Monday, 23 January 2017

Book Review - 'The Long War', by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long War picks up roughly 10 years after the previous novel, The Long Earth, left off. After his voyage into the distant reaches of the Long Earth, that series of seemingly infinite parallel worlds whose discovery set the series into motion, Joshua Valiente has settled down, married and had a child, and become the mayor of a small community on a parallel world. His days as the 'Davy Crockett' of the Long Earth are behind him, and he seems content to keep it that way.. But, he is still famous in some circles - both for the help and guidance he once offered in the early days of Long Earth colonisation, and for his long distance expedition with the sentient A.I, Lobsang.

The world has essentially moved on without him, though. As the world, as a whole, slowly adapts to this new discovery, the need for 'trail-blazers' like Joshua Valiente has slowly lessened. Dirigibles capable of making the jump between worlds, much like the one that Joshua and Lobsang used in their previous expedition, have become common-place - allowing resources to be easily transported and turning the once arduous task of travelling between worlds into a relaxing cruise. Also, the development of anti-nausea medications has effectively removed to only real downside to 'stepping'. With these new developments, the human race is able to spread outward faster and further than it ever has before.

Of course, this brings with it its own challenges, as those early days filled with the wonder of exploration have slowly given way to growing political tension. Every country of the original Earth, now called the Datum, has been forced to respond to the opportunities, and the challenges, of the Long Earth - and, their methods have, quite naturally, varied. The government of Datum America, for example, has sought to spread its influence out into the Long Earth - claiming the land and resources of the seemingly infinite chain of parallel 'America's', and demanding taxes from those who settle there.

On the other side, the American government meets a great deal of opposition and resentment from those most distant colonies who, despite 'technically' living in a parallel America, believe that they are far enough away to be independent - and, that the government of Datum America does not provide enough support to justify the paying of taxes. Spearheading this particular movement is the government of Valhalla, a thriving city-state far from the Datum, which is the first to publicly declare its independence.

At the same time, another of Joshua's old travelling companions, Sally Linsay, re-enters his life to express her concern about the mysterious creatures commonly referred to as 'trolls'. The trolls were the human race's first encounter with another intelligent race in the Long Earth - with their natural ability to step between dimensions, and their seemingly good-natured curiosity, they have become allies and companions in many settlements. But, their trusting nature leaves them open to abuse and exploitation from people who see them as little more than particularly intelligent animals. With each act of cruelty committed against them, the trolls seem to lose their trust in the human race, until they eventually pull back entirely - abandoning human populated worlds entirely and disappearing into the unknown reaches of the Long Earth. Something which Sally believes, thanks to the intimate connection they seem to have with the Long Earth itself, may have dire consequences.

Also, the Chinese government has formed plans to make its own mark on the Long Earth by launching a long-range scientific expedition into the distant 'Eastern' parallel worlds. And, while all of this is going on, Captain Maggie Kauffmann, representing America's new fleet of military class dirigibles, is sent out on long-term mission to establish an American presence in the Long Earth.

Just like in The Long Earth, Joshua still makes for a somewhat bland hero - though, repositioning him as a loving husband and father does make him significantly more relatable than the stubborn loner we were stuck with in the previous novel. But, just like in the previous novel, he also has the advantage of being paired up with on of the tale's more entertaining figures - in this case Bill Lovell, another former explorer who may have seen more of the Long Earth than even Joshua himself. Although, this time, it may not be entirely fair to refer to him as the novel's 'hero'. He is still important to the tale, of course - but, with a widening cast of characters, there is a much greater feeling of an ensemble, here.

Sally Linsay, though, is easily one of the most irritating characters I have ever had to spend any time with. Abrasive and condescending, and tossing out casual cheap and often entirely unwarranted insults at just about everyone she meets while claiming a moral authority that she just doesn't seem to deserve, she quickly came to be the novel's most pronounced weak-point, for me. Pairing her up with ex-cop Monica Janssen, a tough and independent female character who also has the advantage of not being an obnoxious pain in the ass, does make her somewhat tolerable (if only because, unlike everyone else she meets, Sally actually seems to have some respect for Monica) but it's not quite enough to make her likable. There's no rule that says you're meant to like every character you meet in a work of fiction, of course - but, the fact that Sally Linsay is never called out on her attitude toward others, and that so much of the rest of the cast seem to tolerate her, carries with it the unpleasant feeling that we are actually meant to like her. By the time the novel had reached its end-point, I had actively come to resent the time I was forced to spend with Sally Linsay.

On the other hand, new character Maggie Kauffman, and the crew of the USS Benjamin Franklin quickly come to be one of the novel's true high-lights. While some of the other plot-threads had a tendency to wear on my patience, at times, I would have happily read an entire novel about the exploits of the good captain and her loyal crew.

Many of the problems that I had with The Long Earth are still very evident here. There is an odd lack of focus, as the two authors seem to continuously lose themselves in the imaginative potential of their creation. And, with a much wider and more varied cast of characters, this time, there are so many more opportunities for the novel to lose focus. While, in The Long Earth, there was at least a clear central narrative woven through the various side-plots to carry as forward, here things feel even more fractured.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the novel, though, is with the promised 'war' itself. The escalating conflict between Datum America and the distant colony of Valhalla feels like it really should have been the central focus of the story. It is, after all, the plot-thread that most official descriptions of the novel focused on - and, it even inspired the very title of the book. But, despite some time spent setting up the seemingly inevitable conflict early on, it is a thread that is almost entirely forgotten about for much of the book. With the focus constantly shifting between a variety of different expeditions going in a variety of different directions, there is little room left for any sort of 'war' - and, when that particular thread is finally picked up again toward the end of the novel, it is resolved almost as an afterthought. If you were hoping for some imaginative account of how, exactly, a war could be fought between armies capable of moving back and forth between parallel worlds, then you are going to be disappointed. In the end, the Long War boils down to a period of tension and political posturing reminiscent of the Cold War between America and Russia, which never quite escalates into actual conflict - good for the fictional characters involved, of course, but not so good for a reader hoping for some action.

Yet, at the same time, there are still many moments of pure wonder and fascination. Encounters with new forms of intelligent life. The potential for easy space-travel offered by the existence of 'the Gap' - a parallel universe in which there is no Earth, only empty space. And, of course, the central mystery of the Long Earth itself. There are also enough accumulated unanswered questions to potentially hold a reader's interest - though, the fact that this particularly instalment in the tale seems to be somewhat light on actual answers may be a source of frustration.

The Long War is obviously not meant to be the end of this particular story. There is, in fact, a very pronounced 'middle of the story' feeling here. So much time is spent juggling seemingly unrelated plot-threads, and shifting about an ever-growing cast of characters, that it soon becomes painfully obvious that The Long War is as concerned with setting up the events of the next novel as it is in telling its own story. That feeling only becomes more pronounced as you move closer to the end - and, start to realise that very few of the questions you might have are going to be answered. Despite all of that, though, there are still more than enough moments of genuine joy to be found in The Long War - and, despite my lingering issues with the series as a whole, I finished this second novel still very eager to see how things might progress in the future.

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