The Long Cosmos, the fifth and final novel in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s Long Earth series, is structurally indistinguishable from its four predecessors. A cast of characters, some familiar, some new, encounter various connected mysteries that point to the nature of the Long Earth – an infinite series of parallel Earths which humans have suddenly found a way to “step” to. As a result, an intrepid team of experts embark upon a journey of discovery into space, stepping between universes to explore humanity’s new reality.
In other words, it’s a series that owes a lot to science fiction’s colonial beginnings: it’s about exploration, pushing beyond the boundaries of the known, and symbolically conquering new worlds by rationalising them. The colonisation of the Long Earth, aesthetically, looks very much like the European colonisation of America: the settlers can only take what they can carry with them, and iron cannot be taken between Earths, so the new towns are built of local materials, luxuries are relatively scarce, life is hard work but rewarding. The novels mostly valorise the Long Earth pioneers, contrasting their relatively simple lives of physical labour with the crowded, dirty conditions back on Datum Earth, our Earth, where capitalism alienates workers from the products of their work. And one of the series’ main characters, Joshua Valiente, is regularly compared to frontiersman Daniel Boone, who apparently hated other people so much he would move if he so much as saw a plume of smoke on the horizon.
The Long Cosmos, and the series as a whole, does admit to the problems of colonialism as well as its apparent glamours. The Long Earth, it turns out, is not as empty as once supposed: although empty of humans, it’s populated by a range of sapient humanoids who have evolved to take advantage of stepping – most notably the solitary beagles and the trolls, whose collective knowledge is encoded in song. Then there are the Next, a race of superintelligent humans who appeared in the fourth book in the series. In The Long Cosmos, many of the trolls have been forced into servitude in human factories, working in poor conditions for cruel and/or clueless handlers. Meanwhile, the Next look upon humanity with disdain. Colonisation is not without its flaws; nor has humanity learned its lessons from its history.
Yes, but. That would be fine and interesting if the novel was, ultimately, interested in developing any of these conflicts. It isn’t, though. What it’s interested in, what the series is interested in, is itself: the concept of the Long Earth. It’s interested in worldbuilding, and, more specifically, it’s interested in finding cool stuff, in exploring. Its critique of colonisation is undermined by the very fact that colonisation is the model the series is built on. To put it another way, it brushes past its own critique to go and look at shinies – to colonise Space, the Final Frontier.
That’s really been the problem with the whole series, which has only ever been one good idea repeated five times. It’s far more interested in creating/rationalising a world than in developing conflicts or characters or themes, and so the more revelations it makes about the Long Earth the more underwhelming each one seems. Why should we care about the Long Earth’s mysteries when they have no relevance to us, when we are given no reason to care? It’s a series built of interesting vignettes and concepts that go nowhere very profound. Pratchett and Baxter cannot really even achieve the sense of wonder that much hard SF is built on. These novels offer us no new insights into ways of thinking or being or acting in the world; despite the literal infinity of their horizons, they’re depressingly conventional, rational, literal.