Colony Worlds of Earth, 3

Completing the series.


Letter-Designated Planets and Others

All children are now taught that Earth has twenty-three Colony Worlds. This is true. Yet humans are found on far more than only 24 planets! To be a ‘Colony World’, three criteria have to be met: there must be, or must have been, a sizeable civilian population; the planet’s atmosphere, gravity and so forth must be such that humans can survive outside of specialised habitats with minimal equipment (though Malaspina is pushing the boundaries here – humans may be able to breath on Malaspina, but the intense cold makes survival there difficult); and the planet must be ‘free and undominated’, which is to say ruled by the Protectorate. Most planets fail to meet these criteria. These planets are nonetheless recorded in official lists, with both ‘native’ names and official alphanumeric designations.

A grey area, however, does exist. Some planets are not properly ‘Colony Worlds’, yet are populous enough, or otherwise significant enough, to merit special attention. These planets are designated with simple, memorable letters, rather than the automated strings of minor ‘settlements’ and ‘stations’ or the roman numerals of Colony Worlds. The current Letter-Designated Planets are:

C Venus: currently the largest human population outside of Earth, at around 1.4 billion. Not considered a Colony World because all settlement must take place within sealed floating structures.

A Ashford, Y Empyrea, J Janaloka, VK Vilonika: these four LTPs are the most significant of a large class of tholin-mining sky-colonies, all located on small gas giants. Planets rich in tholin are attractive places to settle, due to their low energy costs, and dozens of such settlements exist, mainly associated with tholin-mining in the star system of a larger established colony. These five, however, have grown beyond that, becoming significant habitations in their own right. Economically, this settlements are distinctive for their low energy costs but high material costs, which encourage lifestyles that are at once decadent and austere. Ashford was humanity’s first civilian settlement outside the solar system; Empyrea is the largest of the sky-colonies other than Venus itself. Ashford has a population around 200 million; Empyrea, 400 million; Janaloka, 150 million; and Vilonika, 60 million.

L Lapita, T Teouma, and other Lapitan planets: the Lapita movement was/is an ideological movement for mass human colonisation of the stars, around two centuries old. Its initial zeal has long since tarnished, but Lapitan colonies remain numerous and distinctive. Most are cloud-worlds much like Venus, though a few, like Teouma, are terrestrial – Teouma is a boiling-hot, dry world with a toxic and anoxic atmosphere, but comfortable gravity, and extensive, airtight settlement. Lapita has a population around 200 million, Teouma bears another 100 million, and the smaller Lapita worlds contribute another 250 million.

W Wisent, E Eremis, SC Scipio and TR Triumph: the Exodus did not only see mass migration to the Colony Worlds – it also saw populations transported to several LDPs. These four are the most important of these – Eremis (originally a settlement for would-be hermits) and Triumph (founded during the Exodus) are cloud-worlds, while Wisent is a toxic terrestrial world, and Scipio (originally a military base) is a low-atmosphere planet with settlement in tunnels bored into the soft rock. Populations: Wisent 200 million, Eremis 100 million, Scipio 60 million, Triumph 40 million

P Pax and R Roanoke: two colonies founded in the late 24th century in co-operation with thaugomur. The theory was that these human-majority colonies would benefit from thaugomur protection and spending, and in return would provide resources and a base for military endeavours (i.e. against vnaorn, and hence to the benefit of humanity) to thaugomur, a species with superior technology and resources but a dislike of colonisation. Unfortunately, problems arose after the Invasion – Pax and Roanoke refused to acknowledge the new military government, and instead gave shelter, with thaugomur support, to political refugees and dissidents. Pax has a human population of around 25 million (and around 15 million non-humans), while Roanoke has a human population of around 60 million (and around 15 million non-humans).

Other settlements: around 100 million on another dozen or so small Letter-Designated Planets, and maybe 10 million more in small settlements.

                Captive and Dissident Populations

Many humans do not live in human settlements. There are two groups of these: dissidents and captives.

Dissidents are those whose ancestors were living outside the human dominions at the time of the coup d’etat, or those who have fled the Protectorate to join them. The largest communities are the populations of the human-thaugomur colony worlds, Pax and Roanoke, and settlers from those worlds. Smaller communities have grown up from old diplomatic stations. Around 100 million dissident humans live in thaugomur dominions, and a further 10 million elsewhere.The largest communities outside thaugomur dominion are groups living under ieed or diophel dominion, and the old diplomatic community living under the nlawul.

These numbers are dwarfed by the captive population, however. Descendents of humans abducted by vnaorn raiders and occupiers, they have multiplied rapidly in organised breeding programmes; some serve as prey for hunting and killing, others as servants. Yet vnaorn society, though often brutal by human standards, is nonetheless meritocratic and largely race-blind, and many humans and their descendents have risen to positions of freedom, or even of power, among the vnaorn – indeed, it has been reported that one leading ‘vnaorn’ general in the most recent war was in fact a human. The total human population under vnaorn dominion is around 3 billion; of these, perhaps 100 million have yeoman status or higher.

