“Strata,” by Terry Pratchett

Strata,” by Terry Pratchett

“Strata,” by Terry Pratchett: Text provided by Transworld Publishers, a division of the Random House Group Limited, and the audiobook version provided by ISIS Publishing Ltd., read by Stephen Briggs.

Reader’s Note: Just because the Review is a “no plot spoiler,” does not mean that all the links are of the same mind. Wikipedia links to the books themselves, or characters in the book, are notorious for being plot spoilers. Be warned!

Stephen Briggs and Terry Pratchett have been working very closely for several years, particularly since the onset of Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s disease. Stephen Briggs has helped in the physical production of the last few manuscripts produced by Pratchett, particularly in typing the manuscripts as Pratchett has continued to lose the effective use of his hands. Briggs has also produced on his own account The Streets of Ankh-Morpork in 1993, as well as The Discworld Mapp, A Tourist Guide to Lancre and Death’s Domain. Briggs has also written The Discworld Companion, published in 1995, and updated in 1998 and 2003.

Most particularly, Stephen Briggs has recorded, or rerecorded, virtually every published book that Terry Pratchett has published, starting with The Carpet People in 1971, and most recently at the time of this blogging Dodger in late 2012. This is mildly unfortunate as I find other readers to have a wider range of distinctive voices for character differentiation. But that is not to say, or even imply, the Stephen Briggs is a bad reader- far from it. For what Briggs may lack in variety, he more then makes up for with a complete understanding of the characters, and the world in which they operate. And Brigg’s voice is clear, relatively accent free, and one that will not bore the listener. Having listened to several volunteer recordings from sources such as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, LibriVox.org, and BooksShouldBeFree.com, I can assure you, that last point is more important than you might think. While I might prefer one reader to another, my view is that Stephen Briggs’ the rendering is good, solid, and well worth the investment. I doubt that most listeners will be disappointed.

Strata, by Terry Pratchett, published in 1981, is billed as a comedic science fiction novel, although I find it to be a hybrid of straight science fiction, and satire. While the novel pulls together major themes of science fiction dominating from the 1950s through the 1970s, Pratchett also weaves in elements of classical fiction such as One Thousand and One Nights (Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎), Midlevel Christian history, Celtic and Arthurian Legend, and the meaning of the creation of man “…in His own image” (Genesis 1:27), without directly referencing any of the above in great detail. Those familiar with these subjects though will recognize them when they appear, and I doubt that a lack of familiarity with the same subjects will hinder the enjoyment. Pratchett writes to entertain first, with literary merit taking a distant back seat. So while Pratchett may be Guilty of Literature, he is certainly not above telling a fart joke, especially if it is also implicitly bawdy.

The novel opens with a very telling quote:

“I met a mine foreman who has a piece of coal with a 1909 gold sovereign embedded in it. I saw an ammonite, apparently squashed in the fossil footprint of a sandal.
There is a room in the basement of the Natural History Museum which they keep locked. Among other oddities in there are the tyrannosaurus with a wristwatch and the Neanderthal skull with gold fillings in three teeth.
What are you going to do about it?”
–Dr. Carl Untermond, “The Overcrowded Eden.”

If you stop to pounder this quote, which I must admit, I never did until I started to write this review, or more precisely, until a few seconds prior to composing this sentence, you will find a key to the entire mystery of this story. As Paul Griner once asked his creative writing students; “Did any of you bother to look at the quote? Whenever an author takes the time to quote another author, even a fictitious author, it’s important- even if it turns out later to be misdirection.” I would also mention that Terry Pratchett loves puns, and is extraordinarily good at constructing them.

So it turns out to be no major surprise that Strata turns out to be about the construction of worlds, specifically, planets. Kin Arad, the novel’s protagonist, works for a company, called The Compnay, which makes planets. The Company does not simply terraform planets, as we learn quickly in the first few pages, but builds planets, from the core, to the strata, to the highest mountains and the outer atmosphere.

