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The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
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Book Name: The Long Mars
Author: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Publisher(s): Doubleday
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Fantasy
Release Date: July 3, 2014 (US) June 19, 2014 (UK)

This review contains spoilers for the previous books. Read with caution if you have yet to finish The Long Earth and The Long War.

The Long Mars is a worthy third installment of the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Continuing the tradition of slow building, character driven stories, The Long Mars follows Maggie Kauffman, Sally Linsay, and Joshua Valiente as they continue their separate adventures across the Long Earth.

For Maggie, this means commanding the most ambitious Long Earth expedition yet – exploring ever stranger worlds with the nominal goal of reaching Earth West 250 million. Like Joshua and Lobsang’s journey in The Long War, her purpose is purely exploratory. Along the way she will test new stepping technology, examine interesting worlds, and collect as much data as possible in the hopes of learning more about the Long Earth.

Sally and Joshua begin the book in the same place, helping refugees escape Datum Earth immediately following the explosion of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. Their natural stepping abilities and pioneer, can-do attitudes make them indispensable to the rescue efforts. They’re still more colleagues than friends, and time has not dulled Sally’s sharp edge. When her father contacts her out of the blue with a new venture she responds, meeting him at the space station on the edge of the Gap. He proposes that they connect with ex-NASA astronaut Frank and take a trip to the Long Mars to explore. Sally agrees, though she remains skeptical of his motivations.

Joshua’s storyline stays closer to home when Lobsang contacts him to ask for help. Something is changing in the Long Earth and it stems back to Happy Landings, where children are being born smart – too smart. Lobsang posits that these brilliant children and teens are the next step in human evolution, and wants Joshua to find and contact them.

As with the previous two books there is very little conflict within the story. There are moments of tension for all three main characters, but no single major problem that unites them all until the very end. It is a book primarily about exploration and human potential. Pratchett and Baxter say “what if the world was infinite,” and then take the reader on a beautifully written journey through all of the logical possibilities emerging from that hypothetical situation. On an infinite Earth there are infinite possibilities for evolution, and Pratchett and Baxter do a wonderful job of showing them through the eyes of Maggie Kauffman and her crew.

Sally and Willis Linsay provide a whole new planet for the reader to drink in. I loved their particular storyline both for the science and, surprisingly, the humor. Readers familiar with Terry Pratchett will know his Discworld series and recognize him as one of the great humor writers in modern fantasy, but he hasn’t shown it in the Long Earth series much. It’s easy to see his touch in the Trolls, Elves, Kobolds, and Beagles of the Long Earth, but his brand of silly, dry humor has mostly been absent up to now.

When Sally, Willis, and Frank get to Mars and discover that the Russians have already been there for years, patiently doing science and trying to grow potatoes so they can make vodka… I cracked up. At the same time their storyline is perhaps the most intensely personal. Sally and her father have, after all, been estranged for years, and although they are now on Mars with only each other and Frank for company he continues to be secretive, running roughshod over her protests and demands for information. His unwillingness to communicate or take her concerns into account eventually leads to one of the tense moments in the book, and a difficult revelation for Sally.

The two exploratory voyages – one deep into the Long Earth and one far out into the Long Mars – serve another purpose as well. The series focuses heavily on humanity, its successes and failings, its great moments of strength and terrible moments of weakness, and above all, its propensity for violence. Every major character encounters strife in this book, from Sally fighting Martian crustaceans to Maggie encountering a giant, acidic flying snake. The trend isn’t subtle. Everywhere humans go, war follows. Pratchett’ and Baxter’s solution is simple: tell stories about nonhumans. Maggie in particular becomes their avatar in this when she includes a Beagle on her crew in order to provide a different perspective. Snowy, a non-stepping, sentient canine becomes a lesson of tolerance and inclusion in the story.

Joshua’s storyline continues this lesson by introducing the Next, the super-intelligent children of Happy Landings. The book’s great moral dilemma and overarching plot relates to them and to humanity’s collective reaction to them. Are they the next step in human evolution, and therefore a benefit to the race as a whole? Or are they dangerous in their ability to manipulate and control “dim-bulbs”? What should be done about them, if anything? In one of his questionably ethical playing-god moments, Lobsang sends Joshua to make contact and do some preliminary information gathering.

What Joshua finds is a group of blindingly smart teenagers and twenty-somethings who speak in a version of English too sped-up and abbreviated for him to understand. They are cold and logical, and disdain normal humans as inferior. Joshua finds them fascinating and a little frightening, but primarily views them as children. They see him and all other normal humans as barely above apes.

Once the Next come into the picture the plot kicks in. Maggie discovers a small group of Next who were exiled beyond an impassable band of earths after their peaceful takeover of Happy Landings some years ago, and brings them back after discovering that they shipwrecked the twain they were exiled in and stranded the entire crew there as well. Her encounter shows the strain of cruelty that seems to run in the Next, though they define it as logic and efficiency. They claim to know what’s best for everyone around them because they think on a higher level than “dim-bulbs.” They harbor no obvious malicious intent toward humanity, but also find nothing wrong with manipulating them for personal gain. The reader is left wondering whether the Next are a threat or a benefit to humanity.

I found the moral dilemma fascinating and relevant. Much of the Long Earth series focuses on people who are different from the norm in some way, and how humanity deals with them. Sally and Joshua are natural steppers with an aversion to large concentrations of humanity. Lobsang is an intelligent computer who might be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman. The Trolls, Beagles, Kobolds, and Elves are intelligent, but nonhuman. The Next are human, but have a powerful genetic mutation that makes them more, to the point where they define themselves as a new species. What does humanity do when confronted with the Other? What about when the Other is one of us? The Long Mars asks this question more urgently than either of the two preceding books and ends on a surprising note that left me wanting more. It impressed me both with the writing and its ability to tackle hard questions. I look forward to the next book in the series.

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Rating: 9.5/10 (4 votes cast)
The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, 9.5 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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