The bestselling SF writer talks about the rush to finish the Long Earth series, being the order to Terry Pratchett’s chaos and how maths helps him write
by Alison Flood
In the summer of 2013, Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett published The Long War, the second volume of their Long Earth science-fiction series, about parallel worlds that can be “stepped” into. By the end of that year, the two authors – both prolific by any standards – had completed drafts of the remaining three novels in the series. It was an astonishing rate of work, but there was a deadline that needed to be met: Pratchett had announced his diagnosis with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007. By the summer of 2014, he would pull out of a Discworld convention, citing “The Embuggerance”, which was “finally catching up with me”. He died in March this year.
“I think Terry was aware he was running out of time, and he wanted to do other things as well,” Baxter says. “So we rushed through it a little bit. Terry’s basic vision was the first step, but he also wanted to have a huge cosmic climax at the end, which would be book five … We had no idea how to get there but we knew where we were going.”
The Long Utopia, the fourth in the series, sees settlers on an Earth more than “a million steps” west of ours stumble across a disturbing, insectile form of alien life. Like its predecessors, the novel is compelling not only for its central storyline of exploration and danger and humans doing foolishly human things – and in this case a particularly cataclysmic finale – but also for its slow, unhurried laying out of the minute differences between these empty-of-humanity Earths.
The concept of a chain of parallel worlds, each a little different from its neighbour, was one Pratchett originally had, and set aside, in the 1980s. He told Baxter, a long-time friend and one of the UK’s most respected science-fiction authors, about it over dinner one night, and they decided to collaborate.
“It was a great idea but Terry’s strength did not lie in landscapes and things,” Baxter says. “He’d get a story by having a basic idea, get two people in a room talking and see where it went from there.”
This is not how Baxter works. His fiction, whether about the colonising mission sent to a planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf star, in Proxima, or the exploration of different evolutions of humanity in the Destiny’s Children series, is meticulously planned and pinned down, rooted in the scientific background from which he comes. He has a degree in maths from Cambridge and a PhD in aeronautical engineering; he is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and applied for a guest spot on the Mir space station in 1989, making it through a number of stages on his quest to be a cosmonaut but eventually missing out because of his lack of foreign languages.
Whether Baxter decides to submerge the world (Flood), or make humanity live in the centre of a neutron star (Flux), or keep the sea off Doggerland in an alternative prehistory (Stone Spring), there’s always a hook into something real. “I try to get it right. If you can get the maths right, I figure you’re most of the way there,” he says.
Baxter is fiercely intelligent, in a generous way, sharing his enthusiasms and knowledge on everything from recently discovered exoplanets to the Mars project (he’s not hopeful, because he doesn’t think enough has been done on long-term life support systems). At the British Interplanetary Society, he’s been part of study projects on everything from designing star ships to extraterrestrial liberty, an issue explored in Ark, his follow-up to Flood, in which the scraps of humanity flee their devastated planet in “generation ships” for an uncertain future outside the solar system.
“It’s all very well to plan a five-generation mission to Alpha Centauri, but if you’re one of the middle generations, you live out your life with very little room for manoeuvre,” he says. “So what right do you have to submit your children and grandchildren to a life of slavery like that? You get some interesting ethical issues – do you have rights over people who don’t yet exist, do they have rights?”