Categories
Review

The Long Cosmos

Normally I let the spoiler warnings for these be implicit, but this is the fifth (and final) book in a series, so I’ll go ahead and put it here again, to be clear: spoiler warning.
Good? Good.
So, I was a little bit sad to find that, as I’m writing this, I only have a single post tagged ‘Terry Pratchett’ on here. Which makes sense, I suppose – my love of his writing predates my writing book reviews. A bit of a shame, really, because that would be more than 60 reviews – he was a rather prodigious writer.
Now, I mentioned in my previous Pratchett review that it was his last book. That wasn’t entirely accurate – it was his last Discworld book, but the Long Earth series hadn’t wrapped up yet, either. And for this, he had a coauthor – Stephen Baxter.1 I’m going to drop in a chunk of the foreword, written by Baxter, here:

The books have been published annually, but we worked faster than that; time was not on our side, and Terry had other projects he wanted to pursue. Volumes 1 and 2 of the series were published in 2012 and 2013 respectively. But by August 2013 we had presented our publishers with drafts of the final three volumes of the series, including the present book. We did continue to work on the books subsequently. The last time I saw Terry was in the autumn of 2014, when we worked on, among other things, the ‘big trees’ passages of The Long Cosmos (chapter 39 onwards). It has been my duty to see this book through its editorial and publishing stages.