Terry Pratchett sets the opening scene well:

It was, of course, a beautiful day — a Company brochure day. At the moment Kin’s office overlooked a palm-fringed lagoon. White water broke over the outer reef, and the beach was of crushed white coral and curious shells.

No brochure would have shown the nightmare bulk of the pontoon-mounted strata machine, the small model for islands and atolls under fifteen kilometres. As Kin watched, another metre of beach spilled out of the big back hopper.

She wondered about the pilot’s name. There was genius in that line of beach. A man who could lay down a beach like that, with the shells just right, deserved better things. But then, perhaps he was a Thoreau type who just liked islands. You got them sometimes; shy silent types who preferred to drift across the ocean after the volcano teams, dreamily laying complicated archipelagos with indecent skill. She’d have to ask.

But do not let the image of idealized joy and contentment give a false impression. Like Pratchett’s prose is spare, so is the wait for action short. While not entirely an in medias res opening, it might as well be.

The opening continues:

“She leant over her desk and called up the area engineer.

‘Joel? Who’s on BCF3?’

The engineer’s lined brown face appeared over the intercom.

‘Guday, Kin. Let me see now. Aha! Good, is it? You like it?’

‘It’s good.’

‘It’s Hendry. The one who’s the subject of all those nasty depositions you’ve got on your desk. You know, the one who put the fossil dino in–‘

‘I read it.’

Joel recognized the edge to her voice. He sighed.

‘Nicol Plante, she’s his mixer, she must have been in on it too. I put them on island duty because, well, with a coral island there is not the temptation–‘

‘I know.’ Kin thought for a while. ‘Send him over. And her. It’s going to be a busy day, Joel. It’s always like this at the end of a job, people start to play around.’

‘It’s youth. We’ve all done it. With me it was a pair of boots in a coal measure. Not so imaginative, I admit.’

‘You mean I should excuse him?’

Of course he did. Everyone was allowed just one unscripted touch, weren’t they? Checkers always spotted them, didn’t they? And even if one went unnoticed, couldn’t we rely on future palaeontologists to hush it up? Huh?

Trouble was, they might not . . .”

And here Terry Pratchett establishes a pattern that will continue throughout the rest of the novel, escalation followed by escalation, followed by reflection on the part of the protagonist Kin Arad. The pattern continues, allowing Pratchett to reflect on certain elements of history, civilianization, speculations on extra-terrestrial life, and the history of science fiction literature. And while the novel “Strata” is firmly grounded in science fiction as the next quote will illustrate, fans of Pratchett’s later 39 Discworld novels will recognize several details that Pratchett later develops at considerable length. Which by the way, leads me to consider “Strata” to be the actual first Discworld novel, rather then The Colour of Magic, published in 1983. Although it should also be mentioned that some of these same Discworld like details are also present in Pratchett’s The Dark Side of the Sun, published in 1976, and Pratchett’s first very novel The Carpet People, published in 1971.

But where Isaac Asimov takes the dime view of the physicists Enrico Fermi’s Fermi Paradox (Fermi’s Paradox) concerning the existence of sentient alien life in our universe, and only populates his fictional universe with humanity and sentient-like robots, Terry Pratchett takes a middle of the road oppositional view. In Pratchett’s “Strata” universe, sentient alien life does exist off Earth, but it is rare.

By the way, the short story “Fermi and Frost,” by Frederik Pohl, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1986, is an excellent antidote to anyone that has just thrown-up their lunch due to the wilful ignorance of actual real science as displayed by Cormac McCarthy in his writing of “The Road.” Seriously, just ask anyone that knows anything about plant life how long it would take for all the plants to die if the sun were blotted out by cloud cover for a couple ten, twelve, or fourteen years? Of course I’m guess at the length of time because McCarthy can’t be bothered to tell you little details like what happened to cause the cloud cover, or when it happened. The fact that “The Road” received critical acclaim only proves to convince me that I’d rather tell a good story and be shunned by the academics. (Well, accept for the ones I like, like most of the writers I know, and my wife, and myself, of course.)

