Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Long War: Searching the High Meggers for a plot

**This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 1 star out of 5.**
The Long War, the second installment in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s five-book LONG EARTH series, is more tedious than the first one, probably because I have already seen the inside of their bag of tricks and I am no longer impressed.
This sequel happens about 12 years after the events of The Long Earth. Joshua, now married and with a son, has been summoned by his old friend, Lobsang (the AI reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman) to go on another journey through the Long Earth, all the way up into the High Meggers, the worlds over a million “steps” from Datum Earth.
The Long War also follows a lot of other characters, some from the first novel and some just introduced, on un- or loosely-connected journeys of their own. For instance, the US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman, who wants to figure out how to protect the trolls, who have started suffering violence at the hands of humans. Or the Chinese expedition headed to the East to explore 20 million Earths. I kept thinking that some of these plot elements would be developed. For instance, Roberta, the sad, socially awkward teenage genius on the Chinese mission — what is her deal? The book gave me enough to be curious, to feel like she might be a linchpin of a sort, before leaving it all hanging.
I actually cared about the plotline with the trolls. They begin warning each other via the “long call,” a way that they can communicate across worlds, to avoid humans. Some humans think of them as animals, and use them as experimental subjects or harvest their bodies for organs; other want to offer them citizenship as sapient beings. Maggie ends up enlisting some into the Navy, granting them crew-status on her ship. This story arc felt realistic, like Baxter and Pratchett were exploring the diversity of potential human reactions to alien life.
But I don’t understand why two British authors would center their series, which is about the ultimate shake-up of the structure of human civilization, around the continued existence and dominance of the American government. The Long Earth, a space without meaningful boundaries, begins to erode ideas like national borders. And Baxter and Pratchett do address this complexity head-on, diving into the politics that might surround such a paradigm shift. However, in the restructured civilization they imagine, America has found a continuation in a Long Earth settlement called “Valhalla,” and the kind of government they portray is, in most of its values and practices, no different from America as we know it today. A large chunk of The Long War revolves around the political battles of Valhalla — but the politics and governmental structure of the rest of the world is scarcely mentioned.
The characters in The Long War were also less believable and less likeable than they were in The Long Earth. Lobsang changes from a quirky AI being exploring the limits of his consciousness and the universe into the omniscient, omnipresent creepmaster-general who reincarnates his friend, Sister Agnes, into a big-breasted female body without (it seems) her consent, just so he’ll have someone else to talk to. His old pal Joshua seems to have turned into a married sad sack who can’t really decide between his former traveling companion Sally (although her allure is beyond me, and apparently beyond the writers, too, who describe her as “greying,” “wiry,” and constantly tell you how many pockets her outfit has) and his wife Helen, who is jealous of Sally. Joshua’s adolescent crush on Sally was not developed enough in the first novel for it to be such a big issue in this book, but an issue it is. Still, I can’t muster up enough engagement with any of the main characters to feel sorry for Joshua’s split longings between his home life and his adventurer life.
Finally, the title is misleading, since there is no war to speak of in this book.
A better read are some of the GoodReads comments on this book, which are scathing and hilarious. My favorite one came from reader Graham Crawford, who references the series’ premise of infinite worlds where the forces of nature have created different Earths. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “we live on the ONE world where the forces of nature did NOT prevent this book from being written.”

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