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Alternate History and Terry Pratchett. Part 6: Strata

By Tom Anderson

Strata by Terry Pratchett.

In my article series looking at the use of Alternate History (AH) tropes and concepts by Terry Pratchett in non-AH works, thus far I have looked at his early novel The Carpet People as well as the Discworld novels Mort, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, and Jingo. We will now leave the Discworld series for the remaining two articles in the series. For this one, I shall be going back in time to 1981 and the publication of Pratchett’s standalone science fiction novel Strata.

First, a bit of background. Strata came out five years after another standalone science fiction work by Pratchett, The Dark Side of the Sun, and the two have some similarities, although they take place in different universes. I can’t mention precisely what all these similarities are, as one big one involves the plot twist ending of both novels. Having read both in my school library around the same time I was getting into Discworld, I will say I always preferred The Dark Side of the Sun, just because it generally feels happier and more upbeat in tone, despite some unpleasant events in it. Both novels explore concepts that would later feature in Discworld; some minor ones include that the planet on which The Dark Side of the Sun begins is called Widdershins, which shows in Discworld as a cardinal direction because it means ‘anticlockwise’; a character speaks IN BLOCK CAPITALS like Death from Discworld; and Strata features a bar called the Broken Drum, which later shows up in Discworld. The earlier novel explains the title chosen by the barman – “you can’t beat it.”

The two science fiction novels also have a parallel that both are semi-parodies of existing classic science fiction works. In the case of The Dark Side of the Sun there are several different works being parodied, some more subtly than others (it took me years to figure out that an aside reference about the drosk race in that book was a reference to the Moties from Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye). In particular, our former editor Gary Oswald and I have a never-ending periodic argument about whether The Dark Side of the Sun is more a thematic parody of Dune (as he contends) or Asimov’s Foundation series (as is my view).

Fortunately, things are more clear-cut in Strata, which is a fairly clear-cut thematic parody of Niven’s Ringworld. (This can be added to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and other things which I came across in Pratchett parodies before the original and am therefore now utterly unable to take the original work seriously). For example, the warlike kzinti race (who also vaguely appear in Star Trek due to Niven working them into an Animated Series episode, oddly enough) are represented by a race called the kung in Strata. There are only four current races named in the book (a bit of a climbdown from The Dark Side of the Sun’s 52); humans, kung, the tusked, bear-like shandi, and the bizarre ehfts, which look like giant furry bells. A running theme in the book is that the first three races all think each other are bloodthirsty due to different values (while everyone thinks ehfts are funny, but they only appear once in the book). We also hear about precursor races like the Spindle Kings and the Wheelers, but to say more on that would be to start spoiling the plot a wee bit much.

Geometrically accurate depiction of Niven's Ringworld, based on the dimensions given in the book. Seemingly, some people have time to do this sort of thing.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our main protagonist is a woman named Kin Arad, who works for The Company. The Company is a very powerful institution that makes or terraforms planets, like the Magratheans from The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and gives them a false fossil record to make future inhabitants feel like they have a deeper history than they do. To do this, it uses “strata machines” (title drop). The Company also has a monopoly on anti-ageing treatements, and humans are literally paid in “Days” as a currency which can be redeemed for life extension. As we begin, Kin is dressing down a Company employee for planting a fossil of a plesiosaur with an “end nuclear testing now” placard in the fossil record, never mind that in her youth she made a mountain range in the shape of her initials. Anyway, she is visited by a mysterious man named Jago Jalo, who turns out to be a human far older than the discovery of the Company’s anti-ageing treatment. Jalo is alive because he was the pilot of one of the Terminus Probes, an alternative to the death penalty used by a past Earth government; convicted criminals were put in suspended animation and left to pilot giant slower-than-light probes to distant stars. Jalo’s probe discovered an impossible planet: a flat disc on which are somewhat familiar continents to Earth’s Old World, orbited by a tiny sun and moon with a solid shell of fixed stars surrounding it. In fact, it recreates an ancient human view of cosmography (or at least what people think it was). Somehow, he has returned back to human space and wants to commission a mission to investigate it. He catches her attention by casually disposing of twenty-eight years’ worth of Day bills into an incinerator, handing over a ‘Methuselah’ bill to her, implying it’s the result of technology he found on the flat world. Indeed, analysis shows the bills are genuine rather than forgeries, their numbers just haven’t been issued yet.

Plesiosaur without placard.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the process of this exchange, we learn some things about Earth history. Jalo shocks Kin by saying that he has read thousands of books, when: “there aren’t even hundreds of books anymore... all the old libraries were lost!” Kin is unusual for having written a book: Continuous Creation, and in her time authors were expected to print the paper and do the binding themselves, as the art has fallen into decay and publishers don’t exist (but film studios, “filmy factors”, do). This concept is already hugely dated with the advent of eBooks and now tells you more about attitudes at the time that Pratchett wrote it. We also get a flashback to Kin’s childhood, later expanded on towards the end of the book. Humanity was devastated by the Mindquakes, psychic pressure from overpopulation (another very 20th century concept) which killed millions or billions. In Kin’s time, Earth’s population has only just got back up to 750 million, and in her youth there seemed to be more robots than people (including robotic Morris dancers, because Terry Pratchett). She is one of relatively few humans genuinely born on actual Earth, with many copies (including, inevitably, one called Real Earth).

