Monday 23 December 2013

The Long War

(December 2013)

Careful gentlemen, your craft is showing.

As this is the sequel a quick recap is in order. I adore Pratchett (who doesn’t?), and while I’m far from a Baxter completist I’ve really enjoyed the stuff of his I have read. However I found The Long Earth, their initial joint offering, a little too gentle, a little too beige. Underwhelming, in short, and I don’t think that was solely a question of it failing to live up to my unrealistic expectations. It wasn’t a bad book, certainly, but nothing really seemed to happen until the end, when it finished with a very literal bang.

So it’s a bit of a shame to start this volume and realize that we’re now a decade beyond those events, which means yet more worldbuilding nonsense as we have to re-reestablish the setting and politics, because this is definitely a political novel: colonialism, expansionism, playing with tropes, blah blah blah.

There is an interesting contrast here with We See a Different Frontier. I would hesitate to say that, as books, one is better than the other because (and I realize this may seem like an obvious point), both Baxter and Pratchett know what they are doing and are very, very good at it. It’s apples and oranges to an extent (short story collection vs. second volume of a series), but the fact remains that even though I constantly had Frontier in the back of my mind I finished this 400+ page novel in three sessions, each of which ended at about one in the morning when my wife started complaining about the bedside light still being on.

I guess it’s the difference between a kit-car created by a group of dedicated petrol-heads and the latest saloon from Toyota. Of course the former is going to be more original, thrilling, and unreliable, but the latter just works. It has less personality perhaps, having been designed by committee, and doesn’t give you the visceral thrill of knowing that at any point control could be lost completely, but it’s not going to disappoint or let you down either.

This series is clearly one long glorified thought experiment. All SF is, to some extent, but it’s often masked a little more thoroughly. Too much dialogue as exposition, too many characters who exist for no other reason than to act as the reader’s eyes in exploring strange new worlds *cough* Roberta *cough* and very, very little conflict which means bugger all in the way of narrative tension. I want to say that the pacing is off, because nothing – nothing – really happens for the first third of a novel which is not only a sequel but also has the word WAR in the title. A guy travels to Washington to argue about politics. That’s really all there is to it. And yet…

And yet, and yet, and yet, I kept reading way into the night, always just wanting one more chapter. None of the characters really grab you, none of situations are all that dramatic but, and this is what I mean about craft, you’re always curious about what’s going to happen next. The Long War doesn’t pull you along so much as open the next door slightly, raise an eyebrow in its general direction and cough discreetly: nudging not dragging.

I guess if you’re attuned to this sort of thing, which I clearly am, then it works very nicely*. It’s a pleasantly diverting way to spend a few hours on cold winter evenings, and I’ll definitely be reading the next one in the series, but I probably won’t be in any great hurry to reread it.

*Other tautologies are available.

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