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Literature / Strata

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A Science Fiction, pre-Discworld novel written by Terry Pratchett. It explores the possibility of a Flat World, the concept that would go on to become the Discworld.

Kin Arad's job is building worlds. She works for a mysterious organisation called only the Company. But then one day she is contacted by a man claiming to be, essentially, an early space probe who was sent off into space. He enlists her to travel to a strange world that he claims to be flat. So Kin teams up with a kung (4-armed amphibious Proud Warrior Race Guy), Marco, and a shand (tusked, hungry and bear-like, but ultimately friendly), Silver, and they head off to investigate this world.

Once there, they find a world that pretty much matches with the old myths about the Earth — it's flat, things go round it, stars are actually points on a sphere surrounding it, and so on. Also, the world is still in the dark ages, and demons very much exist.


It's also worth noting that the story actually takes place in a universe subtly different from our own, and that aside from the main story, the book also delves into the nature of humanity (comparing it to the three or four alien races that are mentioned), and reveals another long-dead alien race that manufactured worlds wholesale — including, it is implied, Earth itself. Indeed, these had a previous ancestor who was even more advanced, and those too, right up the chain to Energy Beings. Anyway, this is evident from the use of alternate names for places, particularly Reme rather than Rome, and mentioning that Venus has a moon named Adonis. Furthermore, the main characters don't seem to have heard of Christianity, although Wicca and Buddhism exist. The flat world appears to match our own in all these points, except for being flat and only covering the equivalent of the Eastern Hemisphere.


It has very many parallels (or rather antiparallels) with Larry Niven's Ringworld; to some extent it was intended as a spoof of it. Niven thought it was a perfectly fine work of Big Dumb Object epic SF by itself.

