The Long War is the second book in a sci-fi series, written by what is turning out to be a highly successful writing collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the author of the popular Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. One of the things I truly love about the genre of science fiction is the ability to envisage a truly astounding discovery or invention and explore the consequences of such a scientific “black swan” event for humanity.
In the reality of the Long Earth, the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes has been discovered, along with the means of “stepping” between them. Those with a statistical background can picture this as a movement along a probability surface resulting from a sort of evolutionary Monte-Carlo search. The worlds closest to Earth, aside from the absence of humanity, have much in common with our world and have quite recognizable flora and fauna, but as one moves out further out along the curve, they diverge into the more kurtotic and fantastic geologic and biologic possibilities.
The first book of the series, The Long Earth, dealt with the discovery of these worlds and their initial exploration by a few intrepid souls. The action of the second book, The Long War, takes place in A.D. 2040, approximately 20 years after this discovery. Humanity has had time to adjust to the shock and is settling back into familiar patterns of behavior. I must admit that I was initially hesitant to pick up the book because of the title. I feared some predictable saga of interstellar battles with a triumphant conclusion for the good guys. I was, however, pleasantly surprised, as the book points out the infinite abundance of space and resources removes the primary driver of war. The Long War is much more about what it means to be human, and the distinctions between sapient and sentient. There is an excellent quote to this point: “Humanity is nothing but the thin residue left when you subtract the baffled chimp.” Some of the alternate worlds, evolving without homo sapiens, have produced other conscious life and the authors examine scenarios of interaction with these life forms and ways to circumvent the naturally arising xenophobia they might engender. I thoroughly enjoyed the insightful processing of the political, sociological, and theological implications of the Long Earth.
The only aspect of the story that I had a little trouble with is the presented economic situation. The reality of the Long Earth has effectively set the scarcity value of commodities to zero, with the cost of goods arising solely from extraction/processing of raw materials and distribution. The main resource limitations would be time and manpower, yet the authors have many reverting to a very manual, pioneer-like lifestyle. The argument, in part, is that the abundance of the Long Earth has spawned a technological complacency and retarded scientific advancements. I would think that while some areas of research, such as alternative energy might suffer, fields related to communication and automation would explode. Aside from this minor quibble, though, The Long War was an absorbing story and I certainly plan to read any future installments in the series. [subscribe2]