Influential Authors in Fantasy, 5

Pulp Fiction (etc.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)
Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)
James Branch Cabell (1879-1958)
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)

In the early twentieth century, the inchoate elements of ‘fantasy’ were discovering popularity not through the isolated, singular works of writers like Morris, but through a growing industry of magazine fiction, following Frank Munsey’s 1896 invention of the “pulp” – cheap dedicated fiction magazines mostly written by cheap authors (though a few elder statesmen contributed their share, particularly to the higher-class English pulps – Conrad and Kipling amongst others) published on cheap, ‘pulp’ paper, and typically filled with sensationalist, lurid, un-literary stories (and now and then outright erotica), topped off with an eye-catching colour cover, ideally of a barely-dressed damsel in dire need of rescue. The pulps covered many genres – detection, gangsters, cowboys, railroads – but they were also a willing market for stranger stories, of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (and oftentimes of the borderline between these still-nascent genres). The most important development came early on, when the upstart The Popular Magazine, seeking to take on the original pulp, Argosy, managed to sign H. Rider Haggard himself to contribute a serialised sequel to his bestselling She. Aspiring writers flocked to imitate Haggard’s “Lost World” genre in greater numbers than ever before – among their number, the young Edgar Rice Burroughs. Like Haggard, Burroughs became known for Lost World novels that, at least at first, he serialised through the pulp magazines, attaining enourmous popularity. His lost worlds, however, took on a more fantastical air – his hollow world setting, Pellucidar, for example, not only features surviving dinosaurs (old hat for Lost World!), but makes them a human-subjugating intelligent species of pterodactyls with mind-controlling psionic powers. Most important of all though were his Barsoom stories, which transplanted the Lost World genre, complete with Victorian gentleman explorer and decadent oriental despotism,  onto Mars, throwing in a few magical and scientific ornaments for good measure, and in the process creating the Planetary Romance genre – taking the lost world genre and giving its authors far greater room to play, since almost any society, technology or even magic could be justified when your story was set on an alien world.

Another author, however, was taking the weirder part of fiction in a very different direction. Lord Dunsany is not strictly speaking a ‘pulp’ author – he wasn’t published in the pulps until late in his career (and indeed that of the pulps themselves) – yet he is, and was, often considered one by an unfortunate coincidence of timing: indeed, his reputation at the time probably suffered considerably by mistaken association with with the sensationalist, populist fiction of the pulps. Dunsany was indeed a writer of short stories of the fantastical kind, but he adopted a more literary and ‘artistic’ style; in content, he followed in the footsteps of Morris, and of MacDonald (vide infra), infused with an even more ancient aesthetic. Probably more than anybody, Dunsany popularised the pure fantasy tale that Morris had created, creating the world of Pegāna and populating it with deities, essentially creating a wholly new mythology; later he created the ‘club tales’ subgenre (in which unreliable narrators tale tall stories in gentleman’s clubs about the things they’ve seen on their travels), and explored a more fairytale-based aesthetic in The King of Elfland’s Daughter. In much of his writing, he followed Morris in creating an elaborate, ‘artistic’ prose style, though unlike most of those who imitated him he was not above mocking himself for it.

Burroughs and Dunsany were both, however, huge influences on the next pair of short fiction writers to shape fantasy in that era: two strange, unhappy and short-lived friends and pulp writers, Robert Howard and Howard Lovecraft. Lovecraft became notable sooner: his early stories, as he himself says, are divisible into those that try to copy Poe and those that try to copy Dunsany. Later, he was able to partially reconcile these two impulses – the unsettling macabre and the unearthly wonder – in an enduring mythos of a civilised humanity that sat upon centuries of superstition and barbarism and lost magic (so far so Gothic), on a tiny isolated rock in the middle of a terrifying universe, and even more terrifying further dimensions that man could never comprehend (drawing also heavily from Machen, with hints of Hodgson).  Later still, at the peak of his career, he infused his ‘cosmic horror’ with a colder, more scientific aesthetic. His influence as a writer of madness and otherness goes beyond the mere memes of Cthulhu and his kindred; and he was also greatly significant for his social life. Lovecraft made a habit of introducing all his acquaintances to one another, and of corresponding voluminously, creating an influential circle of writers, which included Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, a young Fritz Leiber… and Robert E Howard.  Howard, like Dunsany and Burroughs, wrote in many different genres, both inside and outside speculative fiction, but his greatest contribution was in leading the movement that transplanted the planetary romance of Burroughs into a historical or pseudohistorical – and often supernatural – domain, while ditching the victorian gentleman protagonists for dashing, toughguy barbarian types… the sort of heroes and antiheroes, in fact, that were already common in the cowboy, gangster and sailor genres that the pulps had popularised.

Finally, one Fantasy writer of the era, despite being prolific, can by no means be considered a pulp writer: James Branch Cabell. Perhaps the most famous Fantasy author of the 1920s, and certainly the most acclaimed by the literary establishment, he was once acquitted of obscenity on the grounds that while his book was ‘suggestive… of immorality’, it was so obscurely written that readers would not be able to understand it anyway. His work intentionally avoided all forms of realism (he once claimed that veracity was the one unpardonable sin), and was considered escapist and comic, but he often used that escape to give him a position from which to launch satires against reality. When society’s tastes turned darker in the thirties and forties, Cabell was largely forgotten by the general public, but he remained a notable influence on other writers – particularly those who sought a more literary and playfull mode (Vance and Leiber both admitted his influence on their work).

