When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.”
Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more.
She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms.
“Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips.
To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page.
“Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write.
For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien.
Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot.
The Long War, newly released, is a follow-up to last year’s The Long Earth by the same authors. It is, at times, frustrating, mind-opening, startling and disappointing. Sometimes, on the same page.
Together, the two books set the stage for a multi-volume series of works based on the same premise — that, in 2015, humanity learned that their Earth isn’t alone. Instead, there are an infinite number of parallel Earths (and universes) just steps away.
“Step” is the term to describe how, with the help of technology or an innate talent, women and men are able to move sideways to another Earth, and then another, and then another, and so on. Either in one direction, arbitrarily called “East,” or the other, “West.”
All these Earths = the Long Earth.
These two novels are the first installments in what could be a very lengthy series, and that’s a problem. They’re glutted with storylines and characters, and the result is frustration and disappointment.
As the series unfolds, individual books are likely to focus on this character or that one. But, in these first two, Pratchett and Baxter have been in a hurry to get people (and some who aren’t exactly people) into the action.
That wasn’t much of a problem with The Long Earth where Joshua Valiente and wanderings in the Long Earth formed the central narrative. But, in The Long War, there is no similar focus, just a lot of stuff going on all over the place (or, more correctly, places).
Consider just some of the characters who are at play in the second book:
• Joshua, his wife Helen and their son.
• Nelson Azikiwe, a non-believing Episcopal minister who’s also a paleontologist.
• Sister Agnes, a nun who is dead, but not.
• Lobsang, a computer which believes it has a soul.
• US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman, heading a “peacekeeping” mission across the Long Earth.
• Sally Linsay, a loner adventuress adept at zipping from this Earth to that one.
• Monica Jansson, a gay cop from Madison, Wisconsin, dying of cancer.
And, of course, there’s Roberta.
And that list doesn’t include the characters who aren’t human, such as Mary the troll, Finn McCool the kobold (a kind of elf), Li-li and Snowy the beagles (actually dog-like humanoids), and Second Person Singular the traverser (don’t ask).
In a way, these Earths in all their kaleidoscopic multitudes represents an entire additional cast of “characters.” Each Earth has its own personality, as it were. Some are very much like the world in which we live. Others are dizzyingly weird.
Cramming all of this into two novels is a bit much, at the moment.
It’s as if Pratchett — the creator of the wildly successful Discworld fantasy series (39 volumes so far) — had stuffed Rincewind, the Witches, Commander Vimes, Tiffany Aching, Death, the City Watch, Moist von Lipwig, Lord Vetinari and Corporal Nobby Nobbs into The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, first two Discworld novels.
At some future point in the series, perhaps ten years down the line when a good many more (and better focused) installments are in print, The Long Earth and The Long War may not seem so cluttered.
The somewhat chaotic nature of the storytelling in these two books may be seen as reflective of the chaotic nature of discovering the links between the original Earth (Datum Earth) and all those millions of others. After all, as the second book ends, Datum Earth is facing a geological catastrophe of apparently global dimensions.
Despite that eruptive conclusion, however, The Long War‘s final pages are anti-climactic. It may simply be that tying up a whole host of story lines, at least temporarily, results in a fracturing of the reader’s attention and a weakening of the reader’s connection with the book.
Yet, while The Long War falls short in these ways, it’s still wondrously imaginative and yet deeply down to earth, so to speak. Take the trolls, for instance. They aren’t human, but, as Lobsang argues, they aren’t animals either:
They make simple tools, out in the wild — poking sticks, stone hand-axes. They have strong family bonds, which is why it’s so easy to trap a troll mother, if you have her cub. They show compassion, even to humans. They do have their own language, in their use of music. And they laugh, Joshua. They laugh.
This is a book that was co-authored by Terry Pratchett, so, if you’ve read any of his Discworld novels, you won’t be surprised to learn that The Long War is salted with jokes and quips, such as:
• The Valhalla hotel where Joshua and his family stay is the Healed Drum, an allusion to the Mended Drum, a tavern featured in many a Discworld book.
• Sister Agnes tells Joshua about how the Vatican is cracking down on nuns (some things apparently never change), particularly because of a book that highlights “the spiritual benefits of female masturbation.”
• The female leader of one beagle town has a non-sentient dog from Datum Earth to serve, as an elf explains, as a sex toy.
• A talking cat tries to convince Maggie Kauffman to let it stay on her ship by telling her about metal fatigue in one turbine, and then, in a reference to an obscure John Lennon quote at the end of the song “Get Back,” says, “Thank you very much, and I hope I have passed the audition.”
So there’s a lot going on in The Long War. But, through the novel, I kept finding myself drawn to Roberta. Not “drawn to” in the sense of being attracted to her, but “drawn to” as in finding it impossible not to approach and rubberneck at a horrific crash.
It seems certain that just about all of the characters in The Long War will have adventures in the books to come. But Pratchett and Baxter have something special in mind of Roberta.
Here is a girl who seems out of step — certainly out of emotional step — with the rest of humanity.
Riding in a twain, a dirigible-like vehicle for traversing the Long Earth, she looks down at the surface of a fascinating Earth with a wildly diverse collection of species and mentions that an all-destroying hypercane is approaching. Soon, she says, all those plants and animals will be “terminated.”
Her crewmates are aghast at her cold words.
Roberta was used to this kind of reaction to her choice of words, and found it irritating. As if a child were covering its ears to avoid hearing bad news. “All life is terminated, ultimately. I’m only telling the truth. It’s trivially obvious.”
Later in the journey, someone tells her a joke. Roberta has little reaction.
“It’s just that, Jacques and other teachers tell me, I am too smart for most jokes…There is an element of deception in many jokes, and then a reveal, of a truth which is surprising. I spot the deception too early.”
An impact in the future
Still later, events on the journey send Roberta into a depression related to all those lives and species erased by the hypercane. Her teacher Jacques tries to console her without success.
He knew how she felt. It was the way he felt himself, sometimes, if he woke in the small hours, at three a.m.….Luckily the sun always came up, people stirred, and you got on with the stuff that distracted you from the reality.
The problem for Roberta Golding was that she was too smart to be distracted. For her, it was three a.m., all the time.
Too smart to laugh at a joke? Too smart to cushion bad news? So smart that she lives perpetually at three a.m.?
Roberta Golding is someone who’s going to have an impact in the future on the Long Earth.
Could that be good?
Patrick T. Reardon