These are the episode notes and errata for Pratchat episode 68, “Discus Ex Machina”, discussing Terry Pratchett’s third novel, 1981’s Strata, with guest EJ Mann.
Australian Bush Heritage’s thread of “Pedro Pascal as Australian frogs” first appeared in a Twitter thread, but we’ve embedded the Instagram version below. (Twitter is…not as stable as it once was.) Make sure you check out all of them!
Here are the first edition covers of Pratchett’s two early science fiction novels. Ben mistakenly remembered Pratchett’s cover for The Dark Side of the Sun featuring dragonflies, not bees; he may be remembering the later cover, also by original Strata artist Tim White, which depicts a robot insect which…well, it’s also not a dragonfly, but it’s more like one than Pratchett’s bees. Though the weird fungal creatures on his Strata cover do look like dragonflies – one of the many details that makes it entirely unlike the book in every way, aside from the inclusion of a lightning bolt.
Below is the earliest post we could find for the photo of the common snapping turtle with the “world” on its back. It’s from the source, the Twitter account for Task Force Turtle; see below in the notes for more on the turtle, and for an article where you can see it if Twitter becomes too unstable to supply this embedded tweet.
Notes and Errata
- The episode title plays with the well-known Latin phrase “deus ex machina”, “God from the machine”. Originally used in Ancient Greek theatre as a literal stage direction, in which actors playing the roles of gods would be brought on stage via a machine, it has come to mean an unexpected plot resolution brought about by supernatural or implausible means, especially if those means have not previously been established in the narrative. We don’t think Strata is an example of this, but the Latin for “disc from the machine” seemed too perfect not to use.
- The last in-person Australian Discworld Convention was Nullus Anxietas 7, held in Melbourne in April 2019. We recorded a live episode there: #PratchatNA7, “A Troll New World”, discussing the short story “Troll Bridge”.
- Bush Heritage Australia is a non-profit organisation which was started as “The Australian Bush Heritage Fund” in 1991, with the purchase of forest land in Tasmania by environmentalist and former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown. The charity now owns millions of hectares of bushland across Australia, which it manages in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. You can find out more at bushheritage.org.au, or follow them (and their very funny social media manager) as @BushHeritageAus on Twitter or Instagram.
- You can read what Pratchett had to say about the Disc in 1981 on Colin Smythe’s website, where you’ll also find early reviews – including one by Neil Gaiman! Of the Discworld, Pratchett said:
“I am also working on another ‘discworld’ theme, since I don’t think I’ve exhausted all the possibilities in one book!”
- Thanks to subscriber Craig, who shared a photo of the full blurb for the first edition of Strata, which we can also confirm was first published by Colin Smythe in hardcover. (See above for the original covers of both Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun.) Here’s the longer blurb:
A flat earth? Impossible.Strata – blurb from the first hardcover edition (1981)
Kin Arad is the 210-year-old supervisor in charge of resurfacing the newly named planet, Kingdom. When she finds Jago Jalo, a man who has a cloak of invisibility and should have died a thousand years ago, in her office, she decides he must have an unusual tale. He has. He knows where such a world is. It is like the medieval earth…almost. Leiv Eiriksson is setting off for the New World, but he will never find it. Instead he sails to the edge of the world and its eternal waterfall.
It is obvious that this ‘earth’ has been built by the Great Spindle Kings, makers of universes, inventors of the strata machine and the ultimate in claustrophobes, and Jalo lures the human Kin, the kung Marco Farfarer and the fiftv-six-syllable-named shand better known as Silver, to undertake a voyage of discovery with him: the rewards must be beyond their dreams…or nightmares.
In Strata Terry Pratchett again shows the remarkably witty, imaginative and descriptive talents that have characterised his earlier works and show him to be one of the best s.f. writers of the younger generation.