This novel contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade
  • Action Girl: Kin.
  • Age Without Youth: It's stated that without Day Bills to buy treatments offered only by the Company, you can get immortality via other genetic treatments, but that won't stop you from looking your age.
    • While many men on the disc seem to be interested in Kin (if she looked 200 years this would not be the case), she worked for the company and so kept up her rejuvenation treatments. However, hair never gets past the first century.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: In Kin's Earth America is called Valhalla and was colonised by the Vikings. However the resulting state uses a flag involving white and red stripes, just like our world's USA, but in this case they stand for blood and ice.
  • Alternate History: Kin's Earth is mostly similar to ours, but many places have different names and Christianity apparently doesn't exist (because it's first discovered on the Flat Earth).
    • Although this is a bit inconsistent, because at one point Kin says the flat world looks like "the vision of some mediaeval monk".
      • Possibly Eastern traditions of monasticism spread into Europe in place of Christianity's?
  • All Myths Are True: On Flat Earth. Apart from its shape, dragons, giant turtles and demons are shown.
  • Artificial Gravity: On the entire Flat Earth. A lot of effort is put in by the main characters to find out why.
  • Auto-Kitchen: The Dumbwaiter, which is built around a Matter Replicator and is apparently able to supply them endlessly with food and drink. The medieval priests denounce it as evil and try to destroy it.
  • Beast Man: The Shandi, who have giant tusks and need to eat constantly to stop them from going berserk.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology:
    • Described in some detail, particularly the Kung, and Josh Kirby's illustrations on the front cover make it more obvious. Also the Ehfts, seen once near the beginning.
    • This is used as a plot point in regards to the Shandi; they can't consume proteins from foods that don't originate on Shand, and are ritual cannibals. This proves a problem after their Dumbwaiter is destroyed.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: Discussed. While the Kung and Shandi seem to have essentially human psychologies with added quirks — see also Blue-and-Orange Morality below — Kin reflects that everybody (including humans) projects their own psychology on other species, and understanding another species beyond a superficial level may be impossible. Played straighter with the Ehfts, who are weird to everybody.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Kung will become mindless, nigh-invulnerable killing machines if provoked, while the Shandi have a tradition of fighting to the death, with the winner allowed to feast on the corpse of the loser, and will go into a kind of feeding frenzy if deprived of food, but are horrified by the human concept of war. Humans are somewhere between them on the scale of violence. One major theme of the book is that the aliens can't be judged by human values, and vice-versa.
  • Captain Ersatz: All the main characters for the crew of Ringworld's Lying Bastard.
    • Kin is woman, opposite number of Louis Wu.
    • Marco is Nessus' opposite, an ultra-masculine Vertebrate with Extra Limbs as opposed to an extremely effeminate tripodal ungulate with two heads (although not the expedition leader).
    • Silver is the opposite of Speaker-To-Animals, a kind but terrifying bear-like female as opposed to a feirce Kavorka Man. Both are from a One-Gender Race, but Shand are female and Kzinti are male.
    • The Raven is Teela Brown's opposite; a creature that survives with caution and cunning instead of a Born Lucky ditz.
  • Dark Age Europe
  • Early-Bird Cameo: A bar called the Broken Drum features - that name was later reused for the Discworld series. Here it is explicitly explained - "You can't beat it".
  • Earth All Along: Near the end of the novel, it's become apparent that the flat planet isn't going to last indefinitely, and Kin starts making plans to reshape a suitable planet into a spherical replica and evacuate the inhabitants there. Along with the various ways Kin's Earth differs from ours, the implication is that we're descendants of the flatworlders and our Earth is the replica.
  • Earth Is Young: The main character designs planets for a living, and it is explained that it is important to give each planet a "history" to make it feel like something billions of years old rather than just a big lump of rock. At the end of the book it turns out that the entire Universe was constructed with this in mind and is only about seventy thousand years old.
  • Earth That Used to Be Better: Earth's population was decimated by the Mindquakes (people spontaneously died from the psychic pressure of overpopulation), and there's now a larger population of robots. Also, all but a few hundred books were lost in the collapse of civilisation.
  • Emotion Suppression: "Dissociation" is a type of meditation with this effect.
  • Energy Beings: As part of Kin's great theory of the origins of man, there was a chain of Recursive Precursors — ever more advanced aliens going back through the history of the universe, right back to something like this.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Through the "Elsewhere".
  • Flat World: How flat-out impossible such a world is turns out to be a major plot point.
  • Horny Vikings: Kin is warned by Silver that she may have to "engage in sexual relations" with various men in order to gain acceptance, particularly the Vikings that they first encounter when landing on the Flat Earth. However, they're too afraid of someone who's just come flying in that they worship her instead of taking advantage.
  • Horrifying the Horror: At one point Marco, fed up with an uncooperative demon, tells it to read his mind. The demon does so and ends up terrified.
  • Hufflepuff House: Only four races are named (and in such a way that implies they're the only four): humans, Kung, Shandi (who all get main characters)...and Efhts, who only get a brief appearance and are really weird.
  • Humanoid Aliens: kinda. One is a frog with four arms and the other is a bear with tusks (who is also a linguist).
  • Humanity Is Superior: Humanity rules the galaxy, and the few alien races we see in any detail have crippling physical or psychological problems. Kung are neurotically afraid of everything except immediate physical danger, go berserk if threatened; and the Chew Toy-like Shand are not only instinctively cannibalistic but turn into mindless eating machines if they don't feed regularly. The closest thing to a similar problem humans have is getting bored because they live too long.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: Some elements of this, particularly when considering what the different races view as normal behaviour, and vice-versa.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Invoked everytime they travel through the Elsewhere, which is nothingness.
  • I Like Those Odds: As Marco puts it, he outnumbered his human adversaries one to thirty. He is deadly serious about it, too.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Marco's kung parents were stranded on Earth when he was born, and believed that a newborn kung acquires a soul from the nearest available dead individual. His father attempted to kill himself to provide his child with a soul of the right species, but was stopped by the shand he'd been meeting with when the news of his wife's labor reached him.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): A few on Kin's Earth — on the Flat Earth they either don't exist or are the same as our Earth:
