Pratchett, Terry & Stephen Baxter. The Long War.

NY: Doubleday, 2013.

The picaresque novel, in which the protagonist (traditionally an underdog, but not always) engages in a series of episodic adventures, has a history that goes back to Don Quixote and Tom Jones and proceeds up to Little Big Man and Quicksilver. The first volume in this trilogy, in which I suspect Pratchett supplied most of the ideas and Baxter did most of the actual writing, focused on the voyage of exploration by an airship through a few hundred thousand parallel Earths, via the newly discovered latent human talent for “stepping.”

That’s about as explicitly picaresque as you can get. The plot otherwise was kind of random, but the journey itself was interesting and inventive.

This second volume, however, while apparently attempting to repeat the pattern, simply ends up being annoyingly scattershot. In some ways, it presents a series of almost independent narratives that merely share the same background — the Long Earth — but which seldom interact with each other.

Ten years have passed since the cliffhanging, seemingly international, incident that ended the first book (but which is passed off here as the work of an unstable individual terrorist and then mostly ignored). Joshua Valiente, the natural stepper born with a foot in each of several worlds, has married and settled down in a pleasantly isolated pioneer community far from Datum Earth (i.e., our own version), which has been colonizing the “low” Earths at a prodigious rate as a base for unregulated dirty industry and the wholesale off-loading of surplus population. The trolls — distant hominid relations of humankind who exist all across the Long Earth, and for whom stepping is a constant fact of everyday existence — have been borderline-enslaved as cheap labor and are officially regarded by Earth’s governments as “animals” as a matter of legal convenience. The trolls have a champion, however, in Sally Linsay, another natural stepper and both longtime friend and pest to Joshua (and, in fact, the daughter of the inventor and uncontrolled disseminator of the stepper box), and she wangles his involvement in redressing their situation. The U.S. government, especially, though it has cut off support from Long Earth settlements and confiscated the property and wealth of Americans who chose to relocate, has now decided that anyone within the American “footprint” still owes the Datum government fealty — and taxes. And an airship fleet is sent out to enforce this policy, though the Powers That Be pick the wrong naval officer to manage the expedition. Commander Maggie Kauffman has her own ideas of what her job in regard to the brewing revolt among the far settlements ought to be.

That could have been the basis of a good plot all by itself, but the authors then spin off a confrontation with another species of “aliens,” a canine-descended race with its own interests that don’t include humans. (Nothing is ever said about why the trolls consider this their perfect haven from Datum Earth industrialization.) They also insist on throwing in a Chinese expedition to Earth Plus Twenty Million, just so they can invent a bunch of new and strange environments, none of which have much to do with the rest of the story. And then there’s the whole “Gap” narrative thread about potential space exploration, which is obviously a set-up for the main plot line of the third volume of the trilogy.

While the book is an interesting read in its various disparate sections, it lacks the narrative unity that Pratchett’s Discworld stories have always displayed, even with the Disc’s disparate species and cultures. As with the first “Long Earth” volume, if it weren’t for the occasional bit of throwaway business (e.g., a hotel called the Healed Drum), you would never know Sir Terry had anything to do with it.

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