Strata by Terry Pratchett
Corgi Books, 1989 (Reprint)
Originally published by Colin Smythe Ltd., 1981
Price I paid: none
The excavation showed that the fossilized plesiosaur had been holding a placard which read, ‘End Nuclear Testing Now.’
That was nothing unusual.
But then came a discovery of something which did intrigue Kin Arad.
A flat earth was something new…
“What the everliving hell is going on here?”
Give me just a minute to expla―
“We’ve stood by you when you’ve decided not to read schlocky stuff before. We were fine when you read Harry Harrison, or Norman Spinrad, or Louis L’Amour. But this is just taking it too far.”
Like I say, just one―
“And now you’re gonna sit here and review Terry Pratchett, who has sold more books than most Bible companies and is your favorite author.”
I guess I can wait for you to finish.
“What’s next? You gonna read Stranger in a Strange Land? Gonna start a review with ‘Hey look at this weird book I found that nobody’s ever heard of. It’s called Dune?'”
Are you done yet?
“Yeah, I think so.”
Okay, so here’s the deal. Yes, Terry Pratchett is among the greatest authors whom I’ve ever read. I could―and have―read each and every Discworld novel multiple times and will probably read them again. His passing in 2015 has left a hole in my life that will never be filled.
But despite all this, my reading of his work outside of the Discworld is sorely lacking. Of course I love Good Omens, and I liked Nation and the first Long Earth novel (haven’t gotten around to the rest yet), but those were all written after he’d started writing about the Disc.
Strata stands out because a) it’s predates the Discworld novels, and b) it’s purely science fiction.
So I got curious. It helps that my roommate got this paperback in a bookstore in San Francisco about two years ago and brought it back for me, whereupon I put it somewhere and forgot about it.
But I found it again and now it’s time to talk about it.
I probably don’t have to say this, but of course this book was phenomenal.
I mean, you could probably argue that by Pratchett standards the book was pretty meh. It certainly wasn’t Night Watch or Small Gods, but c’mon. That’s hardly a fair comparison.
Another interesting thing about this book is that it was, in many ways, a sort of test run for Discworld concepts. Folks familiar with the the Disc―and if you aren’t, drop this review right now and head to your nearest local book store or public library―will recognize a few familiar concepts, a couple of clever lines, and even a character.
The hero of this novel is Kin Arad. She’s a higher-up for a company called the Company. She supervises the construction of planets. That’s what the Company does. They’re planet-builders.
When we first meet Kin, she’s reprimanding a junior worker for playing a prank. See, the planets the Company builds are meant for future human habitation, and they’re meant to last. The planets are complete with fake fossils and complete histories, just in case the humans there last long enough to forget that they were migrants.
It’s a pretty common prank for Company workers to plant something ridiculous in the fossil record so that future civilizations will find it and be freaked out by it. This particular worker planted a plesiosaur skeleton holding a placard about stopping nuclear testing. Kin punishes the worker with some mandatory vacation and then admits that her own prank was to spell her name in a mountain range.
It’s not long before Kin is approached by a man named Jago Jalo. Jalo’s got lots of interesting tricks up his sleeve, stuff that’s supposed to be impossible even for this society that can literally build planets. He explains that he’s over a thousand years old and that he was launched into space in a Terminus probe, an old project that accelerated explorers to near-light velocities and set them out into the universe. They were never meant to come back.
There’s an offhand mention of a different Terminus astronaut who arrived at his destination to find a colony of humans that had been there for three hundred years because the FTL Elsewhere Drive was discovered not long after he left.
Anyway, Jalo managed to come back. This in itself is a mystery. He tells Kin about what he found in his exploration. It’s yet another impossibility: a flat world. He tells Kin that he’s arranged a team for her to meet up with and together they’ll all explore this…Discworld.
It’s never called that, although it’s referred to as a disc quite often.
She meets up with two aliens. There’s Marco, a kung. Kung are basically frog people. They come from a planet where it never stops raining. Marco is a member of the warrior caste, which means he has four arms, and he’s also legally human because he was born on Earth. Like most kung, he’s generally paranoid and fearless in battle.
The other alien is Silver, a shand. The shandi are tusked bear people. Silver is gentle and scientific, although like all shandi there’s a dark side. Namely, if a shand gets too hungry it will turn feral and kill and eat anything nearby. Normally that’s not a problem, except that shandi can’t eat the same proteins that humans and kung do, so there needs to be a constant supply of shand-edible food. Again, not much of a problem, because there’s a device called a dumbwaiter that can provide the requisite food. So of course something is going to happen to it.
The trio meets Jalo again, who dies suddenly of a coronary when a raven lands on his shoulder.
And so they go to visit this disc. It turns out that it’s not just a flat planet, it’s a flat Earth. It’s not full-sized and is missing the New World, but it’s still very definitely Earth. It’s surrounded by a fake sky with fake planets, and we start go get hints that something weird is going on, even beyond the fact that there’s a fake flat Earth.
