax­ter’s ca­pa­ble hands, the story of the Long Earth has – for all that it’s out­ward-look­ing and ex­pan­sive – in some sense made it home too. An­other small pause for re­flec­tion is prob­a­bly mer­ited.

Stephen Bax­ter will be dis­cussing HG Wells dur­ing the BBC Proms per­for­mance of The Plan­ets Suite, when it airs on 6 Au­gust.

Comes across as a love let­ter to SF it­self

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