Having just finished reading the book, I know now what the ‘big trees’ passages he references are, and it makes me happy in a quiet, sad way to know that Pratchett had his hands on those directly. My first experience with Terry Pratchett was the Nomes trilogy.2 I’ve no idea where I got them – it was long enough ago that that memory is entirely gone – but I know that it captured my imagination in a wonderful way. The books were silly and sweet, and the characters even more so. But they didn’t quite capture my interest the way the Discworld books would later. I do distinctly remember how I found my way into that series – the Kindle had just come out, and I really wanted one. While we were on vacation, a family friend who had one offered to let me play around with it to see what I thought.
I’ll interrupt this story to reference the fact that I tend to be reading a lot of books at once – one or two paperbacks, something on my Kindle, and something else in the Kindle app on my phone.3 On this vacation, I hadn’t brought the paperback I was reading, but I remembered the title – Dark Watch. Except I didn’t quite remember the title, and put in Night Watch instead. I’m sure the Kindle Store tried to show me the cover, but low-resolution grayscale images aren’t super helpful, so I wound up downloading the sample of the wrong book.
But hey, never look a gift horse in the mouth – I figured I’d read the sample, it’d work just as well for figuring out if I liked the Kindle or not.
And I did – I’ve mentioned before that the original Kindle was, in my opinion, the Best Kindle, and the fact that when it (sadly) died, I replaced it immediately. When I got mine, the first book I downloaded4 was Night Watch. I finished reading it, and I’ve loved Terry Pratchett ever since then.5
Finding out that he was working on a science fiction series? I was intrigued. I’ve read The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata6 They were both characteristically hilarious, but more importantly, interesting takes on the genre.
The Long Earth series is quite a bit more serious than those, but it’s nothing the less for it. It’s also lacking in those characteristic footnotes, which makes it feel less like a Pratchett work than any of his other stuff, but it’s still deeply fascinating. The world building throughout is marvelous, and the degree to which they extend it is, I think, my favorite thing about the series.
It basically starts off with a single premise: stepping. A device is invented, the blueprints published online for all to see, that allows the user to step, moving from one Earth to another in an apparently-infinite chain of Earths. Only ours, referred to as the Datum Earth, has a human population: the rest are pristine, untouched natural wilds. From there, it’s extended: each of these Earths is something akin to a quantum probability mesh, and the further out from the Datum you go, the stranger things can get. One step away, the only difference is that there’s no industrialization-aftereffects from humanity. Go ten million steps away, and you hit worlds where life as we know it never evolved, and instead there are slime colonies the size of small buildings wandering around. Ten million steps in the other direction, and you can climb a tree five miles high and fight giant lizards in the forest of its canopy.
Of course, this does Bad Things to the governments of the world – who’s going to stick around and work a 9-to-5 when they can hop over a couple worlds and have a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Who’s going to pay taxes if they live on a homestead ten thousand steps West7 that doesn’t see a dime of government services?
And Pratchett and Baxter play with that – as the series goes on, and by the end it’s spanned nearly 400 years of history,8 you can see the way the United States reacts to the paradigm shift that is stepping. It’s fascinating.
And then you get to Book Three, and explore the Long Mars. Because somewhere along the infinite chain of Earths, there’s one where the asteroid impact that formed the moon hit at a different angle and the Earth never formed. Which is a terrifying way to die – you think you’re going to step normally into another world, but instead find yourself suddenly in interplanetary space. But people are creative, and it’s possible to bring materials with you, so the Long Earth’s equivalent to SpaceX forms up on the world just this side of what becomes known as the Gap. Forget about expensive rockets – just hold onto your spacecraft, and then step right out of the gravity well. Once you’re free-floating, step back, and you’re suddenly in orbit, at about a billionth the energy cost. Space exploration is suddenly a lot easier.
And then a bonus twist on the concept: Mars is Long too, but in a different direction. Sure, it’s still stepping East and West, but a step West from Mars gets you to a different reality than a step West from Earth.
Book four is where things get spooky. (Spoiler warning again, because what I’m talking about now is from closer to the end of that book, rather than early-on reveals as above.)
Given a multiply-infinite series of worlds, certain things become inevitable. Von Neumann machines are one of these – somewhere out there along that infinity, there’s going to be a sentient lifeform. Given that it’s truly infinite, there’s probably going to be an infinite number of those. And at least one of them will have been smart enough to come up with the idea of a von Neumann probe, and dumb enough to actually build it. And then the problem with von Neumann probes shows up, one that we here on our Earth have been dealing with for centuries: self-replicating systems will eventually have a problem. For humans, with our self-replicating cells, we call it cancer. A von Neumann probe system will similarly eventually become cancerous, which makes it a massive threat to the entire galaxy.
And that’s all I’m going to say about The Long Utopia. I’m 1,500 words in, I should probably start talking about the book in the title.
The Long Cosmos takes another spin on that “given an infinite universe, there will be sentient life” thing. With the von Neumann probes, we never actually saw their creators, nor even any evidence that they’re still alive. In The Long Cosmos, though, we get proof of life: a signal that blows SETI’s “Wow!” signal out of the water.
“Join us.”
And that’s all I’m going to say about the story, I think. Suffice it to say it’s in the same vein of the rest of the Long Earth books – a delightful look at a truly large-scale world, and the people who inhabit it. It’s those characters who really make the story, and it’s a nice way to check in with all of them again.
Overall, it’s a wonderful book. Each one gets larger in scale than the last, and that’s what I like about them – it’s such a huge world to play around in, and the underlying concept is simple and understandable. It’s a veritable playground for the imagination.
As with every single other Terry Pratchett book out there, I highly recommend it. Start with the first, of course, but when you’ve read the rest of the series, read this one too.


  1. There’s nothing tagged under his name, as of yet, but I figure I’ll link to it anyways. Might read more of his work in the future, you never know! 
  2. I’ve actually still not read the first one in the series, but once I’m home and have access to my library I might go back and reread the second and third. 
  3. And yes, Amazon’s WhisperSync service does function to keep me in one place in the book if I read it on both devices, but I like this way better. 
  4. Aside from a bunch of free stuff from Project Gutenberg 
  5. And been heavily influenced in how I write – I like to say my use of footnotes has a lot to do with David Foster Wallace, and there’s some of him in there, but it’s a lot closer in style to Sir Terry Pratchett’s. 
  6. And I want to get a copy of Strata for myself, but it’s still hard to get in the United States. Ooh, maybe I’ll find a used book store while I’m abroad… 
  7. As opposed to East – knowing which is which is apparently an instinctive sort of thing for people when they step. 
  8. From the actual start point to the end point, it’s closer to 80 years, but there’s a good bit of prequel-type action in the earlier books. 
Categories
Review

