“Apprehend. Be humble in the face of the universe. Do good.”
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
The Long Utopia is the fourth entry in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s Long Earth collaboration; there is news, too, of a fifth, though I doubt how necessary it would be. In any case, Utopia sees Lobsang, the all-powerful AI, retiring from the concerns of Datum Earth to a world deep in the Long Earth after his traumatic confrontation with the Next, taking the reincarnated Agnes with him to raise a child, farm, and be human for a little while.
But Odd Things are, of course, happening out in the High Meggers: strange humanoid beetles have been glimpsed underground on Lobsang’s new Earth, and their activities could threaten the entire Long Earth.
The Long Utopia is the first of the series not to follow a journey through the Long Earth: it chooses a narrower focus, grounding itself in one world and one storyline, instead of narrating a good sample of the stories of the Long Earth. It’s an approach that does mirror some of the questions the book asks: what does it mean to be human, to have one life and one home and one body – to be, that is, singular? But I’m not convinced that it’s an approach that works particularly well for this kind of book. The reason that the earlier books focused on journeys was that they were primarily exploratory narratives: they worked out worlds, they built concepts, they followed up necessary consequences, they made discoveries. As a result of those explorations, the world that Pratchett and Baxter have created is deep, immersive, detailed, real. It has a startlingly palpable presence; it feels possible despite its evident impossibility. In the earlier books, the sheer reality of the world outweighed the authors’ failings: the stilted dialogue, the shallow characterisation, the simple plots. Here, with no sweeping odyssey of discovery, no bird’s-eye-view of the development of the Long Earth, those flaws become more evident and more central to the book.
That’s not to say that The Long Utopia is in any way a bad book: it’s a fun way to while away a few hours in the company of a pair of very intelligent, very creative people (apart from a tedious jaunt into Victorian London and Joshua Valiente’s past). It just feels irrelevant, an unnecessary addendum to a series that’s exhausted its original project.