The Appearance of the Diophel (an alien race)

These are one of the many alien species inhabiting the SF setting I’ve been going on about recently. I don’t really know what I’m going to do with this – whether I might introduce more species in this way, or go on to talk about diophel culture and whatnot. But I thought I’d share it, in case anyone was interested…


Natural Appearance and Faculties

Diophel do not all represent a single species. There are in fact eight species of diophel, which may be called A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H. Species B comprises two distinct subspecies, B1 and B2, and Species F comprises three subspecies, F1, F2 and F3 – although in modern times, interbreeding between the subspecies has blurred these distinctions, creating intervening populations of B1/2, F1/2, F1/3, F2/3, and F1/2/3. In general, species cannot interbreed, although some combinations can produce infertile offspring; the exception is the B/E pairing, which frequently (though still not commonly) can produce offspring capable of reproducing with other B/E hybrids or with E. Finally, A, B1 and D all have long-established extensive distributions, with marked ‘racial’ differences in phenotype, which in the case of D can be more striking that the differences between some species.

As a result of this genetic diversity, it is not possible to give a simple account of many of the details of diophel appearance. Nonetheless, a basic form is common to (almost) all diophel (the species all being closely related). It is also worth noting that the species are not all equally numerous – around half of all diophel are A, with B1, C and D comprising most of the remainder. E, F (1, 2 and 3), B2 and G are all far less common, and H are particularly rare.

Diophel are bipedal. Heights generally range between seven and nine foot, although G diophel can be as short as six foot (and of course unusually short or unusually tall individuals do exist with specific medical conditions). General diophel physique is broad-bodied but somewhat gaunt, and not particularly muscular. Diophel arms, unlike those of humans, are longer than their legs; diophel legs have both a ‘normal’ knee and a lower knee that bends in the opposite direction (effectively they are digitigrade, and this additional ‘knee’ is in fact an ankle; diophel feet are small and padded, and the four functional toes have hoof-like nails, though these are not actually used for locomotion; two purposeless but enervated residual toes can be found between the foot and the ankle). The diophel neck is also unusual to a human observer, being both a little long and very muscular.

The diophel head and face are broadly familiar. The snout is short, but longer than that of a human, and the face is ‘long’, with a low chin (though at the front of the snout the chin itself slopes back rather than pointing out). There is no distinct nose, though there are nostrils at the front of the snout (forming the most protruding part of the face) and a second set along the snout. At the top of the snout (though there is no abrupt stop) are the two large, yellow, brown or green eyes. These eyes appear to be in deep orbits, ‘eyesockets’, that are too wide for them – the centre-ward side of the eyeball is against the edge of the socket, but the outer side is instead protected only by cartilage, with about an inch of empty socket before the bony edge of the orbit. Female diophel have ears on the sides of their heads, quite high up, which take the form of bevelled horizontal grooves.

The most striking feature of the diophel head, however, is what’s on top of it. For males, that’s the crown. The crown has two parts – the pedestal and the horns. The base is a large bony mass covering much of the top of the head, down below where the ears would be on a female (in fact, the ears are still there on the males, but their entrance is blocked up by the downward growth of the pedestal). The horns are extremely impressive. Their number and exact arrangement varies with race, subspecies and species, as well as to a lesser extent with individual – the basic prototype is for ten horns, arranged more or less in two lines of five near the top of the head, one to the right and one to the left, from fore to aft, but in some one or more of these horns may be forked near the base, or may have joined together, or may be vestigial. In any case, the horns typically have a ‘heart’, ‘kite’ or ‘brilliant-cut’ outline when seen from the front – the horns rise almost vertically but sloping slightly outward for most of their length, before curving inward near the top. The same is broadly true when seen from the side – the horns splay outward but curve inward again nearer the top – though this profile is much more variable. Each horn is generally narrow, and does not twist, and has a sharp point. The horns are smooth, and show alternating white and black bands. In all forms of male diophel, the horns typically add at least a foot in height, usually two, and in the A, D and H subspecies they add three to four feet (sometimes more for H). In the (most numerous) A species, the horns are quite close together fore-to-aft and quite vertical; the second horn (from the front) forks into two at the base, the third and fourth are conjoined at the base by a connecting ridge of horn, and the fifth horn is very short, and usually blunt.

Females do not have a full crown, but they do have a substitute ‘coronet’ – the same horn arrangement as the male (though in A females the second horn does not fork), but the horns are only inches long, and typically blunt, and the pedestal is much smaller than for the male, and does not obstruct the ears.

Diophel skin is largely white-grey and slightly waxy in appearance, with darker spots and patterns. The details vary considerably – in many races, the darker patches are almost indiscernable in colouration, merely a slight shading effect, while for others the dark patches may be entirely black. Likewise, for some the dark colouring is in small spots, and for others it is in large patches – in the case of H and some ‘pure’ B2, it may even cover the majority of the skin. In all races, the paler parts of the skin may have slight blue or purple flushes in places where the skin is thinner and better-served by blood vessels – around the genitals, the hands, or on the face. The skin inside the ‘eye-sockets’ is black, as are the lips, and the genitals are also black, or dappled white-grey and black. The other colour found on diophel is red, or sometimes red-orange. This is found on a tougher type of skin, with a velvety texture, which can be found on the backs of the hands, the feet, the shins and around the knees, the elbows, shoulderblades, the base of the spine, the nape of the neck, the pedestal, and in thin strips along the ‘cheekbones’ at at the tip of the snout around the nostrils. The exact distribution can vary with race.

