The Long Utopia | Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter | 2015 | Doubleday | 361p | Review copy | Buy the book
It was with excitement and sadness combined that I fell on The Long Utopia when it landed in my letter box. The Long Earth series is one that I have grown enormously attached to over the last few years and in an ideal world it would never end. But, of course, the world isn’t like that and the loss of Terry Pratchett is keenly felt. The Long Utopia is the fourth of the series and there is closure in learning that Terry Pratchett had completed what was always intended to be the fifth and final novel. I didn’t know that at the time when I read The Long Utopia and so I paid every page that little bit of extra special attention, savouring its quirkiness and wondrous explorations more than ever.
There would be little reason to read The Long Utopia without having read the previous three novels and so this review assumes that you have been keeping up and are ready now to enter this new stage of Joshua, Sally, Agnes and Lobsang’s journey.
Years have passed since Step Day – the day when the boy Joshua, a natural stepper, had collected and saved all those children who had inadvertently learned how to step into the Long Earth without necessarily knowing how to get back. But from that day forward, millions of the original Datum Earth’s inhabitants could step across to countless alternate Earths with little more than a small machine created from a potato. Joshua had been one of the first great explorers of the Long Earth, travelling in an airship alongside Lobsang, an Artificial Intelligence that believed – or indeed was – the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman (he had passed the Turing Test with flying colours). But now Joshua and Lobsang are entering their fifties and they have some loose ends to tie. Joshua wants to find out the truth about the father he never knew while Lobsang wants to spend the rest of his life as a human, married to Agnes (now artificially constructed herself), raising a child on one of the quieter farming Long Earths.
But it is Sally, another natural stepper and an intriguing one (who so memorably explored the Long Mars), who selects the choice of Earth for Lobsang and, not surprisingly because Sally is the definition of trouble, nothing turns out as it should. This world, so remote from Datum Earth, is under attack and the forces that assault it threaten the entire Long Earth. Lobsang, Joshua and Sally have to fix it but to do that they need the Next, the young people who represent the next stage in human evolution, who have an entirely different way of looking at the Earths through which they step. But even they are about to meet their match, not least when they come face to face with Stan, a wonderful and significant addition to the series’ characters.
The Long Earth novels are beautifully visual and wittily imagined, taking us on several expeditions across vast swathes of Earths, introducing us to the changing fauna and flora, listening out for the singing trolls who are so sensitive to the health of the Long Earth. Humans themselves are only indigenous on Datum Earth but their movement across these unknown worlds can’t help but change them. However, deep into the Long Earth there are wonders to be found, adventures to be had, all of which inform on the nature of the Earths, and it is discovering these that makes this sequence of novels so utterly enchanting and breathtaking. They’re not especially focused. They do meander and the plotting can be subservient to the concept but for me that’s always been part of their charm. These are fabulous worlds to explore.
The Long Utopia is a little different. It moves around less. Much of the novel focuses on just one world, taking us deeper into the mystery that is these parallel worlds by observing how they cross this one particular existence of Earth. Several of the characters that we have followed in previous novels come together and this gives us the chance to get to know them better, now that each is older and (possibly) wiser and (certainly) more experienced in the ways of the Long Earth.
But there is a melancholy spirit in the air. The Long Earth is under threat, our much loved characters are growing older, the generation of Next are younger but far more distant, and so there is a strong sense that everything could end, individually and on a much more catastrophic scale. This feeling of sadness is increased by the fascinating story that flows intermittently through the novel – the history of Joshua’s Victorian ancestor. This is all compounded, of course, by Terry Pratchett’s loss, and there is no doubt that The Long Utopia is a novel that manages to combine very powerfully moods of light and dark, playing around the meaning of the novel’s utopian title.
The Long Utopia stands apart from the other novels in several ways, bringing closure to some of the stories we’ve encountered in past books. This serves to remind us just how bewitching and rich this series is, how beautiful is its writing, and vivid its imagination – thanks not only to Terry Pratchett but also to Stephen Baxter, a wonderful writer of science fiction who can do no wrong in my eyes. We’re lucky to have this series and especially fortunate that we will see it conclude in the final, fifth novel. The Long Utopia has a satisfying ending – this is a particularly well-structured novel and one of the strongest of the series – but I cannot help but look forward to the wonder and sadness of seeing how it will all end.