“Was it crueller to have lived and died, or never to have lived at all?”
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
First of all, I would like to comment on the purple shininess of this cover. Isn’t it lovely? Not only is it purple and shiny, it also has astronauts and a flying thing on it. And the endpapers of the hardback edition are this gorgeous deep purple. I could not stop looking at this book when I bought it.
OK, shallow cover art fangirling over. Let’s get to the Book Review.
The Long Mars is the third in Pratchett and Baxter’s Long Earth series. Quick rundown for those who’ve not come across the books yet: the Long Earth is essentially an apparently infinite string of parallel Earths, each one a might-have-been of this Earth. Anything, and, statistically speaking, everything is out there in the Long Earth, from sentient canines to lifeforms whose chemistry is based on acid. And, one day, these parallel Earths are opened up to humanity by Willis Linsay, scientist and visionary. All you need to do is step.
The first two books, The Long Earth and The Long War, both centred around a voyage into the Long Earth, into the unknown. And The Long Mars is no different. Maggie Kaufmann, Navy officer, takes her twain (stepping airship) into the Long Earth, under mandate to venture Further Than Any Man (or, indeed, Woman) Has Gone Before. Again. And Willis Linsay, together with his daughter Sally, goes on another kind of journey, a space voyage to the Long Mars, which is basically what it sounds like: the same concept as the Long Earth, except with Mars. Only the universes don’t line up properly: stepping into the next-door world from the Datum Earth (our Earth) won’t take you to the same universe as stepping into the next-door world from the Datum Mars. I find this a little hard to accept (and, remember, I’ve already suspended my belief so far it’s practically hanging off Mount Everest), but ho hum. If you want to mess with the higher dimensions, that is your affair, Sir Terry.
As with the first two books, The Long Mars‘ strength does not lie in its narrative arc, which is more or less non-existent. Some people go on a journey. They find some interesting stuff (most of which appears to be lifted straight from either The Science of Discworld or Dune). Then they come back. That this cannot be counted as a spoiler tells you something about the feel of these books. Nor is it in its characterisation, as apparently competent characters like Captain Maggie herself go off and do completely pointless activities purely for the sake of an infodump.
The Long Mars‘ strength should be its worldbuilding. Certainly the rest of the trilogy is very strong in this regard. Indeed, it’s what’s kept me reading so long: what’s out there in the Long Earth? And how does humanity cope with it? What’s happened to the economy, to society, to the politics of the Datum, as the population floods out into such space? And, for the most part, these questions tended to be answered with the aid of some delightful little vignettes of ordinary people living new lives in pioneer towns, developing new technology to solve old problems, learning about the dangers and the adventures of populating an entirely new world. But those vignettes are missing from The Long Mars, and so is that sense of wonder and novelty which came with the concept of the Long Earth. In The Long Mars, humanity has lived with its new reality for thirty years. It’s commonplace, now, to meet singing trolls out at Happy Landings, to discover new and strange species on some godforsaken far-off world, to travel to the High Meggers by twain. And the further the ships step the less interesting everything becomes, as even traces of life on Mars – life on Mars – are brushed past, dismissed as logically obvious or commonplace. If even Martian sentience isn’t worth lingering over, what is? Certainly not some abandoned space elevator.
(And, by the way? I absolutely do not buy the whole explain-multiple-universes-to-Martians-using-only-mime thing. At all. I think Pratchett and Baxter have forgotten just what space travel means.)
It’s true that the dialogue is not quite as dire here as it has been in the other books, but really this is too little too late to revitalise a set of characters who by now are essentially plot devices. And while the Special Edition Waterstones Epilogue is…intriguing, the main story simply fizzles out as Captain Maggie comes to an obvious decision and everyone goes home. All of which is only to say that, while The Long Mars isn’t bad as such, it isn’t particularly good either.
It is, however, purple and shiny. So that’s something.