Reproductive anatomy in diophel is conventional – males possess a penis that is inserted into the vagina of the female, located more or less between the legs. The penis is rigid at all times, containing a bone, but when unaroused is held flat to the abdomen; it is protected inside a sort of natural codpiece of the tougher red-velvet skin, which splits into two parts along its length and opens when the male is aroused to allow the penis to exit. Females give birth, after a long gestation, to young with fully-formed digestive systems, so there is no need for any specialised feeding apparatus.

Tool use among the diophel is primarily by means of the hands, which are broad, strong, and long-fingered. There is a long thumb also. Manual dexterity, however, is far from excellent, due both to lack of flexibility and in liberties of motion of the digits and in their broad nature and relative lack of enervation (compared to those of humans). A secondary manipulator is the tongue – a magenta colour, it is able to protrude between five and ten inches from the mouth, and is prehensile. However, the tongue is also fairly thick, and has even more limited dexterity than the hands. It is commonly used for grabbing and orienting food, for providing an additional grasp when completing tricky tasks, and for exploration by touch due to its superior enervation (and taste receptors – the taste receptors on the tongue can respond to particularly noxious stimuli without even needing to touch them, which together with the length of the tongue helps prevent inedible substances from even reaching the mouth).

The primary sense used by diophel is sight, and the eyes are sizeable, and functional even in low light conditions. Diophel have a sensitive faculty of taste, but a poor faculty of smell, at least in terms of its acuity, and so they use their tongues to investigate things that a human might sniff. They of course have a faculty of touch, although their relatively thick skin makes this somewhat insensitive. Females have good hearing – less acute than a human’s, but with more precise locational awareness. Males unfortunately are more or less deaf, due to the excessive growth of their crowns cutting off the entrance to their ears – which before modern medicine also lead to many dangerous, even fatal, infections of the sealed ear cavities, and in particular to a widespread syndrome of chronic head pain with auditory hallucinations. However, males are not wholly deaf – they can hear particularly loud noises, and some low-pitched sounds (indeed, resonance in the crown leaves them able to hear many low-pitched sounds that are inaudible to females), and can sometimes hear by touching their horns to a vibration-transmitting object (the ground, for instance). Some have even bored holes through the crown to allow sound in – but with the evolution of deafness has come the atrophy of their auditory apparatus, and even with boreholes the male sense of hearing is limited.

Broadly speaking, diophel are not strong for their size – although their size inevitably does lend them strength, and in particular the strength of their seemingly wiry arms should not be underestimated, thanks to their unusual length. They are not particularly fast either, and have poor acceleration. Their physique is oriented more toward long-term stamina and health (they are not, however, equipped for extended intensive effort – they would do very poorly in a marathon – but rather for long-term repeated low-intensity exertion).

Females are on average slightly taller and noticeably more muscular than males – though they appear far less imposing, thanks to the lack of long horns, which for some males may be an entire third of their total apparent height. The weight of these horns (which is less than might be imagined, as they are almost entirely for display and surprisingly fragile) leads to males having rather more muscular necks than females.


Modifications to Appearance

Diophel have a long tradition of ornamental body modification, particularly for males. The details, however, vary widly between different cultures. The one near-constant is the practice of fenestration, in which the genital pouch is cut through. It is not entirely clear why this is so deeply ingrained: one theory is that it is simply for sexual display, and certainly the ornamentation of this area does seem designed to attract attention (although the more flamboyant early-space-age fashions of coloured strobing lights are now rarely followed); alternatively, as with genital mutilations in many cultures in many species, it has frequently been seen as a rite of passage demonstrating bravery and maturity; or it may simply, as modern doctors suggest, be a matter of hygeine, increasing airflow to prevent infections. In any case, the practice is almost a universal, although the details vary widely – often highly elaborate patterns are cut, leaving only a delicate ‘lacework’ of skin remaining.

More controversial but still widespread is the practice of polling – cutting the horns of males. This can be partial – sawing off the tips of the horns – or complete, removing the horns altogether, sawing down to the base of the crown. These have traditionally had very different connotations. Partial polling has been most associated with some of the more warlike cultures, as it increases the practicality of many activities for males and mimics battle-injuries. A minority of cultures practice partial polling of all horns, while others practice partial polling of only one or two horns. Certain types of partial polling correctly performed may also encourage greater horn growth. Complete polling can symbolise either feminisation or infantilisation; it has primarily been associated with authoritarian social structures, both matriarchal and patriarchal, in which young males are reduced to a sub-person state through ritual polling (in the case of patriarchies, often through castration also), but it has also been practiced in some matriarchal cultures to allow males to adopt female (i.e. military and authoritative) roles. Complete polling is rare at present.

Most adult males practice some form of orbital piercing, where the outer bone of the orbit (the over-large eyesocket) is drilled through. In some cultures this creates one or more large fenestrae, while in others it merely creates a thin hole. These piercings are often used to anchor rings, plugs, or other ornaments. This can sometimes be seen on females also, but less commonly. This is the only common place for piercings, other than the genitals (of both sexes, but particularly of the male), where it is uncommon but not abnormal, and the ear-covering pedestal area in males, where it is currently abnormal but not unknown, and has a considerable history. More widespread is the practice of transdermal implantation, in which small studs with their faces exposed have their tails anchored under the skin, generally to create some geometric pattern. Some degree of implantation is the norm for males, and not rare among females, with a few cultures practicing more extensive implantation covering much of the body. Finally, scarification was historically popular for females in more militaristic cultures, and sometimes even for males, but extensive scarification is now rarely seen. Small, symbolic scars are still often given to females as coming-of-age markers.

