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Strata by Terry Pratchett
Review by Ernest Lilley
Corgi Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 0552133256
Date: 10 May, 2005 List Price $12.70 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The Company is a planet making operation that engineers worlds for colonization, and Kim Arad has been at it for something going on two centuries. She's near the top of the firm, the top of her game...and a bit bored. When the offer comes to explore a coin-shaped planet that mocks the advanced planet forming capabilities of the Company, she's unable to resist the lure of the unlikely. Add in a pair of BEM companions, one a philosophical ursinoid the size of an elephant and the other a four armed killing machine that thinks he's human by the accident of having been born on Earth, and send the across the face of this coin of the void and you've got an epic adventure on...um...coinworld? flatworld....Discworld?

Kim reluctantly decides to at least consider the offer a mysterious spacefarer makes her, a man who came back from a one way trip to the stars who somehow found a return ticket on a weird world, as well as some other intriguing artifacts and hints of technologies that just aren't right. When her new employer discovers that he's managed to hire a pair of aliens along with Kim, and gets a few other shocks thrown in for good measure, he keels over from a heart attack. At this point Kim might have found discretion to be the better part of valor, but the alien hired on as pilot already has them halfway there and isn't interested in turning back.

Once there, they get the usual reception for such adventurers, with the usual results. Marooned on a planet that shouldn't exist, they've got to find the disc world engineers, or the "discmasters" as our explorer's dub them, and hope they can engineer a way back home. Fortunately the location of Disc Central isn't the mystery it was on Ringworld?it's got to be in that circular island at the center of the world. So, across the radius of the disc, some 8,000 miles, they trek with all manner of adventures, encountering wildly improbable historic figures from Earth's past. Liev Ericcson, about to sail off the edge of the world, Ali Baba and his flying carpet, and an assortment of demons, dragons and other creatures that go bump in the night.

Just to spice things up, their food supply is in danger of running out, which wouldn't be so bad if extreme hunger didn't make one of the species along turn killer cannibals, regardless of the issue of incompatible proteins and all that.

I've a terrible confession to make. Though Terry Pratchett's writing is delightful, and his sense of humor keen as any blade, I'm not a fan of Discworld. A big disc in space on the back of a turtle (sex unknown) just doesn't do it for me. But the other day I discovered the book that came before Discworld. Not a prequel exactly, but more a premonition. Strata is everything I like in an SF novel. Intrepid adventurers. A planet (flat) sized mystery, and a quest to find the wizard behind it all. It's part Ringworld, part Wizard of Oz, and all Pratchett. Well. all Pratchett channeling a bit of Larry Niven's Ringworld.

Strata came out in 1981 in the UK, two years after Ringworld Engineers, so it has to be seen as the author's (playful) response to the SF blockbuster Niven created. A number of the same themes pop up, but rather than take two books to deal with them, they're compressed into on short, enjoyable novel. One theme of its own that the book keeps coming around to is worth noting; that aliens aren't humans and though we may think of them in human metaphors, that doesn't change whatever they really are. It's an idea that he could explore more fully sometime.

My favorite sub-genre of SF is the survey vessel crew out on the edge of known space trying to unravel some cosmic mystery. I loved Poul Anderson's Trouble Twisters stories, pairing a human with a self-absorbed cat-alien and a pacifist dragonesque creature, and the Ringworld's Children with Louis Wu, Teela Brown, a two headed manic depressive alien and an overgrown tiger-alien provided some of the most enjoyable reading I've had. To the best of my knowledge, this team of the Kung Marco, and the Shand "Silver" have not had any other adventures in Pratchett's universe, but it's a pity, for they're a game crew.

If you've read Discworld novels and enjoyed them, you'll want to see the idea in its formative stages. If you haven't then you should certainly start here to see the idea spring forth as SF.

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