- You can find many different covers for Strata at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. While many seem to use stock sci-fi or fantasy art, most use Josh Kirby’s cover (though some use his art for The Dark Side of the Sun!). The German cover by Katarzyna Oleska is Ben’s favourite, and is the only one to show Kin as a Black woman; we also like the French one by Marc Simonetti, though he inexplicably depicts Kin as a cyborg with red skin, though accurately makes her bald. The mass market US paperback has a cover by Darrell K. Sweet which gets special mention for the very retro image of Kin in a silver spacesuit holding a raygun while on a Viking ship menaced by a dragon, but it makes her white (and ginger) and leaves out Marco and Silver entirely.
- Magrathea is the fabled planet manufacturing planet which features prominently in the plot of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As well as many luxury planets built during a boom in the galactic economy, it also built the planet Earth; the fjords were designed by planetary architect Slartibartfast, who meets Arthur Dent during the final chapters of the first radio series/book/film etc.
- Speaking of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ben is correct: the original radio series was broadcast betweem 1978 and 1980. The first novel was published in 1979, while the original BBC television series was made in 1980, but broadcast in 1981. There have been numerous other versions, including an LP (which differs from the radio series), a videogame, a feature film, several stage plays, a comic book and, supposedly, another television series currently in production at Hulu.
- The film Liz mentions with Olivia Wilde where remaining lifetime is a currency is indeed In Time (2011, dir. Andrew Niccol), a sci-fi action film starring Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake. It’s similar to the earlier film Price of Life (1987, dir. Stephen Tolkin), and also the 1965 Harlan Ellison short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”. Ellison briefly sued Niccol (who is best known for Gattaca) and the producers of In Time, but dropped the suit after seeing the film.
- Ringworld is a 1970 science fiction novel by American author Larry Niven. In the book, 29th century human Louis Gridley Wu is recruited on his 200th birthday by an alien “Puppeteer” named Nessus to go on an expedition. He is to investigate the Ringworld, a massive construct surrounding a Sun which has an immense Earth-like inner surface. He travels there with Nessus, a cat-like Tzin named Speaker-to-Animals, and another human, Teela Brown. Their ship is damaged on arrival and crashes; its hyperdrive still functions but it cannot get back into space to use it safely. The crew head towards the edge of the Ring, hoping to find technology to help them repair their ship, encountering strange technologies and the remnants of the Ring’s civilisations along the way. As Terry Pratchett put it on alt.fan.pratchett, “I intended Strata to be as much a (pisstake/homage/satire) on Ringworld as, say, Bill the Galactic Hero was of Starship Troopers. All Niven’s heroes are competent and all his technology works for millions of years…but he’s a nice guy and says he enjoyed the book.” There are four sequels: The Ringworld Engineers (1979), The Ringworld Throne (1996), Ringworld’s Children (2004) and Fate of Worlds (2012), which is also the last book in Niven’s Fleet of Worlds series. All of these books are set in Niven’s broader “Known Space” universe.
- EFTPOS systems, which allow a transfer of funds direct from a purchaser’s bank account to a merchant, first appeared in America in 1981. The system was slow to be adopted by consumers, and credit cards and cheques remained much more popular alternatives to cash. Australian banks were pretty quick to adopt a national EFTPOS system, in part because they had already had to cooperate to set up Bankcard, a domestic credit card implemented in the 1970s before the major card companies came to Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with these things, it appears one of the main reasons Australians call it EFTPOS is advertising: the major company making and selling the infrastructure equipment, and marketing it to the public during the 80s and 90s, was “eftpos Australia”. EFTPOS is also popular, and known by that term, in New Zealand and Singapore.
- Budgie is the nickname for the budgerigar, a small species of parakeet with long tails. Like Liz, many Australians growing up in cities don’t realise they’re native birds, in part because they’re so commonly kept as pets – very unusual for native animals! In country areas they gather in huge flocks at water holes. Their popularity is largely due to their small size, colourful plumage (usually white and blue or yellow and green, but many other breeds exist), and their ability to “speak” and whistle. They’ve been exported – legally and otherwise – to many countries around the world. A common bit of Australian slang for men’s swimming costumes is “budgie smugglers”, referring to the fact that they don’t leave much to the imagination and the wearer’s genitals are often outlined, appearing around the same size as a budgie.
