THE LONG COSMOS
Bringing It All Back Home
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