The Long Mars is the third book in the extraordinary, quirky, mind-expanding, humane series, The Long Earth. This means that if you’re reading this and you’ve not read The Long Earth or The Long War, then you must expect news of these in what follows. These are not standalone books. Instead, they form parts of a wondrous journey across earths, worlds, planets and into the very heart of life itself.
The eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano has caused devastation to Datum Earth, the kind that could take centuries to mend, if at all. The result is that whole populations have chosen to step to safety, using their steppers (manufactured from little more than a potato) to move in an instant to the next Earth. Even the President accepts that there’s not much left to keep people back. In Russia, matters are even worse. The fallout from Yellowstone has committed Russia to another Ice Age. But this, though, is just the background to the three fabulous stories that we are told in The Long Mars.
Natural stepper Sally Linsay spends her days fighting for the rights of those prejudiced against as different, most memorably the trolls whose song had been largely silenced during The Long War. Her father, a man long-vanished, leaves a message for Sally and calls her into the depths of the Long Earth, to the edge of The Gap where there is no Earth, just shattered fragments of a long dead planet and space. This is the perfect place from which to launch an expedition to Mars. Once there, Sally and her two colleagues (her father and ex-NASA hopeful Frank) will step into the Long Mars aboard gliders Thor and Woden. Most of the Mars planets they step into will be as desolate as the one we know but every now and again there will be a Mars where something astonishing has happened to affect its formation – such worlds (whether they are Mars or Earth) are known as Jokers and on them anything is possible.
Much of The Long Mars takes place, though, in The Long Earth. US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman has been set a mission by the US president to go deeper into the High Meggers of the Long Earth than any have gone before. The crew she gathers about her are a varied bunch, not all of whom are human and what they discover on their truly epic voyage is nothing less than mindboggling. The third element features our original stepper Joshua. He is reunited with Lobsang, the artificial intelligence (who has passed the Turing Test and believes he is the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman) with whom Joshua journeyed across The Long Earth in the first novel and who now has been inspired by news that a whole new species of human may have developed. A new race of children with great intelligence lies out there waiting to be discovered and Joshua is the man to find them.
The Long Mars continues the purpose of the previous novels – almost everyone in it is searching for something. This might be infinite knowledge, everlasting life, peace, freedom, supremacy or alien intelligence, but each of the characters of the novel believes that what they seek is out there – it may lie just one more step away. It is an immensely humane novel, laughing at the expense of mankind but also full of warm affection for his condition. Some of the people in this novel are only a few steps away from committing an atrocity but there are others, such as Sally, Maggie and Joshua (and there are others) who are there to keep them in check. The non-humans – the beagles, the cat, the trolls and Lobsang – likewise exert an influence. They are there to provide an alternative opinion. Wise people would listen to these different voices.
Arguably the biggest threat facing mankind in The Long Mars is the increase of The Next, the super intelligent children who can barely hide their disdain of the dim-bulbs who have wreaked such havoc on their original Earth and seem set on doing the same to the infinite other Earths. But it isn’t straightforward – they might seem frightening at times but who are we, some argue in the novel, to destroy a new race of mankind?
The Long Earth was my favourite novel of 2012 (Stephen Baxter’s Proxima, my favourite of 2013). I loved everything about it, from its premise to its wonderful execution. This made the slight dip of The Long War (still very enjoyable but less than what had gone before) difficult. The good news, though, is that The Long Mars is a fine conclusion to the trilogy and has far more in common with The Long Earth. The narrative does start slowly, reintroducing characters, reminding us of the themes of the past, but the final two thirds are superb, moving quickly between Mars, the High Meggers and the Low Earths, and I read all of this in one day.
All kinds of questions are raised in The Long Earth novels about the environment, the fate of humanity as a species, man’s tolerance for other humans and other races (and species), and the answers to these are pursued across universes of spectacular wonder where the marvellous melds with the absurd, all described with wit, warmth and excitement. You never know what will happen in the next chapter. Anything can and it often does. I have heard that there are to be another two books in the series. This is good news indeed!
As with the previous novels, The Long Mars is a truly beautiful hardback.