Outside of a few historical cultures in the coldest extremes of their homeworld, diophel have no extensive cultural tradition of clothing. Clothing has of course been worn for particular occupations for safety or convenience; in particular, protective armour of various kinds has been worn, and in some cultures this military dress has even been found outside of combat itself – but even there, this clothing was more a ritual display for formal occasions than a custom of daily life.

Four items of clothing are common, however: hats, belts, bracers, and shoes. Shoes are a matter of practicality – the pads of diophel feet are well suited to a variety of terrains and walking speeds, but shoes help prevent cuts and infections. They typically take the form of sandals. Belts likewise caught on for reasons of practicality, allowing goods to be carried easily – they tend to be thin and lightweight. Diophel do not generally like covering up skin if they can help it, as they are prone to overheating, and to sweat-fed skin infections, if they do. Bracers are a ceremonial item of clothing traditionally worn only by females, though in some cultures males have also adopted them – they tend to be worn only in relatively formal circumstances. They are the last vestige of old military garb, the protective sheath over the forearm that prevents self-injury among archers.

Hats are the one item of clothing where fashion has been allowed free reign. Hats were traditionally a male item, designed to fit over the horns (they often came in multiple pieces, slipped over horns individually, so should be seen more as systems or assemblages than as individual items). At times, they have even been designed to exaggerate the size and number of horns – though this design is now rare, being seen as ‘over-compensating’. Other designs leave the horns themselves bare, but cover the base of the crown, while others may cover some horns but not others. Some hats may cover some horns in such a way as to obscure their shape and number. In some cultures, females have taken to wearing hats over their short horns as well. In addition to the hats, or combined with them, a variety of ornaments have been designed to draw attention to horns – rings, hoops, chimes, bells, small figurines, and so forth. These days, tastes tend to tend toward the minimal, though there is still wide variation between cultures.

Finally, males in many cultures practice horn-shaping and horn-sculpting, where the shape of the horn is modified artificially. Shaping involves encouraging the horns to grow in particular patterns, and may involve encouraging them to grow to unnatural lengths, as well as encouraging forking of horns. Extreme horn shaping is no longer seen, though adolescent males may sleep with shaping gear on their heads to ensure their horns grow as close to symmetrically as possible. Sculpting involves cutting into the outer surface of the horn, to create a pattern or image. This is widespread, and can vary from incising a few geometrical shapes at one point on the horn to covering the entire horn with representational statuery.

Colony Worlds of Earth, 26th century, 2

               The second of three posts talking about human settlement in a SF setting.


                The Third Phase: The Exodus Worlds

After the Invasion came the Exodus. A devastated Earth could not feed its people, and although the most important approaches to this problem involved internal migration and the redevelopment of destroyed infrastructure, considerable resources were dedicated to the (largely symbolic) objective of shipping refugees out to new worlds. At first, however, this desire was largely stymied by the recalcitrance of many of the existing colony worlds, which refused to accept the establishment of the Protectorate. While sizeable numbers were shifted to Degama and Nikitin, and within the solar system itself to Venus, and some also to icy Zheng, the real solution to this problem was the rapid development of new colonies. Thanks to the size of the migration, and to their age (the Exodus Worlds are all now a little over a century old), they have attained considerable size and some local flavour, but are more homogenous than the older worlds. Modern Degama is in some ways essentially an Exodus World, despite tracing its roots to an ancient colony.



Capital: Tianlong

Resident Population: a little over 1 billion

History: originally an inviolable nature reserve for the study and preservation of the planet’s spectacular native lifeforms. This policy was ended during the Exodus, when Fa became one of the largest recipients of Earthican migrants.

Natural Attractions: settlement on Fa is limited to a handful of high plateaus and mountain ranges, where the air is thin and cold enough to be pleasant. In the steamy lowlands, native lifeforms thrive, including the incredible four-winged ‘dragons’ and the semi-intelligent ‘corbies’.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Fa has a large rural population, a legacy of the hurried nature of its founding (colonists were dumped on the surface with enough materiel to survive, but no arcologies were built to welcome the newcomers – the city of Tianlong has developed naturally, over the last century, and indeed a sizeable percentage of its population still lives in tents), and of the psychology of its first migrants (in the aftermath of the Invasion, people became more frightened of dense urban areas, so vulnerable to alien attack). The Homage of the Corbies is a spectacular ceremony in which the native creatures worship and offer gifts to the human leaders, who they appear to regard as divine beings.



Capital: Atrevida (but largest city Maquinna)

Resident Population: around 600 million

Natural Attractions: the inverse of Fa – most of the planet has a frozen semi-atmosphere, but settlement is possible in a number of deep, narrow, ‘trenches’, often adjacent to towering mountains – above the city of Atrevida towers the Bustamante Range, forty thousand feet above sea level, with its peaks (including Mount Bustamante, the tallest mountain on Guerra) another ten to fiften thousand feet higher.

Artificial and Social Attractions: like Fa, Guerra has a sizeable rural population; unlike Fa, its urban population is divided between dozens of small cities.



Capital: Alpha-Penglai (but largest city Eta-Penglai)

Resident Population: a little under 200 million

Natural Attractions: Xu is a small ocean world, with indigenous microflora.