    • Reme rather than Rome — Remus won the naming rights to the city.
    • Valhalla rather than North America — the Vikings discovered the continent and colonised it, thinking it was heaven, unlike on our Earth where they abandoned it after a while.
    • Also applies to the solar system, as one of its outer planets is called Wotan. It's not clear which planet this refers to, or how many others use different names, e.g. Venus is still Venus.
      • Logically, Wotan would be Jupiter — Norse King of the Gods rather than Roman. Alternatively, Mercury, since that is the traditional equivalence.
  • Jet Pack: Sort of; the suits that the three main characters wear are either jet packs, or keep them hovering in the air by some other means, and it's not quite made clear which.
  • Mars Needs Women: Inverted with male warrior-caste Kung, who are apparently so hypermasculine that some hetero human females feel compelled to jump their bones even in public. Kung males don't reciprocate this urge, and may use physical force to keep human women at arms' length.
  • Meaningful Name: "Marco" derives either from Latin Mars, and therefore means war-like, or from Greek and means polite. Both suit.
    • Jago is also an obscure form of Jacob, appropriate for a manipulator who would like to set himself up as disc-ruler.
  • Medieval Morons
  • Mega-Corp: The Company. It builds planets. It also holds a monopoly on life-extending treatments and pays its employees in Days of added lifespan. The entire economy of human space more or less runs on the Day standard.
  • The Middle Ages: Flat Earth is in its middle ages when Kin arrives. Around the year 1001 AD, since she ends up interfering with Leif Eriksson's expedition.
  • Monstrous Cannibalism: Zigzagged with the Shandi, which have inborn cannibalistic tendencies but have formalized/civilized the practice via a dueling tradition. They'll still become ravenous animals that eat anything that they can catch if they go hungry for long, but Silver is graciously willing to let Kin and Marco kill her before she can degenerate that far.
  • Multi-Armed and Dangerous: Warrior-caste Kung are operated on before birth, causing them to grow an extra pair of arms. It's mentioned several times that Marco is able to beat off humans in a 20:1 fight, or better.
  • Named After Their Planet: The Kung and Shandi.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Averted with the Shandi, who can't digest proteins from human or kung worlds.
  • One-Way Trip: The philosophy behind the Terminus probes, where convicted criminals were given the option of being cryogenically frozen and piloting exploration ships on one-way trips to other star systems in lieu of execution.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're artificial lifeforms that are teleported between their vats and the outside world hundreds of times a second, moving a small amount with each iteration, akin to a stop-motion film. The demons themselves aren't aware of this.
  • Precision F-Strike: Kin's line "A fucking Valhalla machine" is quite a shock considering TP usually avoids swearwords of this calibre. It's also the only use even in this book.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Kung.
  • Raised by Humans: Marco's ambassador parents got stranded on Earth shortly before his birth. As kung believe in reincarnation, they assumed that Marco must have received a human soul rather than kung, so left him with an adoptive family to be raised by "his own kind".
  • Raygun Gothic
  • Really 700 Years Old: Kin. The Company's main currency is also lifespan, meaning that the richest people literally live the longest. It's implied that the oldest folk get bored and get more reckless.
    • Jago Jalo is much, much older, having spent many centuries in cryogenic sleep on board a Terminus probe.
  • Recursive Precursors: An important theme in the book. As far as human archaeology knows, before the current four races there were the Spindle Kings, beings so prone to psychic pressure that they could barely stand to be within a mile of each other, and before them there were the Wheelers, aliens who trundled along on biological wheels. The Spindles were so shocked by the discovery of Wheeler artefacts — previously having believed themselves to be the only race — that the psychic shock killed them all. Kin theorises an even longer chain of Precursors stretching back endlessly, all using Strata Machines to remake planets in their image, and writes about it in her book Continuous Creation.
    • In the end it turns out that the Wheelers, Spindles and the others all never existed. There was only one race of Precursors, and they made the universe just seventy thousand years before, faking all the fossils and remnants of the others to make it look older.
  • Running Gag: Every time she meets someone new, upon discovering that she really is that Kin Arad, they whip out whatever their local version of a copy of her book Continuous Creation is to have her autograph it. And will insist it's for whatever their species' equivalent of a "nephew" is.
    • In an in-Verse example, it's expected that planetary engineers will always slip something anachronistic (e.g. a dinosaur fossil with a wristwatch) into an otherwise-flawless artificial world, just to mess with future paleontologists' heads. This includes the flat planet itself.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Kung is a Swamp Planet where the rain never stops — naturally, this implies an amphibious alien.
    • Arguably this is averted. There are mentions of areas of grassland, which humans would cultivate but the Kung view as desert.
  • Space Elevator: The Lines are standard for all civilized or under-construction planets, so much so that near-lawless Kung is the only world where actually landing a long-distance spaceship is still legal.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Ehfts— they have one leg and move with tentacles, record things with 'touch-books' and speak in translated broken English. (Of course, the other races are also more subtly weird to each other and humans, as part of the theme).
    • There's a nice Not So Different moment where an Efht, despite being so alien, makes the exact same "can I have your autograph, no, of course it's not for me, it's for my nephew" approach to Kin as a human just did.
  • Stealth Pun: Pleading for its freedom, a captive demon offers to bid its fellow-demon, "TRESOLAY", to make her more beautiful. Tress Olay is a common name for hair salons.
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: The "Elsewhere" — described as an eternity of bleak despair.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: The Spindles, referred to in the backstory, who are implied to have created Earth. It's also implied that human technology for creating worlds came from the Spindles. Although it turns out the Spindles never existed, and the real Precursors in fact took on the form of humans and presumably the other modern races.
  • Terraform: Kin's job, and arguably the job of all planetary engineers.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Kin is briefly 'awakened' by the technology of the Disc at the end and we discover that she, and presumably everyone else, are Precursors who deliberately forgot their origins 'because if One cannot forget, how can One learn?' This concept was also used in The Dark Side of the Sun.
  • Waterfall into the Abyss: The book had a different disc-world made by Ancient Astronauts terraformers, which (IIRC) had a hidden system to pull the water back up.


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