- For discussion regarding the term strata as used in geology, see stratum. See also Strata (disambiguation).
Strata is a comic science fiction novel by Terry Pratchett. Published in 1981, it is one of Pratchett's first novels and one of only two purely science fiction novels he has written, the other being The Dark Side of the Sun.
Although it takes place in a different fictional universe and is more science fiction than fantasy, it could be said to be a kind of precursor to the Discworld novels, as it also features a flat Earth similar to the Discworld. It has been called a "preconsideration" of Discworld, though the plot and characters are modelled on (or parodies of) the novel Ringworld by Larry Niven.
Kin Arad is a human planetary engineer working for the Company, a human organisation that "builds" habitable planets with techniques and equipment salvaged from the Spindle Kings, an extinct alien race, excelling in terraforming. The expressed aim of the Company's planet building is to create branches of humanity diverse enough to ensure the whole species' survival for eternity, since the Earth's population in the past has been decimated due to the lethal Mindquakes, epidemic mass deaths caused by too much homogeneity among the populace. All planets built by the Company are carefully crafted with artificial strata containing false fossils, indistinguishable from the real thing. On occasion, however, mischievous Company employees will attempt to place anomalous objects in the strata as practical jokes, like running shoes or other out-of-place artefacts, hoping to cause confusion among future archaeologists when the planets' beginnings have been long forgotten. The Company does not allow this however, and secretly monitors the generated strata in order to detect this, fearing such actions may cause the collapse of entire civilizations when the artefacts are eventually unearthed.
Kin and two aliens, the four-armed frog-like, paranoid and muscular Kung Marco and Silver, a bear-like Shand, historian and linguist by profession, are recruited by the mysterious Jago Jalo for an expedition. Jalo, a human who more than a thousand years ago embarked on a relativistic journey has made a stunning discovery: a flat Earth. However, when the team rendezvous on the Kung homeworld, the violent Jalo unexpectedly has an heart-attack and dies. Shocked by the large amounts of weapons on-board Jalo's spaceship, Kin has misgivings about the expedition, but Silver and Marco see the possibility of reaping great technological rewards and launch the vessel. When the expedition finally arrives at Jalo's pre-programmed coordinates, they find a flattened version of the mediaeval Eastern hemisphere of Earth, clearly artificial. It rotates around its hub inside a gigantic hollow sphere with tiny "stars" affixed to the interior, complete with a small sun, moon and fake planets revolving around it.
After their ship is hit by one of the orbiting "planets", Kin, Marco and Silver are forced to abandon ship and land on the flat Earth with the help of their lift-belt equipped suits. A return from the flat Earth now seems impossible, unless they are able to find its mysterious builders, so they embark on a journey to a structure they have spotted at the hub of the Disc, the only thing which does not match geographically with the Earth they know. En route, they encounter the superstitious Medieval inhabitants of the Disc, who believe the end of the world is near, due to increasingly chaotic climate (caused by the Disc's machinery breaking down), the recent disappearance of one of their planets and the general devastation caused by the ship's crash. They also discover a number of other differences. What Kin Arad knows as Reme is called Rome on the Disc, and there is a strange Christos cult that is completely unfamiliar to Kin Arad. Also, Venus is conspicuously lacking its giant (lunar-sized) moon Adonis, which dominates the sunset sky on the Earth Kin knows, and led humanity to a heliocentric world view early on. Since only the Eastern hemisphere of Earth is represented, the continent of America is completely missing; the travellers rescue a party of Vikings in the process of searching for Vinland, when their ship is about to sail over the edge of the world.
In addition, there are real "magical" creatures and objects on the Disc, demons and magic purses and flying carpets – all of them, the travellers realise, highly advanced and sophisticated technological constructs like the Disc itself. Indeed, the world itself is an extremely old and sophisticated automated system. At the very end of the story, Kin comes to suspect that the builders of the flat world in fact constructed the universe as a whole, with the evidence of previous races being hoaxes and the flat world being an inside joke, analogous to the false strata Kin and the Company themselves manufacture, and the occasional hoaxes put in these strata by rebellious employees.
Kin and the others eventually reach the hub and Kin makes contact with the Disc's controlling systems. She is told that, despite advanced robotic maintenance, sheer entropy build-up threatens the Disc's further existence. The machines offer their advanced technology, in exchange for Kin's construction of a real replacement Earth for the flat planet's inhabitants. Kin agrees; the implication being that the world she will build is in fact our own Earth. Kin is excited about the massive task at hand; just like Ringworld's Louis Wu, whom she parallels, she is over two hundred years old, and thus constantly in danger of growing tired of life.
Ideas and themes
The history of the planet "Earth" in Strata unfolded very differently from our Earth. North America is named Valhalla, and was colonised in the first millennium A.D. by the Vikings, led by Leif Ericson; the Roman Empire is known as Reme instead, after the other twin in the story of Romulus and Remus; the planet Venus is orbited by a moon like Earth's Luna. None of the Abrahamic religions ever developed in its history; a mixture of Buddhism and folk religion seems to have predominated, punctuated by an assortment of flash-in-the-pan religious cults. Humanity is much more developed in the field of space travel and has met several other intelligent species, such as the tall, frog-like Kungs and the bear-like Shandi. It is implied that the reason for the historical discrepancies is that our Earth was actually created by Kin Arad to replace the flat Earth featured in the book, which was starting to malfunction. While the history of the real "Earth" in Strata clearly is not the one we are familiar with, the history of the flat Earth is consistent with our own, up to the point where the expedition arrives.
Humanity appears to be merely the latest of a long series of intelligent species who have evolved, altered the universe to better suit themselves, and then died out before the next species arose and started the cycle all over again. Before humans, there were the Great Spindle Kings, a race of acutely claustrophobic telepaths, who could live only a few hundred per planet and therefore built entire worlds from scratch to accommodate their population. Before them were the Wheelers, who were themselves preceded by increasingly alien races extending all the way back to the Big Bang. Interestingly, all of what is known about the intelligent species who have lived before humans is revealed to be incorrect near the end of the book, when the Disc's computer system (built by the universe's actual creators) reveals to Kin that the entire universe is only 70,000 years old and that evidence and remains of long dead civilizations were fabricated by the universe's creators to make the universe appear older than it is (much like the Company fabricated prehistoric fossils on their created worlds to make them appear older than they really were). Finally it is implied (by the fact that the computers systems need a human) that the universe was itself created by humans as a place for themselves to live.
- Страта (Bulgarian)
- Strata (Czech)
- Delven (Dutch) (published together with The Dark Side of the Sun in one volume in 1982: republished separately as Strata in 1994)
- Strate-à-gemmes (French)
- Strata (German)
- Dysk (Polish) (first edition was entitled "Warstwy Wszechświata", Polish for "Layers of the Universe"; "Strata" means "loss" in Polish)
- Страта (Russian)