Kin is half-kidnapped, half-suckered into the mission, and finds the flat world alongside a kung named Marco (who thinks he’s a reincarnated human) and a shand named Silver, also recruited by Jalo. Jalo himself is promptly ‘killed’ (but in a temporary way) by a robotic raven from the flat world and the other three have to investigate alone. Now, you might be thinking that all of this is very interesting, but what does it have to do with AH? I’m coming to that.

As an aside, The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata feature somewhat similar, but distinct, means of faster-than-light travel. The former uses “matrix engines” that travel through “interspace”, implied to be a place where many realms and possibilities come together, tying in with that book’s use of “probability math” and also dipping into AH (though not to the extent that I can make an article about it). Strata, on the other hand, has “Elsewhere” drives, whose operation seems instantaneous but is decidely jarring (“a few seconds of vertigo, an eternity of despair.”)

Back to that flat planet. When Kin and her new allies land, we get some revelations we might have expected, like wonder at how it possibly works and why it resembles Earth, etc. Indeed, one can see how some of these ideas were used in the Discworld series, though in many ways it’s quite different. However, there’s also a rather unexpected revelation. It turns out that Kin’s version of Earth, centuries before, was already an alternate timeline, as we learn when she doesn’t recognise certain things from this flat world that come from our history. Kin’s Earth had a Reman Empire, arising from Remus killing Romulus and founding the city of Reme. The third and last Reman Empire ended in the Battle of Haelcor, which is also used as the start of the calendar. This is probably about 700 AD, as schoolchildren in her timeline are taught the rhyme: “In the year three hundred and twenty-two, Eiriksson sailed the ocean blue!” (estimated to be around 1020 AD in OTL). Indeed, down on the flat planet, they meet Leiv Eiriksson (as spelled by Pratchett) but on this flat world with no Americas, there’s nothing for him to discover.

In Kin’s World, on the other hand, Eiriksson is celebrated as the discoverer of the Americas or, as they’re known to her, Valhalla (with the original colony being called Vinland, as in OTL). We already had a few hints of this; Kin compares the heat of the flat world’s “equator” to Venus and its poles to... Wotan, presumably an outer plant with a different name to OTL.

We then get an infodump explaining the history of Kin’s world – well, this is an early Pratchett book and he didn’t have his technique down yet. We hear how the Vikings colonised the eastern seaboard, up around “Tyker’s Sea” (Hudson’s Bay?) and down the Long Fjord (the St Lawrence) into the Middle Seas (the Great Lakes). They defeated some of the indigenous peoples and made a treaty with the Objibwa Confederacy (as Pratchett spells it). That was the beginning of a rising force. “Three hundred years after Leiv, a fleet arrived at the mouth of the Mediterranean. Most of the vessels were under sail although there were one or two, small, fast, and inclined to blow up, that could move into the wind. The sails of the big ships bore the Great Eagle of Valhalla on a striped background alternating the colours of the sky, snow and blood.” (Thus notice the allusion to OTL United States symbolism with a Viking justification for them). “The Battle of Gibraltar was short. Europe had been through two hundred years of stagnation. There was no answer to cannon.”

Not being too familiar with AH when I first read this book as a kid, I think I can be excused a little confusion on how this is just thrown out there. It is certainly a plot twist. There are other changes as well. Kin doesn’t know what Christianity is, though rather inconsistently this comes a few pages after the flat world being (inaccurately) described as “built... according to the ideas of some kind of medieval monk”. There is also an anomalous, perfectly round island in the Arabian Sea which, predictably, is their destination.

Another profound difference mentioned in passing is that (unlike the flat world’s tiny set of orbiting planets) Kin’s version of Earth features a Venus with a moon, Adonis. There’s even an aside which implies that humanity looking towards the stars was prompted in part by the fact that Venus and Adonis represented an obvious comparison for Earth and the Moon and helped instil the idea that the Earth is not the centre of the universe.

I won’t cover any more of the plot of the book, because to do so would be to spoil some more interesting concepts and plot twists. I will just say that it is very typical of Terry Pratchett to come up with a grab bag of AH ideas that, though a bit rough around the edges, are more imaginative than those which one finds in many dedicated AH books, and just have them used as an afterthought to add colour to an unrelated science fiction setting.

In my next and final article in this series, I’ll be looking at the third book in his Johnny Maxwell children’s fiction series: Johnny and the Bomb.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

Look To The West (5 book series)

N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)

Twilight's Last Gleaming.

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