Artificial and Social Attractions: as on Fa and Guerra, on Xu initial settlement was dispersed and primitive. In the case of Xu, however, this meant not tents but boats. This pattern of life has continued – the vast bulk of the population of Xu still live on small boats, each boat carrying between a dozen or two and a thousand or two passengers. The cities that do exist have relatively small permanent populations, and extensive mooring facilities to support a transient population of sailors stopping by to restock and repair.



Capital: Phalaris

Resident Population: around 150 million

Natural Attractions: Nehsi is known as a ‘sand-bank’ world, because very few of its landmasses rise more than a few tens of metres above sea level, and there are extensive tidal areas. In inhabited areas, these have been planted with reeds.

Artificial and Social Attractions: as Nehsi was the final Exodus colony, its settlement was a little less rushed, and more focused on cities (although to some extent many of the more urbiphobic Earthican settlers did spread out as soon as possible). Nehsi likes to think of itself as ‘the forgotten Colony’ – it has relatively little trade with Earth, and prides itself on its more relaxed lifestyle.


                Phase Four: Residual Worlds

As Earth recuperated after the Invasion, the need for mass emigration lessened – and at the same time the defeat of the Free Colonies opened up the old worlds for migrants. But colonialism has a long lag time, and several worlds had already begun oxygenation. Eventually, these were settled one by one, but none have grown to rival the older colonies in size, nor do any seem likely to do so in the near future.



Capital: Hammerskjold

Resident Population: around 50 million

History: at first primarily populated by refugees from Hong

Natural Attractions: millions of glacial islands – but most settlement is in temperate areas near the equator.

Artificial and Social Attractions: an unusual socialist society has developed on Nansen



Capital: Arriaga’s

Resident Population: a little under 100 million

History: founded as a refuge for White mutineers, with a sizeable percentage of its early population coming from planets other than Earth (particularly Battuta and Barsauma).

Natural Attractions: a watery planet, but scattered over with uncountable volcanic and formerly-volcanic islands – most islands tend to be steep-sided with dramatic cliffs.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Montecorvino considers itself dedicated to liberty and egalitarianism – it even has a meaningful, functioning democratic system.



Capital: City Capital

Resident Population: a little over 50 million

History: the only colony not founded from Earth, but from another colony – in this case Burton, in the same system. Speke was founded by religious dissenters.

Natural Attractions: an arid moon of a gas giant, with unusually low gravity.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Speke is dominated by Clearsensers, and is essentially a theocracy, though the Fleet intervenes to ensure a modicum of religious freedom for dissenters.



Capital: Tharsis

Resident Population: around 25 million

History: Rustah was one of the first habitable planets discovered. However, as it is a desert world of minimal resources, its colonisation was long delayed, and originally only military.

Natural Attractions: Much of the rock and sand on Rustah is a strikingly vibrant orange colour, as is its sun.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Rustah’s culture is surprisingly vital; its two chief characteristics are its dedication to the military and its market-focused individualism.



Capital: Alexandria

Resident Population: 10 million

History: shares the same system as Guerra, and a sizeable minority of colonists originated on that planet.

Natural Attractions: a large, gelid, briny water-world; the only ‘land’ is made of ice and stratified evaporites, and the temperature is a long way below freezing.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Malaspina is a hard place to live, and appeals to those who seek a lifestyle that is both rugged and co-operative.


Phase Five: The Young Colonies

During the later 25th century, Protectorate policy turned against new colonisation – it was felt that creating more inhabited worlds was creating too many hostages to fortune, and thinning out the military deployment too greatly. Nonetheless, colonisation has proven a hard drive to curtail. Four colonies have been founded in the last forty years – all of them piggybacking on existing military deployments.



Capital: Farport

Resident Population: 25 million

Natural Attractions: a varied, Earth-like world, though with less ocean, and a little warmer (there are no icecaps).



Capital: Robinson

Resident Population: 10 million

Natural Attractions: a high-obliquity planet in the same system as Azambuja; most of the planet is is permanent ice (in the tropics) or alternates between extreme cold and literally boiling heat (the northern polar regions). Settlement, however, is on a large archipelago in the southern ocean, where the climate is permanently moist and balmy.



Capital: Milo

Resident Population: several million

History: Kamsky was a military base for many decades before Lord Protector Ameganvi finally allowed civilians to settle on it.

Natural Attractions: exotically unpleasant. Gravity is high, and Kamsky’s highly eliptical orbit plunges the colonists into years of ocean-freezing frigidity and twilight followed by years of sweltering heat.




Capital: Triumvirate

Resident Population: several million

History: currently the youngest Colony World, having been settled only a decade ago.

Natural Attractions: almost all of Infante is ocean – settlement is on the single, small continent.

Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

[part of an ongoing Discworld re-read project]

Last time out, I said I was going to take a break from Pratchett for a while.

Unfortunately, some sort of reading accident occurred, and accidentally I accidentally read the first few pages of Pyramids by accident.

Wait, did I say ‘unfortunately’? I’m not sure that’s quite the right word. In fact, that’s really quite the wrong word entirely.

Why? Well, the first six Discworld books were mostly entertaining. Sometimes they were very good in their own right, like Mort; othertimes, they were filled with promise not quite carried off, like Wyrd Sisters. But Pyramids is different. Pyramids is a masterpiece.