Pratchett has a lot of little offhand comments that tell us that something about the real Earth, where Kin comes from, is different from out own. There’s a mention that the Venus of this fake little system doesn’t have a moon like it should. History is all weird, with Rome being called Reme and so forth. At first I thought the Reme thing was a typo, but it’s eventually discussed more fully. One starts to wonder if this book also takes place in some kind of parallel universe.
The ship collides with a tiny planet and then crashes to the surface of the disc. They discover a medieval civilization of humans there, but there are also such things as dragons and demons. We get even more hints of weirdness when we learn that Kin has no idea who this “Christos” guy the natives keep mentioning is, and that it’s weird that they call Reme Rome.
The trio sets out for the hub of the disc, getting into all sorts of adventures.
One particular demon, I think it was actually supposed to be Satan, destroys the dumbwaiter, and since Silver can’t eat anything on the disc, there’s now a timer running. The heroes hope that if they can get to the hub they’ll figure out who built this wacky thing and maybe they can make some food.
The flying belts they’ve been using begin to run out of power, so they land in Baghdad. They meet a guy who has a collection of “magical” artifacts, such as flying carpets and a mechanical flying horse. He tries to add Silver and Marco to his collection, but Kin manages to free them and they continue their journey.
They reach the hub and it’s there that Kin is able to find out the secret of everything that’s going on. It’s even bigger than the disc itself.
So one thing I haven’t mentioned is that there was a sort of precursor race, the Spindles. They created the world-building technology that humans eventually discovered and put to their own uses. Before the Spindles were another race whose technology the Spindles improved on, and so forth all the way back to the creation of the universe. Kin wrote a book about it called Continuous Creation, which was very popular. Pratchett throws in a great gag about how everywhere she goes she gets asked to sign a copy of it, and that whoever asks for the autograph always claims it’s for their nephew.
The purpose of the Company’s plan to build planets is to prevent the eventual extinction of humanity by diversifying it.
So Kin discovers the truth, and it’s that most of what she thought she knew is completely wrong.
Remember the bit at the beginning, about throwing in something weird to the fossil record of a new planet just to screw around with people in the future. Well, it turns out that that’s exactly what the disc is. The entire universe is only about 70,000 years old, and all the history with Spindles and other races going back billions of years is fake. We’re a colony universe and the disc is there just to make us ask what the crap is going on.
On a more mundane level, the disc is breaking down. The machinery that keeps it functioning is unable to repair itself, and the disc only has a thousand years or so left.
Kin learns all this from a computer called the Committee. The Committee begs Kin to save its children, the inhabitants of the disc. She agrees to this, and the computer helps her and her friends escape back to civilization.
Oh, along the way they managed to find a way to feed Silver, so everything’s okay there.
The computer is able to build them a space ship and then uses a roc to drop it off the side of the world, thus saving on fuel. The book ends with the trio heading back home and Kin thinking about writing a second edition of her book and how she’s going to go about creating another Earth and transporting these people to it.
It’s not explicitly said, but I think we’re safe in assuming that this new Earth is, in fact, our Earth.
Of course, I’m not at all able to do this book justice by breaking it down like this. It was so full of brilliance that every few pages had me going “Oh man, nice!” The aliens were good and actually alien, something that gets commented upon in the text a lot. Kin finds herself thinking of her alien friends as basically humans in disguise, and has to remind herself constantly that they have their own ways of thinking that she’ll never fully understand.
The book is so clearly a proto-Discworld novel, even past the fact that there’s a discworld in it. Of course, this disc isn’t supported on the back of Great A’Tuin by four elephants, but such a world is mentioned as part of ancient human thinking. The fact that there’s magic on this world is noteworthy, even though it’s just sufficiently advanced technology.
A few bits from Discworld you might also recognize are the fact that there’s a bar named the Broken Drum (you can’t beat it), and there’s an offhand line where Kin lies to the computer near the end, which responds that she should sue her face for slander. I believe Lord Vetinari says this exact line to Rincewind in The Colour of Magic.
Oh, and among all the mythological creatures that the group meets, one of them is good old Death. He doesn’t talk in small caps like his Discworld counterpart. In fact, he doesn’t talk at all, but there it is.
Pratchett was already using text formatting to great effect in this book, though. There is a demon that talks in small caps, and there was a genie who always Talks Like This. It’s always been one of my favorite aspects of Terry’s writing that he was able to convey so much with judicious use of capital letters.
On the flip side, there were no footnotes.
So yeah, this book was great and grand, and moreover was an exercise in seeing the early work of one of my favorite authors. As great as the book was, it lacked some of the best aspects of his later works. There wasn’t much “stealth philosophy” as it were, although there’s one bit that I really enjoyed that would fit that. The characters were fine, but they didn’t have quite the depth that Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax do. Of course, he had a great many books to develop those characters, so that’s no real surprise.
I would have liked to see Terry revisit the world of Strata at some point, but as a standalone science fiction novel, it’s pretty damned fine.