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and the remains of dead and lost civilisations without any real meeting with intelligent life, at least at first
on 27 June 2015
As the third book in the Long Earth series, The Long Mars develops what has happened before and continues its onward plotline. By Book Three we’re now at the point where the series has expanded from ‘Datum Earth’ to millions of Earths. As before, much of the plot derives from the ensuing human politics, as well as the physical calamities, that have come to fruition as a consequence.
The cliffhanger ending of The Long War is resolved immediately at the beginning of The Long Mars. The start of the book deals with the clearance of people from North America as a consequence of the Yellowstone super-volcanic eruption. The result of this is the partial abandonment of Earth and the redistribution of the Earth’s population as the Datum Earth gets colder winters and climate change.
The hook this time is that, unlike the previous books which were mainly set on a myriad of alternate Earths, we see humans explore our nearest planetary neighbour. The Mars aspect of the plot involves Sally Linsay, daughter of Willis, the inventor who created the machine to allow ‘stepping’ (the ability to travel East or West between parallel worlds), who is requested by her estranged father to travel with him and an ex-astronaut, Frank Wood, to alternate Mars-es, though the reason for doing so is not entirely clear until towards the end of the novel. Travelling by glider and multiple-stepping, they encounter red, green and blue Mars-es, and the remains of dead and lost civilisations without any real meeting with intelligent life, at least at first.
One of the great fun things about doing this with a seemingly-unlimited number of other planets is that you can create Mars in a variety of forms, and it is clear that the author-collaborators have enjoyed creating Mars-es that are Bonestell-ean, red, green, blue, inhabited or isolated.
Though the title of the novel is The Long Mars, it must be said that not all of the book is focused upon the Red Planet. Of the plot points on Earth that develop, Commander Maggie Kauffman continues the Star Trek-like continuation of her journey. Now in two new super-dirigibles, Maggie and her US Navy team continue the journey step-ward from Earth into the thousands of millions. She encounters worlds of purple algae, strange alien lifeforms and the return of the ‘beagle’ species first encountered in The Long War. Along the way we have shipboard situations to deal with, such as political shenanigans, an animosity between officers and crews and a strained relationship between different cultures and ideologies. There’s also the issue of a nuclear device similar to the one set off in Madison on Datum Earth a couple of books back.
Joshua Valiente, hero of ‘Step Day’, is still present, though generally I felt was of lesser importance this time around, except for certain key interventions.
Throughout we have the overseeing eye of Lobsang, the AI whose purpose, with the ex-nun Agnes, seems to be to observe and advise, though there are still hints of a larger and deeper covert operation through the creepy presence of entrepreneur Douglas Black.
One of the newer developments is something that was hinted at in earlier novels – that of the Next, the evolution of humans into the next stage of human development. Incredibly quick, both in terms of intelligence and in their speaking, their disdainful and superior attitude causes some issues for Maggie and her crew before a major plot revelation and an action that involves Joshua’s intervention. This is an element that is clearly going to run in future novels, but there are aspects here that will be recognisable to anyone who has read John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos.
As before in this series, anybody expecting Discworld humour will be very disappointed. In fact, the general tone of these books are rather sombre, or, at best, elegiac. What we’re here for is the travelogue experience, though interestingly there are times when the stepping becomes so rapid as to be almost meaningless. At Earth West 250 000 000, the US Navy dirigibles seem to be less about the wonder and more about the difficult drudgery of travel:
“The world itself turned out to be unprepossessing, barren, ordinary, but at least you could walk around it with a facemask, walk around a little.”
The travel, in the end, becomes less about the joy of exploration and more about surviving the journey:
“And as the journey wore on, and the Earths became ever more exotic and challenging, Maggie sometimes felt as if it was only her own willpower that held the mission together.”
To lighten things a little, the accumulated knowledge of the two collaborators has led to some nice little sf-nal references for those who want to notice. I did like the little genre references throughout that were nice little nods to other writers. They’re not essential to the plot, but for those who know other works they’re fun. I’m sure that there were some that I missed, but the ones I particularly noticed were references to sand-worm-like creatures a la Dune, Red Dwarf, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series (“You will not go there.”) and the rock snakes of the Thunderbirds Are Go! movie from 1968. (I know that Stephen, like me, is a big fan, so it’s not that surprising.)
On the downside, the characters can still come across as rather flimsy at times, though this is as a result of having to compromise between plot and pace. I did feel that not all characters are as visible as I’d expected – very little troll-action this time around, for example – but the focus was clearly elsewhere this time around. Lastly, I did feel that towards the end the plot seemed to move rather too easily to an equally obvious conclusion, although this does leave an ending that means that you have to pick up the next book (The Long Utopia) to discover what will happen.
On balance, The Long Mars is a step or two forward (ha!) from The Long War. The plot holds together better this time around, events seem a little less ramshackle and by the cliffhanger climax there was a genuine desire to read what happens next. The Long Mars is not the place to start this series, but those who have enjoyed the books so far will continue to find much to appreciate here.