Book review: The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

09:00 19 June 2014

Terry Pratchett, who has written The Long Mars with science fiction author Stephen Baxter. [Picture: PA/Ian West]

Terry Pratchett, who has written The Long Mars with science fiction author Stephen Baxter. [Picture: PA/Ian West]

PA Archive/Press Association Images

The year is 2040. America is enshrouded with a “searing blanket” of dust and “ash like diabolic snow” after a cataclysmic event – the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano in the Yellowstone National Park.

Communities and landscapes are ripped apart and the devastating effects are not just witnessed in America – they are evident across Earth.

In an ordinary world, the survivors would flee from the immediate danger to neighbouring communities which were not as struck by the disaster, where they would attempt to reassemble their lives.

But these people, who live on our Earth (“Datum Earth”), exist in a world which has a key difference to ours – it contains the Long Earths, a string of Earths which number in the millions. Some are akin to Datum Earth, while others formed in vastly different circumstances.

So when Yellowstone emits its searing lava and deadly ash, Datum America’s residents flee to all corners of the Long Earth to rebuild their lives.

You may ask, how is this possible? Well it is all thanks to 2015’s Step Day, which saw humans suddenly gain the power to “step” into other Earths with the aid of a gadget appropriately named the Stepper box.

But despite the lives saved because of the device’s existence, life is not rosy. For Datum America, and beyond, is set to see the effects of Yellowstone for years to come, while the new citizens of the Long Earth are to suffer overpopulation and an increasing lack of resources.

The Long Mars, the third in a bestselling series by fantasy genius Terry Pratchett and science fiction star Stephen Baxter, follows the subsequent years through a variety of narrative threads.

US Navy commander Maggie Kauffman leads her crew along the Long Earth on two airships, in an attempt to surpass the Chinese record set five years previously of 20 million “stepwise” Earths.

An expedition is also to be had for Sally Linsay, who is contacted out of the blue by her father Willis, the inventor of the original Stepper device, with a tantalising offer to go where none have dared dream of – the Long Mars.

But will they find anything worth discovering? And what are Willis’ motives?

Meanwhile, Joshua Valiente is alerted to the existence of a new civilisation of super-smart humans and becomes pulled into the resulting conflict.

Each of the threads, which eventually begin to pull together at the end of the novel, are equally as gripping.

The discoveries made on the expeditions are jaw-dropping and, as you would expect from a science fiction novel, are intelligently explained rather than just shoehorned in.

Although not entirely normal, the stepwise planets at the beginning of the journeys are not as populated with weird and wonderful things as could be expected, but Pratchett’s trademark playful wit combines with Baxter’s science fiction expertise later on with creatures such as a dog-human species, a murderous crustacean and a flying reptile.

Not many other writers could introduce such wacky creations and make them believable.

The exploration of the emergence of super-intelligent humans is also compelling. The authors throw in a number of twists along the way and the tensions between the group and “normal” humans – who they call “dim-bulbs” – reach dangerous levels as the book nears its conclusion.

With a collaborative novel, there is a worry that the tale may not flow, but Pratchett and Baxter’s voices blend seamlessly.

In their creation of the Long Earth, they have formed a compelling series where ideas have no limits and a plethora of new adventures can run and run.

The conclusion to The Long Mars will only increase the clamour for these two authors to continue dazzling us with their ambitious and exciting tales.

The Long Mars is published by Doubleday today in hardback, priced £18.99.

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