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Book review: “The Long Utopia” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Utopia doesn’t sound much like the late Terry Pratchett, but neither have any of the earlier three novels in the Long Earth series — The Long Earth, The Long War and The Long Mars.


I’ve read each because Pratchett’s name was there on the cover as co-author with Stephen Baxter, and, each time, I’ve come away disappointed. Indeed, while reading The Long Utopia, I often find myself asking: “Did Terry Pratchett want to write a dull book?”

Well, maybe “dull” isn’t the right word. The Long Utopia, like its predecessors, is cold and hard, exhibiting little emotional depth or psychological sensitivity. In contrast to Pratchett’s delightfully and endlessly interesting Discworld novels, the books in the Long Earth series aren’t really concerned with people. Over the course of more than 1,000 pages so far, its characters remain talking heads and (somewhat) animate plot devices.

How very much unlike the people — well, you know what I mean: the werewolves, trolls, dwarfs, humans and other human-ish entities — in the Discworld! One-of-a-kind sort of people such as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Rimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Lord Sir Henry King, Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Lord Vetinari, Tiffany Aching, Moist von Lipwig and Death. Who doesn’t like Death? Well, at least, Pratchett’s character Death.

By contrast, the Long Earth books are interested in scientific, anthropological and philosophical speculation, pretty dry stuff, especially when expounded in long strings of over-inflated dialogue.

They are based on a grand speculation: What if our Earth were one of untold millions of Earths, all existing at the same time in parallel realities, and what if we could “step” (or “waltz” or “move”) from one to another? Everything in the series flows from this idea, first suggested by Pratchett in his 1986 short story “The High Meggas.” (It’s included in his collection A Blink of the Screen, published in 2012).


A story-telling tin ear

Yet, in all the books that Pratchett wrote on his own, did he ever exhibit the story-telling tin ear that’s on display in the klutzy Long Earth series?

Consider the description in The Long Utopia of an enclave of the group of generally young super-geniuses who see themselves as the next step in human evolution and call themselves The Next.

Because they are so smart (and live in a temperate climate), they wear few or no clothes. They don’t “own stuff.” As one tells a dim-bulb (i.e., a regular human):

Sex is very important to us. It binds us together…We’re just not — obsessed by it…We don’t have marriages so much as shifting alliances for child-rearing; we are trying to maximize the diversity of our gene pool. A kind of shifting polygamy.

Hubba hubba.

They don’t respond to visual art, or story-telling. Ah, but: “We do appreciate music — especially elegant, structured, mathematical music.” In a real way, they don’t have free will:

When we see a problem, such as the allocation of basic work, we see further than you; we see all the way to a solution, immediately. The work must be done — this ditch must be dug. Some are better equipped for such work. There can be no argument about that. And then the necessary solution mandates our necessary action…We run our affairs based on reason, you see, rather than opinion.

Oh, and the little Next kids, they cry themselves to sleep because they are so smart and live without illusions.  Why? Because they know their lives will end in death.

Criminey and golly gee willikers! What a lot of [expletive deleted]!

Just think of Pratchett’s Discworld character of Death who is funny and frightening at the same time. I hope that, as the 66-year-old Pratchett approached his own death earlier this year, he was able to see this Discworld Death rather than the bogeyman of The Long Utopia that scares the bejesus out of toddlers.

I’m sorry. I should stick to reason and eschew opinion. But — really??

As depicted in The Long Utopia, these Next people aren’t people at all. They’re made out to be inhuman, emotionally empty, machine-like. Yet, if you cut them, will they not bleed? If you tickle them, will they not laugh? The Long Utopia cannot imagine these beings laughing.


What if?

For me, there has been a sadness surrounding this ham-handed Long Earth series. The first book was published in June, 2012, four and a half years after Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

What might this series have been like if a healthy Pratchett had done all the writing on his own?

How might it have been different if, while writing it with Baxter, he hadn’t been coping with the symptoms of dementia?

Maybe Pratchett was deeply involved in the production of the four books in the series, and the fifth now in the publishing pipeline. Maybe he wanted the books to turn out this way. But I don’t think so.

These novels, it seems to me, are very much the work of Baxter, and, aside from some glimpses of Pratchett’s wit and wackily perceptive sense of humanity in the first book (a motorcycle-riding nun, for instance), I can’t find him anywhere.


“A left-ear person”

But there he is, right there, in his “High Meggas” story, telling the same tale back when he was in his middle 30s, albeit with humor and psychological sensitivity.

It’s only 27 pages long, and it’s grittier, more hard-edged than his Discworld novels. It is set on a far distant Earth, on a section of the European continent that parallels France in the original Earth. It involves a brutal massacre and then a confrontation between two competing security agents (either one of whom might be the killer) and a Robinson Crusoe-type hermit named Larry Linsay. Oh, and there is also a brainiac baboon:

The bull baboon he’d christened Big Yin watched him from his perch on a rock. Linsay waved at him cheerfully. Big Yin had seen the rifle. He didn’t wave back.

Very droll. Would that the Long Earth books were so waggish.

Joshua Valiente (a name that appears on a much different character in the Long Earth series) is one of the agents. He’s held at gunpoint by Linsay who tells him that humans “are the worst thing to happen to a world…We are an accident, like the asteroid. A billion to one chance.”

As the hermit talks, Valiente sizes him up:

Linsay was a left-ear person, Valiente realized. He had seen plenty of them: their eyes glazed slightly and they stared fixedly at your left ear, while their mouths spouted the truth about flying saucers, the great world conspiracy, and one-born-every-minute evangelism. Inside everyone was a left-ear person waiting to get out.

We’ve all been there, right? Finding ourselves cornered by a true-believer in libertarianism or fish oil or the Cubs. We know what that feels like. Linsay is a recognizable type of human, and Valiente’s reaction is certainly recognizable.And so is the acknowledgement that each of us, in our own way, is a left-ear person.


“You don’t sound French”

This is the sort of thing that you can find on every page of every book that Pratchett wrote on his own. He knew people. We read his books for their humor, yes, of course. But also, even more, to see ourselves and those around us.

And we know that most people are fairly complicated so Linsay isn’t just a humorless fanatic — at least, not all the time. The other agent, Ann Shea, has been feigning unconsciousness after “moving” (i.e., “stepping” or “waltzing”) onto Linsay’s Earth:

She sat up slowly.

“Where’s this?”

“You don’t sound French,” said Linsay.

She hesitated. If her head had been transparent, one would have been able to see the gears mesh.

Linsay is human enough to make a lame joke, and Pratchett is writer enough to describe Shea’s face and reaction without describing her face and reaction.

If Pratchett had written the Long Earth series on his own, they wouldn’t have been as silly and whimsical as his Discworld novels. But they would have displayed his deep understanding of human beings and the human condition.

If only………

Patrick T. Reardon

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