Terry Pratchett

Mrs Bradshaw’s Train Companion – Terry Pratchett

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Here’s a guide to all the things you can see on Discworld’s train network. It’s nice to see a fantasy setting that embraces modernity. Nice pictures, nice descriptions, but very depressing to think of all the story ideas mentioned in this guide that Pratchett never got to build on.

The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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The Long Cosmos is easily the best book in the whole Long Earth saga.

The premise of the series is that in the near future, people learn how to step into parallel Earths. None of these other worlds have humans on them, although they do have exotic new hominids with fantasy names like elves and trolls. This moves the focus away from speculating about historical what-ifs and onto encounters with bizarre animals, geography and the impact that all this extra space has on humanity. The Long Earth series is what you’d get if you mixed Sliders with David Attenborough. Lots of dramatic stuff went down in the previous four books, including Yellowstone erupting, an expedition across parallel Marses, the emergence of a typically patronising posthuman subspecies and an alien invasion of an alternate Earth, but the Long Cosmos tops them all with an interstellar message instructing mankind how to build a computer the size of a continent.

Speculative fiction that about travelling usually ends up presenting a series of increasingly cool and mind-blowing ideas. The one from The Long Cosmos that really stuck with me was the gigantic forest, with trees the size of skyscrapers supported by helium. Their reproduction strategy involves spreading seeds when they inevitably explode during bushfires. I also amazed by the sentient islands that sampled life while moving between worlds, and that ridiculously large computer.

The Long Cosmos felt more coherent and less disjointed than the previous books in the series. I can’t explain why I feel this way. Maybe it was because the plotlines felt more related, and came to a satisfactory conclusion?

What really intrigues me about the Long Earth series are the pop culture references. Two of the main protagonists watch the Blues Brothers, the Tim Allen comedy Galaxy Quest is mentioned far more often then you’d expect, and the interstellar signal plot draws from Contact. There’s also a nun who really, really likes Jim Steinman. At first I though there were so many of these references because this would’ve been the first time in a long while Pratchett could directly invoke them , without forcing them into a fantasy context. But after reading another Baxter book, where a cyborg remembers Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs as a beloved childhood classic, I’m thinking he was also responsible. Either way, I need to see Galaxy Quest.

The Long Cosmos’ genre means that it feels more like a Baxter book than a Pratchett one, although there is a fair bit of whimsy about. And I really don’t think it would make much sense without reading the rest of the series. Look at it this way – if you’re a fan of these authors and you’ve never heard of the Long Earth before, today’s your lucky day.

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The Long Utopia – Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

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This is the fourth book in Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett’s Long Earth series, so I’m warning you, if you want to get into it, read The Long Earth and that book’s other sequels before getting into this one. The essential premise of the series is that mankind has figured out how to ‘step’ into parallel Earths, which leads into all sorts of trouble.

Imagine what would happen to civilization if people figured out how to pop around the multiverse, and forget whatever you imagined because what Pratchett and Baxter worked out makes sense. A person can step into one universe at a time, the universes being organised into linear sequences that are frequently compared to pearls on necklaces. However, stepping is exhausting, it makes some people vomit and is completely impossible for an unlucky minority. Large segments of Earth’s population run off to live as interdimensional hunter-gatherers, leaving the rest struggling to run a depleted planet. The authors invent several evolutionary cousins for humanity, who got into stepping long before homo sapiens. They’re called trolls and elves, neatly evoking fantasy in science fiction.

The Long Utopia has two main plot threads. The first concerns the ambiguously sinister activities of The Next, typically patronising posthumans who are almost certainly up to no good. The second involves a parallel Earth whose days are getting shorter, and there are these silver beetle aliens pottering about. It also deals with stepping in the nineteenth century, a subplot I found enjoyable even though it didn’t really contribute to the climax. I’m assuming it’ll become more relevant in later books.

What I liked about The Long Utopia was that it was Lobsang’s book. His backstory is complicated, basically he’s a global AI who as soon as he was activated pleaded for human rights by claiming to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan mechanic. Lobsang begun the series as a Pratchett-y twist on Hal from 2001: Space Odyssey, as well as some of the other AIs in Baxter books like the ones with Greek names in the Time Odyssey series, but in The Long Utopia he gets some lovely character development. Taking the form of a robot indistinguishable from a human, he goes to live as a pioneer on the beautiful Earth with the shrinking days.

I recommend this book, but only on the condition that the three other books in Long Earth series are read first. More broadly, it’s enjoyable for fans of both authors, as well as people who like Douglas Adams and the more speculative, optimistic brand of sci-fi.