Let’s start with the structure. In fact, let’s not, let’s start with the size. The early Discworld books began in the 230/250-page range, and ticked up toward 260/270-pages; Pyramids leaps forward to around 350 pages. One problem with the earlier books was a frequent feeling of rushing, of not being able to pay enough attention to things as they passed, of things being left unpolished, unfilled, because time did not allow; 350 pages still isn’t a big book, and Pyramids does still now and then feel a little hasty or a little rough, but it’s enough of an expansion that the story really feels as though it has a good deal more room to breathe, and the ending has more time to put all the crampons in place, so to speak.

One thing the greater length allows is a really effective introduction. Most of Pratchett’s characters so far have been given cursory introductions sketched in bold colours and little shading, because the demands of the plot have not permitted otherwise. In Pyramids, Teppic gets a lengthy introduction, an entire book (the novel is given some more rigid internal structure by being split into four ‘books’), showing his training as an Assassin in Ankh-Morpork, skillfully combining the ‘present’ of his exciting final examination (lots of people fail the Assassin’s exam, but you’ll never meet any of them…) with flashbacks to moments in his education and to leaving his homeland, as well as flashsides to his father back in Djelibeybi. This section of the book is key. It establishes the critical duality of Teppic – a prince and god-to-be from an ancient, bankrupt country ruled by ritual and tradition, and at the same time a suave, urbane Assassin from the richest and most modern city on the Disc. All the Discworld novels to this point have made a big point of juxtaposing Ankh-Morpork with other areas, but never to better effect than here, with that juxtaposition now transcending the old London/Country theme at the same time as it worms its way into the heart of the protagonist, not just the scenery.

In addition to the greater length, and the decision to pin up the story with three ‘end-of-book’ breaks (particularly welcome given Pratchett’s traditional absence of chapter breaks, which aids the pacing but can contribute to an unstructured, aimless feel sometimes), Pyramids is also notable for its structural breadth. The cast of characters may be smaller than in Wyrd Sisters, but the action is less concentrated, frequently passing between any of three or four different locations, whether for extended sequences or for brief jokes. This isn’t new, it’s something Pratchett has always done (particularly in Sourcery), but this time he feels completely in control of it. I never found a cut unwelcome or misplaced – he neither dwells too long nor (as in Sourcery) dilutes the tension with asides.

And then in the end we get the best finale so far – not only exhilerating, but beautifully wrapping up every loose end, and leaving tantalising threads to dangle as the lights go down. This time, Pratchett gets it right. And what a closing scene!

But it’s not the structure that makes Pyramids a masterpiece, although that’s part of what allows it. It’s not even the characterisation – not Teppic, the most interesting protagonist yet, nor the heroine (the most interesting heroine yet, though she may not seem so at first), nor the simple but deft and vivid sketching of a host of background characters. These make the book so readable – but it’s the confidence with which Pratchett tackles the novel’s themes that turns it from enjoyable light entertainment into something genuinely worthy.

Pratchett isn’t preaching here – or at least, he does a good job of not looking as though he’s preaching – but he’s willing to run straight into an array of deep and provocative themes. Most obviously, this could be called a book about religion – but while the general impression might be of a book that attacks religion, it does it in the context of a world where that religion is true. It carefully divides religion-as-faith from religion-as-ritual, assesses the relationships between the two, but does not come down in a heavy-handed way on one side or the other – both faith and ritual are shown as flawed, but neither is dismissed entirely. Pratchett isn’t afraid of contradiction. He embraces it. A key passage in the book shows the high priest believing absolutely in half a dozen different reasons for the motion of the sun, all of which are contradictory – and that’s, in a way, what the whole book tries to do. It tries to hold multiple points of view simultaneously – and that gives it a lot of its power. It doesn’t demand that we side with this view or that, but shows us things in both lights at the same time. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a sense of right and wrong here – there always is in Pratchett, and in this book (unlike, say, in Wyrd Sisters) there’s rarely any doubt that the hero is doing exactly the right thing at all times. But it doesn’t pretend that the right thing is always obvious, or that we can be ever entirely sure of our convictions, even as we follow them – or that ‘the wrong thing’ and ‘the right thing’ are always opposites. Perhaps this is most obvious in the portrayal of the main ‘villain’ – not only is he shown as a paragon of virtue (almost entirely selfless and without malice), and as maybe not even wholly misguided (the general impression is less one of overthrowing evil than one of learning to grow up and set aside the things of childhood, in which the villain plays the role of loving parent), but his character arc is the most affecting, and the entire story is built upon him, to the extent of being given both the opening (at least, after the traditional impersonal ‘welcome to Discworld’ passage) and closing scenes. It’s a rare book that manages to have an emotional and ‘important’-feeling plot while not having any character to wholly dislike!

Pyramids is often compared to Small Gods, both being standalone novels of priests and deserts, ritual and faith, and cameo appearances by philosophers – but I think that Pyramids may be the more interesting and subtle of the two. It’s a shame that Pyramids is so often lost in the shadow of its bigger, glossier, more obvious little sister.

