Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Strata

Go To

A Science Fiction, pre-Discworld novel written by Terry Pratchett, published in 1981. 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 for a mysterious organisation called the Company. One day she is contacted by Jago Jalo, a man claiming to be a 1,000 year old space traveller. He enlists her to travel to a strange world that he claims to be flat. Kin teams up with two aliens: Marco, a kung (4-armed amphibious Proud Warrior Race Guy), and Silver, a shand (tusked, hungry and bear-like, but ultimately friendly).

When the team arrives, they find a world that 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. The technology of the world is still in the dark ages, and demons very much exist. The flat world appears Earth in all these points, except for being flat and only covering the equivalent of the Eastern Hemisphere.

It's also worth noting that the story seems to takes place in a universe subtly different from our own. 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. 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. The alien creator race was in turn preceded by another alien race even more advanced, and and so on, right up the chain to Energy Beings.

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:

  • 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 you'll look your true chronological 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 colonized 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.
    • Kin notes that astronomy would have progressed much slower on Earth if Venus had lacked a satellite similar to the Moon.
  • 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 medieval monk".
  • All Myths Are True: On Flat Earth. Apart from its shape, dragons, giant turtles and demons are shown.
  • Artificial Cannibalism: Silver is fed meat cultured from her own cells because there isn't anything else with a compatible biochemistry.
  • 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.
  • Benevolent Boss: The book opens with Kin confronting a couple of young subordinate engineers who slipped a dinosaur skeleton holding a placard reading "END NUCLEAR TESTING NOW" into the strata of a planet they were building, chewing them out for the potential culture shock this could cause, suspending them and dismissing them from her office. Then she turns the recorder off, tells them she was just putting on a show for official purposes (although they're still on enforced paid leave for the time being), and cheerfully lets them know that everyone who was ever in their position has done what they did (she herself once carved an entire mountain range into the shape of her name).
  • 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 Locomotion: Ehfts are unipodal, resembling a bell that stands on its clapper. Their mode of movement isn't explicitly described, but it evidently involves a lot of tendrils.
  • 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.
  • Counterfeit Cash: One of the first pieces of magical technology from the Disc that Kin sees is a bottomless purse that produces pieces of the local form of currency that pass every test — just with serial numbers that haven't been issued yet.
  • Covers Always Lie:
    • One edition of the book depicts bugs flitting about a bizarre alien landscape that doesn't appear anywhere in the story.
    • Covers tend to depict Kin as Caucasian. It's noted in the text that she can change her skin colour (including to colours outside the normal human range) but when they're exploring the Disc and get captured by the locals, Silver suggests that she should pose as an Ethiopian princess, implying that she's got dark skin at that point.
  • Dark Age Europe: the level of society on the Flat Earth.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: A bar called the Broken Drum is featured. A similarly named bar later appears in the Discworld series. Here the name 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 (these fictional histories are the titular "strata"). 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 large population of robots. Also, all but a few hundred books were lost in the collapse of civilization.
  • 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 is a chain of Recursive Precursors — ever more advanced aliens going back through the history of the universe, right back to something like this. Or not.
  • Fantastic Diet Requirement: The Shandi have to eat a protein only found in other Shandi. If they don't they fly into a feeding rage. They can synthesise the protein with a Dumb Waiter, but this leaves them in a bit of situation when it beaks down.
  • Fantastic Racism: Being a thousand years old, Jago Jalo is racist against non-humans. He's quite annoyed that Marco was listed as a human (due to Kung religious belief) when he hired him without meeting him first, and holds him at gunpoint while referring to him as "it", as well as using an obscure archaic slur that only Silver (a historian) recognises.
  • FTL Travel Sickness: Travelling FTL above a certain speed causes "soul-lag" — some part of a sapient mind has a fixed maximum speed, and if you exceed it you end up experiencing apocalyptic despair until you reach your destination and your soul has time to catch up with you.
  • Healing Factor: The Kung are able to heal themselves while fighting thanks to a surplus of "regenerative enzymes" generated during their battle rages.
    Would it have helped the dead archer to know that a kung in a fighting rage was practically awash with regenerative enzymes? It had been hard enough for earthmen to see kung fight on with their flesh healing like boiling wax.
  • 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, and go berserk if threatened; 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.
    • Subverted in that it's implied humans only predominate because they had an advantage which had nothing to do with their qualities as a species: Kin's Earth happened to have a neighboring planet (Venus) with a large orbiting moon (Adonis) that her ancestors could see, thus giving them a visual aid to the laws of astrophysics.
  • 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 every time they travel through the Elsewhere, which is nothingness.
  • I Like Those Odds: As Marco puts it, he outnumbers 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 colonized it, thinking it was heaven, unlike on our Earth where they abandoned it after a only a few tentative settlements.
    • Wotan rather than Jupiter — the Norse king of the gods rather than the Roman one. (Oddly enough, Venus is still Venus, but has a moon called Adonis).
  • 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.
  • Logic Bomb: Marco insists he's a human because Kung believe that when they're born, the nearest soul of a dead person occupies their body, and his mother went into labour when they were among humans (apparently his father had to be stopped from killing himself so he could get to him first). Silver points out to Kin that humans don't believe such superstitions and therefore Marco has to be a pure Kung, and Marco overhears their conversation, causing a brief crisis of identity before he miserably admits Silver is right.
  • 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: The Flat Earth natives are unable to comprehend Kin's future tech.
  • 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 mostly make do with replicated meat, while some have formalized/civilized the practice via a dueling tradition (Silver admits to having been in a few duels herself, which she obviously won). 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 defeat humans in a 20:1 fight, or better.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Really 700 Years Old:
    • Kin. The Company's main currency is a propriatory youth extension proces, meaning that the richest people literally live the longest. It's implied that as people get older, they get more reckless due to boredom.
    • Jago Jalo is much, much older, having spent many centuries in cryogenic sleep on board a probe traveling at relativistic speeds.
  • 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: Averted; The Kung are a swamp-dwelling race that view the non-swamp areas of their world as uninhabitable, useless desert — but those places do exist.
  • 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.)
  • 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. 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.
  • Vikings In America: North America on Kin's Earth is named "Valhalla" as it was colonized by Vikings instead of Spaniards and Italians.
  • Waterfall into the Abyss: The flat-earth is ringed with a waterfall. The characters speculate on how the water gets replaced/retrieved, but never learn the exact mechanism.