- The Wayfarer series by American author Becky Chambers begins with her debut 2014 novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which she originally crowdfunded and self-published. It was nominated for several awards and republished by Hodder & Stoughton in 2015. The Wayfarer of the series title is a “tunnelling ship” – a spacecraft which builds wormholes between distant parts of space for other spaceships to use as shortcuts. The original novel follows the multi-species crew of the Wayfarer and their relationships during one long mission. It has so far been followed by three sequels: A Closed and Common Orbit (2016), Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018) and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021), plus a short story, “A Good Heretic” (2019), though these follow different characters and stories in the same universe. The species who can communicate via coloured patches on their cheeks are the Aeluon, otherwise plain-coloured humanoids who are one of the more powerful species in the galaxy.
- The Lying Bastard, the spaceship constructed by the Puppeteers for the mission to the Ringworld and named by Louis Wu, was sadly not shaped like a disc. In most depictions, including the ones sanctioned by Larry Niven himself, it looks more like a fighter jet.
- Silver actually says her name is fifty-six syllables long – considerably more than Ben’s guess of twenty-three! The “unpronounceable name” trope is a common excuse to give aliens, demons and the like simple names, even when their origins suggest they should have a language and/or culture very different to human ones. Doctor Who has several examples, including the Doctor’s own name (in the modern series a secret, but hinted to be very long in some of the books) and that of fellow Time Lord Romanadvoratrelundar, more commonly known as Romana (though when they first meet, the Doctor also offers to call her “Fred”).
- Slashie and multi-hyphenate are both terms for those who diversify into multiple disciplines, particularly in the arts. “Multi-hyphenate” is more common in the screen industry, where one might be a writer-director-producer on the same project; “slashie” is a more general arts term, for folks who (like Ben) have several different freelance careers to ensure enough work. (Ben is an actor/writer/game designer/educator, among other things.)
- We’re still pretty sure that the whole “you might outnumber me, but how many of you will die before you get me?” thing does appear in a Discworld book somewhere, but we haven’t been able to find it. Do you know where it is? Let us know!
- The turtle that burrows underground and comes up looking like A’Tuin (or Torterra, if you’re a Pokémon fan) is the common snapping turtle of North America, Chelydra serpentina. They migrate to muddy holes where they bury themselves to hibernate during Winter. In 2018, a photo of one such turtle was taken in Maryland by Timothy Roth, a psychology professor working with Task Force Turtle. The photo went viral on social media and is now posted to various Discworld forums at least a few times each year, though this turtle hadn’t just woken up from hibernation… You can see the image above, and read the story of how and why it was taken, and learn more about the turtles themselves, in the LiveScience article “How Butt Gas, Drugs and Amazing Memories Led to This Weird Turtle Photo”, from December 2018. As EJ mentions, its often linked to the “turtle island” stories of several North American peoples, including the Lenape and Haudenosaunee.
- Stephen Briggs’ unabridged audiobooks of both Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun were released by Isis Audio Books as boxed sets of CDs in the early 2000s. The same recordings were re-released around 2007 on “mp3-CD” – yes, a CD-ROM with the tracks from the original CDs as mp3 files. This format was playable by some CD players produced in the 2000s (and may still be playable by some in-car CD players now), but quickly became obsolete as solid-state media (like USB drives) became cheaper, and then the audio industry shifted to download and streaming. When the Isis unabridged recordings of the Discworld novels and other books were licensed for digital distribution via Audible, Apple Books and so on, it seems Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun were not included, but then the Isis Discworld audiobooks – including the earlier ones narrated by Nigel Planer – don’t seem available digitally any more either. (We assume they were removed to avoid confusion, now the new Penguin audiobooks are out; Tony Robinson’s ones are still available, but under the series title “Discworld (abridged)” to make the distinction clear.) You can still find the physical media versions secondhand, though, if you’re keen.
More notes to come soon!
Thanks for reading our notes! If we missed anything, or you have questions, please let us know.