The Shepherd’s Crown

“Look up here, I’m in heaven” – David Bowie, Lazarus

The Shepherd’s Crown was Terry Pratchett’s last book, published after his death. And man, I thought that Raising Steam was hard to read but, oh, The Shepherd’s Crown was so much worse. Because Raising Steam was a lively romp across the entire Disc, a chance for every single one of the characters we love to show us their lives one more time. Little glances that showed us they were doing well, living on even though we wouldn’t be able to see any more of them.
The Shepherd’s Crown wasn’t that. Part of this is because it’s for a different market – the Tiffany Aching series is the Young Adult branch of the Discworld, and so the assumption that we know all these characters isn’t there. The short introductions given to concepts that I know well, having read every Discworld book, seemed strange and out of place to me.1
And oh, those first couple of chapters were rough. (I try to avoid spoilers, but that’s not going to work this time, so consider this your spoiler warning. If you haven’t read the book yet and you want to preserve it for yourself… why are you reading reviews, anyways? It’s Terry Pratchett, it’s guaranteed to be good.)

Alright, I’ll assume that everyone who hasn’t read the book has stopped reading now.

Granny Weatherwax wasn’t just an integral part of the Aching series, she was an anchor for a number of other books as well. Seeing her go… she was okay with it, but I must say that I wasn’t. And nor was anyone else. Reading Ridcully’s hearing about her death, and his response to it, was hard.
And yes, a lot of that is because of the echoes of Terry Pratchett himself in her character. It’d been common knowledge for a while that he didn’t have much time left – he was very public about the advanced form of Alzheimers that he had2 and his own desire to not allow the disease to make his end debilitating. In short, he knew that he was dying. And, in much the same way that his death was a momentous event for the people of the Disc, so, too, was that of Granny Weatherwax.
Basically, while Raising Steam was a chance for the people of the Discworld to say goodbye to us readers, The Shepherd’s Crown was Terry Pratchett’s goodbye. And lord, but I hate goodbyes.
The book gives us a while to dwell on that sadness, mourn the loss, but then it’s time to get going again. Time halts for no man nor woman, and Tiffany has big shoes to fill. From there, it’s almost a coming-of-age story: Tiffany takes the place that everyone but her knew was coming for her, as the first-among-equals leader of the witches of the Disc. And, slowly, she comes into her own: as a young woman, she’s got that same lack of self-confidence that’s almost a key component of any young adult, but she’s also a powerful witch in her own right. The book is her coming to terms with that, the good and the bad. And in that regard, it’s wonderful.
I think I’m going to stop here, because anything else I could say would be spoiling more of the book than I already have, and I couldn’t live with myself were that the case. I quite enjoyed it, sadness and all.
A hat tip to Sir Terry: you were one of the greatest writers of our time, and you are sorely missed.


  1. This sort of thing is, I think, the reason I never much got into the Tiffany Aching books. I have them all, as I’ve got every Discworld book – except the Science of Discworld series, but I’m working on that – but I don’t go back and reread them like I do the others. 
  2. Don’t cite me on this part, I’m writing it from memory while in a moving vehicle so I can’t easily Google to verify my memory of the facts. 
Categories
Review

My Favorite Books

I’m dropping this bit of introduction in at the start to explain a bit: I wrote this post about a week ago, and I’m posting it now because a) I was too ill to do anything yesterday, and b) Terry Pratchett, mentioned below, passed away on Thursday. He was an amazing writer, and a huge inspiration to me and millions of others. I was consciously aware of the fact that he was dying – his decline due to Alzheimer’s Disease is a matter of public record – and I’d even read his last book, Raising Steam, which was almost painful to read. It was an amazing book, capturing that sense of building something that made me love The Truth so much, and it managed to include just about every character he’d ever written – a tall order in a series that covered more than 50 books and pieces of spin-off media. And it hurt so much because it was so clearly a goodbye. He knew he wasn’t long for this world, and he was able to say goodbye in such a beautiful way. So I’m dedicating this post to Sir Terry Pratchett: you were a phenomenal man, and you will never be forgotten.

