The Long Mars

The Long Mars (originally titled ‘The Long Childhood’) is a science fiction novel written in co-operation between fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett and science fiction author Stephen Baxter. It is the third volume in the planned 5-book series The Long Earth.

The quintuple of books explores the idea of Many Worlds Theory by imagining the ‘Long Earth’ – a possibly infinite chain of parallel worlds that are similar to Earth, which were discovered, and can be reached by, means of a simple device called a ‘Stepper’. While some of these worlds are almost identical to our Earth (throughout the novels referred to as ‘Datum Earth’), others differ in smaller or greater detail, but all have one common feature – they are completely devoid of humans. After the first cautions, on-foot, forays into the Long Earth came the invention of twains – stepwise-enabled airships that made longer, and more daring, expeditions possible.

And then had come the discovery of the ‘Gap’, a place where a freak conjunction of cosmic accidents had left a hole in the sequence of worlds that was the Long Earth, and a new kind of access to space. The chance discovery of the ‘Gap’ brought a complete revolution in human space flight. From now on, spaceships didn’t need to beat Earth’s gravity – hence, rockets would not be launched upwards towards the sky, but stepwise – into the empty space, where the Earth once was, in the universe next door.

The storyline of The Long Mars revolves mainly around four key characters: Willis Linsay – inventor of the ‘Stepper’ device, Sally LinsayWillis’s daughter, Joshua Valiente – a ‘natural stepper’ (an individual who can ‘step’ without the ‘Stepper’ device) and Lobsang – a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as an artificial intelligence.

In the years following the cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano in the Yellowstone National Park in September 2040, there is massive population dislocation as groups, communities, sometimes whole nations flee the ravaged Datum Earth to myriad Long Earth worlds. While the evacuation flow to the stepwise worlds has been intense, still many millions remain on the Datum Earth, and stores of food and water are rapidly diminishing. Sally, Joshua, and Lobsang are all involved in this perilous work when, out of the blue, Sally is contacted by her long-vanished father and inventor of the ‘Stepper’ device, Willis Linsay. He informs Sally that he is planning a pioneering voyage across the Long Mars and wants her to accompany him on this adventure of a lifetime. But Sally soon learns that Willis has ulterior motives ...

The narrative of the novel switches between three separate storylines:

Inventor of the ‘Stepper’ device Willis Linsay, his daughter Sally and Frank Wood, retired USAF pilot and NASA candidate astronaut, find out that the ‘Stepper’ works also on Mars, and, via the GapSpace (space-exploration facility taking advantage of the ‘Gap’), and the ‘Brick Moon’ (an artificial satellite-station in the position of the vanished Earth and the ‘Houston’ of the ‘Gap’) reach the red planet, where, using a stepwise-capable glider (as airships wouldn’t work in the thin Martian atmosphere) embark on a fantastic voyage across the Long Mars.

In the meanwhile, Captain Maggie Kauffman sets out on her own, equally daring exploratory expedition aboard the two brand new US Navy twains, stepwise-capable airships the USS Neil A. Armstrong II and the USS Eugene A. Cernan, leading her ships westwards, out into the far stepwise reaches of the Long Earth, on the great mission of discovery with a target of no less than two hundred million Long Earths – ten times further than was ever attempted before.

At the same time, Joshua Valiente – a ‘natural stepper’, encouraged by Lobsang – a world-wide artificial intelligence that claims to be a reincarnate of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, starts his search for the ‘true’ homo sapiens – super-inteligent post-humans who are beginning to emerge from their ‘long childhood’ – originating in a small pioneer community called Happy Landings located deep in the Long Earth.

While The Long Mars is, in its core, instantaneously recognisable as a work of ‘hard’ science fiction, for which is Stephen Baxter known, exploring possibilities of novel space travel, alternate universes, space elevators, non-humanoid civilisations as well as future evolution of our own race, Terry Pratchett enlivens the narrative by peppering it with stepwise-communicating and stepwise-danger-sensing trolls and naturally-stepping elves, who could cross between the step worlds with an extreme precision. While the ‘wow’ factor is long gone with the first book of the series, The Long Mars is nevertheless a solid sci-fi novel and a valid addition to The Long Earth saga.

The fourth book in the series ‘The Long Utopia’ is due to be published in June 2015.