Yet, the digression has relevant merit to Pratchett’s “Strata.” While he is not overwhelming about it, Pratchett does make more then a slight effort to articulate real scientific principles when apocopate in his prose narrative. And for the most part, does a good job of explaining in scientific terms what appears to be something else. And this book is a great deal about appearances. What one sees is not always what is. The book “Strata” makes an interesting front bookend as compared to Pratchett’s “The Long Earth,” published in 2012.

The story continues:

“’He’s good, and later on he’ll be great,’ said Joel. ‘Just gnaw one ball off, eh?’

A few minutes later Kin heard the machine’s roar stutter and stop. Soon one of the outer office robots came in, leading–a squat fair-haired youth, tanned lobster pink, and a skinny bald girl hardly out of her teens. They stood staring at Kin with a mixture of fear and defiance, dripping coral dust onto the carpet.

‘All right, sit down. Want a drink? You both look dehydrated. I thought they had air conditioning in those things.’

The pair exchanged glances. Then the girl said, ‘Frane likes to get the feel of his work.’

‘Well, OK. The freezer’s that round thing hovering right behind you. Help yourself.’

They jerked away as the freezer bumped into their shoulders, then grinned nervously and sat down.

They were in awe of Kin, which she found slightly embarrassing. According to the files they were both from colony planets so new the bedrock had hardly dried, while she was manifestly from Earth. Not Whole, New, Old, Real or Best Earth. Just Earth, cradle of humanity, just like it said in their history books. And the double-century mark on her forehead was probably something they’d only heard of before joining John Company. And she was their boss. And she could fire them.”

There is an interesting echo, or tribute, to the history of science fiction with the reference to six different Earth named planets. Pratchett may have been referencing The Foundation Series, the iconic epic work of science fiction series by Isaac Asimov, which began with the first novel “Foundation” published in novel format in 1951, after being published in serial format in several different magazines. Among many other things, the “Foundation series is about the search for the original Earth, the “mythical” origin of the human species. The Foundation series starts at a point far in the future, in which humanity has colonized all known solar systems, but has somehow managed to misplace the real Earth. Without going into an insanely long tangent, the comparison of intellectual origins is only strengthened when between Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire” is compared to Pratchett’s “The Dark Side of the Sun.”

Then again, maybe not. I originally started working with footnotes in fiction as far back as 1999. The footnotes were not merely informational in nature, but integral to the stories themselves. But I never got anything together, and “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” published by English author Susanna Clarke, published in 2004 completely legitimized my prior effort. Unfortunately, since 2004 the publishing industry has been completely taken over by the prevalence of eBook formats devoted to hand held electronic devices. Working with a conscious knowledge of the contemporary market, which make footnotes difficult, if not impossible, to display correctly, I have abandoned such efforts. Ironically, I have developed a narrative technique lifted off Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopædia Galactica. But, that’s another post, and not entirely relevant to this review of “Strata.” One day, I shall tell you more about my Prognosticated Peerage encyclopædia of all things both rare and wonderful, but not today.

In this concluding quotation, the protagonist, Kin Arad is exposed, rather cleverly, to have an impressive narrative history. For she has done something remarkable, she’s written a book.

“The freezer drifted back to its alcove, describing a neat detour around a patch of empty air at the back of the room. Kin made a mental note to get a tech to look at it.

They sat gingerly on the float chairs. Colony worlds didn’t have them, Kin recalled. She glanced at the file, gave them an introductory glare, and switched on the recorder.

‘You know why you’re here,’ she said. ‘You’ve read the regulations, if you’ve got any sense. I’m bound to remind you that you can either choose to accept my judgement as senior executive of the sector, or go before a committee at Company HQ. If you elect for me to deal with it, there’s no appeal. What do you say?’

‘You,’ said the girl.

‘Can he speak?’

‘We elect to be tried by you, Mizz,’ said the boy in a thick Creed accent.

Kin shook her head. ‘It’s not a trial. If you don’t like my decision you can always quit — unless of course I fire you.’ She let that sink in. Behind every Company trainee was a parsec-long queue of disappointed applicants. Nobody quit.