Continuing my trend of ‘favorite [category of media]’ posts, I’m gonna talk about some of my favorite books today! (I did that post about what I’m reading a little while ago, but this is more about the stuff that I’ll go back to time and time again.)

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

Easily my favorite book, this is (quoting the cover) a tour de force of a book, written as a response to her own “Tough Guide to Fantasyland,” which mocked the stereotypical fantasy novel. Dark Lord is set in one of those stereotypical fantasy novel, but from the other perspective: the ‘hero’ of the novel is actually a tourist, paying an exorbitant amount of money to an exploitative tour agency in order to go on an adventure in another world with magic and monsters. The book ignores those ‘heroes’ and instead follows the ‘dark lord,’ someone who was forced to take up the role to make the tourists experience a proper ‘adventure.’ In true DWJ style, the book starts off slow, but by the time you hit the midpoint of the novel, you realize that you’re physically incapable of putting the book down.

High Wizardry by Diane Duane

I had to think about which of Diane Duane’s books I wanted to mention – Omnitopia: Dawn was a strong contender, but I can still remember where I was when I got So You Want To Be A Wizard, the first book in her Young Wizards series (which includes High Wizardry). The series is one of my favorite of all time, and while I’m not entirely sure if the chronology matches up, I often attribute my wanting to be a programmer with the influence that the Young Wizards series had on my life. The idea that magic wasn’t some sort of inherent trait, but just the ability to convince the world to do what you wanted, combined with the concept that it was just a matter of saying a few words… Well, it got even better when, in High Wizardry, the concept of a computer as an instrument of magic was explored in a beautiful way that, aside from the very specific elements of the computer in question, still feels like science fiction.1

The Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce

I tried, I really tried, but I couldn’t pick just one. Honestly, her other major set of works, the Tortall series, is also amazing, and should probably show up as another contender on here, but I had to put the Circle first because it’s what I read first. It’s a beautiful exploration of a unique system of magic with characters that I fall in love with all over again every time I read the books.2 Seriously, go read them, I cannot recommend them enough. And I’m still hoping for a movie series, it would be perfect.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Another one where it was hard to pick from a massive series, The Truth follows the invention and growth of the newspaper and newspaper industry in Ankh-Morpork, the ‘big wahooni’ of the Discworld. I’ve read just about3 every book Sir Pratchett4 wrote,5 and I’ve loved very nearly all of them. But it’s this one that stood out the most to me – the sense of something being built, plus the characteristic silliness6 and just a hint of hair-raising horror make it my favorite out of his works.

Honorable Mention

I’ve also got to throw a plug for David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster in here, just because that was the other book that was a big influence on my footnote usage. Another one I read in high school english, Cloud Atlas, goes in here, because of how I reacted when I read the last couple pages of Letters from Zedelgheim. No spoilers, but I’ll just say that I was blissfully oblivious to all of the subtext going on, and when I figured it out on the second-to-last page I dropped the book and sat in silence for a while, and was rather inconsolable for the next couple days. I’ll also drop a plug for Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, which has had a lot of influence on my ideas about artificial intelligence, and another for Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, which is why I’m so hopeful about the future of 3D printing. A mention for Iain Banks’ Culture series, a beautiful, sprawling set of space operas which I adore. Finally, a shoutout to Patricia C. Wrede, who wrote both the Enchanted Forest series and the Frontier Magic series, both of which I would be happy to read another thousand times.

I read a lot, folks. Hit up those comments – have you read any of these books? And what are your favorites? I’m always looking for more to read!


  1. That is to say, it doesn’t feel out of date, at all. A ‘new millenium edition’ was recently released, which made it work out even better, but it honestly had aged beautifully before that. 
  2. I’m being deliberately vague about which series I’m talking about because, honestly, it’s true of both. 
  3. but not quite 
  4. He was knighted for his writing. Yes, he was that good. 
  5. I’m adding this footnote in as part of my editing sweep – I’ll admit to having had to blink back tears as I changed this to the past tense. 
  6. And footnotes, which clearly influenced me a lot.