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Kin Arad is 210 years old. She works for The Company, designing new worlds. When you get to Kin’s age, you’ve seen it all. So when she discovers that two of her employees have planted a fossilised plesiosaur in the wrong stratum of the new planet they are building, and that the creature in question appears to be holding a placard bearing the legend “End Nuclear Testing Now”, she isn’t fazed. After all, in her own crazy youth, Kin Arad herself designed a mountain range in the shape of her own initials.
When science and technology can stretch a person’s life span over many generations, and when “days” of extra life are hard currency, it’s easy to become jaded. But a strange traveller, Jago Jalo, approaches Kin and tells her of a fabled flat earth, a disc world, and she is intrigued. This is something new, something world builders have always considered impossible, a thing of myth and legend.
Jalo and Kin, together with two alien beings - a massive, hairy, tusked Shandi called Silver, and Marco, a member of the four armed, warlord race of Kung - make up an expedition to the disc world. But Jalo suffers a massive heart attack and dies during the journey, their ship collides with a planet while trying to land on the disc, and Kin, Silver and Marco find themselves stranded on the flat planet.
Now the race to find the creators of the planet is no longer just a matter of professional curiosity for Kin Arad, it is a matter of survival, and the hope of finding a way to get home. And the staggering truth about the universe that awaits the adventurers will shake all of their beliefs to the core.
Ohhhh, I hope I haven’t given away too much. I wanted to tickle your fancy enough to get you to read Terry Pratchett’s Strata, but I hate spoilers.
So, Terry Pratchett. Well, he’s a very respected and rather prolific author, isn’t he? Several of my friends are fans, and have been on at me for ages to read various books from the Discworld series. Apparently, every fan has their favourite character and considers a particular book definitive.
But, you see, I’ve got this thing. If an author has written a series, I have to read the books in the order they were written. Now I know all this is a bit anal, but it is the writer in me, it makes me read on two levels. I read the story as a reader, but I read the book as a writer, and I like to follow the Author’s thought processes from book to book. It’s strange, I know, but, hey, love me, love my foibles. I enjoy the mechanics of plotting, you see, I like to get into the guts of a writer’s thought processes and rummage around like a tramp in a dustbin. I like to see how one character inspires another, how ideas are born and then carefully bedded down to be used at a later date, how the narrative strands are plaited like long, fluid hanks of shimmering hair from book to book. Ohhh, that was a little florid, wasn’t it. I do apologise, but it kind of painted the picture I wanted to give you. ;O)
So, whilst Strata isn’t a part of the Discworld series, it was written just before the first Discworld book and it does, apparently, give some insight into the genesis of the enormously popular series to come. And at least as a person who has never read Pratchett before, and has certainly never read a Discworld book, I can give you an unbiased review of Strata as a book in its own right, free of the shadow of the stellar accomplishments of its younger siblings.
So, what did I think of Strata? Well, I rather liked it. The language is fluid and natural, the characters are well drawn and although not always human, they have enough human characteristics to be engaging, whilst being “alien” enough to be interesting. It is a fine balance that isn’t always achieved in science fiction, in my experience. And the plot, which on the surface seems pretty simple, is actually rather thought provoking stuff.
Pratchett unapologetically dumps the reader right in the thick of his story, in this advanced culture, in some future time frame and manages to help you find your footing with minimal disorientation, and without great cumbersome wodges of backstory. There’s a real art to that, I have to say, and one I have yet to learn but really desperately want to. Rather than having to read swathes of explanation, the reader is drip-fed the salient details so delicately that you don’t realise he is doing it. And suddenly you understand and the denouement makes perfect sense. Whilst you didn’t guess the ending, it couldn’t have been any other way. It’s really very clever.
There is also the wonderful juxtaposition of this remarkable planet, which has been created using the most advanced technology ever seen, and yet is peopled with simple folk and mythological creatures, and governed by ancient Earth fables.
And so to the downside. Well, there isn’t much of one. Strata is engaging, unusual and well-written. Of course, it isn’t great literature. But it is great storytelling. And there will always be room for that on my bookshelves.
ISBN 0-522-13325-6. Strata is available from Amazon, and most good book shops, priced at £5.99. Oooh, now I can start on the Discworld series – the first one written was The Colour of Magic, so I’m going to start there!