‘Right, it’s on record. Just for the record, then, you two were on strata machine BVN67 on Julius fourth last, working a line on Y-continent? You’ve got the detailed charge on the notice of censure you were given at the time.’

‘ ‘Tis all correct,’ said Hendry. Kin thumbed a switch.

One wall of the office became a screen. They got an aerial view of grey datum rock, broken off sharply by a kilometre-high wall of strata like God’s own mad sandwich. The strata machine had been severed from its cliff and moved to one side. Unless a really skilled jockey lined it up next time, this world’s geologists were going to find an unexplained fault.

The camera zoomed in to an area halfway up the cliff, where some rock had been melted out. There was a gantry and a few yellow-hatted workmen who shuffled out of camera field, except for one who stood holding a measuring rod against Exhibit A and grinning. Hi there, all you folks out there in Company Censure Tribunal Land.

‘A plesiosaur,’ said Kin. ‘All wrong for this stratum, but what the hell.’ The camera floated over the half excavated skeleton, focusing now on the distorted rectangles by its side. Kin nodded. Now it was quite clear. The beast had been holding a placard. She could just make out the wording.

‘ “End Nuclear Testing Now”,’ she said levelly.”

It must have taken a lot of work. Weeks, probably, and then a very complicated program to be fed into the machine’s main brain.

‘How did you find out?’ asked the girl.

Because there was a telltale built into every machine, but that was an official secret. It was welded into the ten-kilometre output slot to detect little unofficial personal touches, like pacifist dinosaurs and mammoths with hearing aids — and it stayed there until it found one. Because sooner or later everyone did it. Because every novice planetary designer with an ounce of talent felt like a king atop the dream-device that was a strata machine, and sooner or later yielded to the delicious temptation to pop the skulls of future palaeontologists. Sometimes the Company fired them, sometimes the Company promoted them.

‘I’m a witch,’ she said. ‘Now, I take it you admit this?’

‘Yarss,’ said Hendry. ‘But may I make, uh, a plea in mitigation?’

He reached into his tunic and brought out a book, its spine worn with use. He ran his thumb down it until the flickering pages stopped at his reference.

‘Uh, this is one of the authorities on planetary engineering,’ he said. ‘May I go ahead?’

‘Be my guest.’

‘Well, uh. “Finally, a planet is not a world. Planet? A ball of rock. World? A four-dimensional wonder. On a world there must be mysterious mountains. Let there be bottomless lakes peopled with antique monsters. Let there be strange footprints in high snowfields, green ruins in endless jungles, bells beneath the sea; echo valleys and cities of gold. This is the yeast in the planetary crust, without which the imagination of men will not rise.”’

There was a pause.

‘Mr Hendry,’ asked Kin, ‘did I say anything there about nuclear-disarmament dinosaurs?’

‘No, but–‘

‘We build worlds, we don’t just terraform planets. Robots could do that. We build places where the imagination of human beings can find an anchor. We don’t bugger about planting funny fossils…”

For me, the image of an anti- nuclear testing dinosaur just about sums up the book. It is brilliant in its simplicity, and funny in its complete irrelevance to dinosaurs. And the idea of it turning up in the seemingly millions of years old strata of a world, tossing all of excepted science into the rubbish bin of history, is so tempting that one might actually pray to the Creator for it to happen just to liven the place up a bit. And if one pauses to considers that it was only in 1980 that Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the iconic television series written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, began being aired in the United States by the Public Broadcasting Service, Terry Pratchett’s musings on the origins of the universe take on a whole new layer of amusement and humour. The rest of the novel does not fail to live up to the expectations set in these first few pages.

Perhaps best of all though, the book is the origins of the Discworld itself. For as Dr. Carl Untermond also said in the “The Overcrowded Eden”; “There is no rain in Heaven. That’s why the Angel wares sunglasses with his trench coat.”

I hope that you have enjoyed this review. It turned out to be more of a bloody pain to write then I thought it would be. Of course, life is full of deceptively “simple” tasks. I’m sure I will get better at this. If not, well, there’s always a lawn that needs mowing somewhere.

Pax Tibi, James

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