Of course, I ought probably to find something to complain about. It’s true, I suppose, that Teppic is still a little too archetypal, a little too little personal and distinctive – his personal character is still a little lost in the big clothes of Designated Hero. And I think I’d have preferred a book that felt less lonely – a book in which more characters were fully fleshed out right from the beginning, with a few fewer one-dimensional supporting roles. One thread of the ending, while neat, feels a little too legerdemained. It’s all funny, but perhaps it’s not as funny as Pratchett can be. The fact it’s a standalone makes it harder to get invested in it. I never understood why he’s ‘Teppicymon’ rather than ‘Pteppicymon’, given that he introduces himself as a child as ‘Pteppic’. And… oh, I’m sure there are other things you could quibble over too. It’s not the greatest book ever written.

But it’s a great book nonetheless.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Exciting from beginning to end, though it does lull a bit in the middle.

Emotion: 3/5. Some kickass moments make up for being slightly thin, emotionally speaking.

Thought: 4/5. Doesn’t go full-on into philosophical rumination, and the plot, while not exactly predictable, isn’t a head-scratcher either. On the other hand, there’s as much depth and breadth and ingenuity of thought here as you could really hope for from a book of this size, given that it is primarily a comedy adventure fantasy novel.

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s prose is at its best here, provocative, original, and elegant. The same can be said of his irony-and-paradox-heavy handling of themes, and some sleek plot twists. Loses the top grade only because of a little inconsistency – too many plain bits in among the sparkles.

Craft: 5/5. There are, of course, little minor flaws here and there, but I can’t think of any major ones. This is an author in full control, with an ebullient mastery.

Endearingness: 4/5. Again, a tiny spot of thinness to the characters and in particular a slightly too straightforward story, plus maybe a little less humour than in his funniest efforts, stopped this from being a book I adore. It is, however, a book I really, really like. It was one of my favourites as a child.

Originality: 3/5. Many features are ultimately parodic, derived from other works or from common anecdotes (eg the Assassin’s exam is a fantastical version of the British driving license exam). There is quite an ordinary heroic tale underlying the plot, albeit with a few diversions thrown in along the way. On the other hand… in execution, there’s nothing like Pratchett at his best.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. OK, in the final analysis it probably doesn’t deserve to be called a ‘brilliant’ novel – I’m reserving that term for the very best of the best – in large part because for all its virtues it is still at heart just a lightly entertaining romp. But it’s certainly very good. It’s the best Discworld book I’ve reviewed so far (which for those who haven’t been following means the first seven Discworld novels, plus Hogfather, Unseen Academicals and Snuff).

Influential Figures in Fantasy, 4

Other Worlds

Jules Verne (1828-1905)
William Morris (1834-1896)
H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925)
H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

Four immense names in setting the ground for speculative literature; all four broke away from mainstream fiction to create stories that were not only fantastical in their events, but fantastical also in setting. Verne is today best known as a writer of ‘science fiction’, but the science in his fiction is for the most part little more than an excuse for fantastical environs. Wells too is considered a ‘science fiction’ writer, but this is pigeon-holing him excessively – The Invisible Man, for instance, uses a little technobabble to introduce the fantasy premise of an invisibility device into a contemporary setting, while The First Men in the Moon is a fantastical Lost World story that just happens to be set in space.

Speaking of Lost Worlds, we cannot forget the man who created that genre: H. Rider Haggard. The Lost World genre – in which hardy Victorian gentlemen inspect the peculiar ecology and society of strange colonial places, with or without dinosaurs – may seem at first to have little to do with fantasy, but this conclusion would be entirely wrong. Lost Worlds represent a development of orientalism, transferring the wondrous, incredible ‘other’ from real societies of Earth (which were becoming increasingly understood) into what were essentially pocket fantasy worlds that just happened to be set, theoretically, somewhere in Africa, or South America.

Morris, however, went even further. Unlike the other three, he’s not primarily known as a novelist at all, but rather as a philosopher-cum-wallpaper-designer, and when his fiction is mentioned it’s usually his SF utopia, News from Nowhere. And yet Morris is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the history of fantasy: the first major modern novelist to set his stories not in a distorted reality, nor a far-off land, nor in a dream nor in a vision of the future, but in a fully solid and independent fantasy world. Morris’s fantasies were an attempt to revive the mediaeval romance tradition, and alongside their fantasy worlds and their historical trappings was an aesthetic of the old Germanic myths, and an artificial, intentionally archaic and elevated language, that we still hear echoes of in the idiom of fantasy today.

Aaand just as I have a bunch of stuff to post…

…I can’t, because the blog has become unusably slow…

Colony Worlds of Earth, 26th century.

Another series set in the same 26th century as the recent series on life on Venus. Will be in three parts.


The twenty-three Colonies are often divided into cohorts by the age of their founding.

                The First Phase: Exploration and Pride

The first three Colonies – Hanno, Zheng and Degama – were first settled in low numbers, for little clear purpose. The spirit of exploration and expansion motivated this settlement, combined with pride and the desire to demonstrate the power and potential of the species, and of its ruling class. All three of these colonies were profoundly affected by the Invasion and the accompanying coup d’etat by the military – Hanno and Degama had their populations all but exterminated (Degama’s being replenished after the war), while Zheng became the capital of human civilisation.


Capital: Lenko Command Base

Resident Population: thousands

History: humanity’s first interstellar colony never had more than a few million inhabitants – almost all of whom were killed or abducted during the Invasion. The planet is now maintained as a museum and monument, as well as a location for a number of military bases.

Natural Attractions: Hanno is almost entirely a baking-hot, rugged, rocky desert.

Artificial and Social Attractions: the ruins of Horizon City.



Capital: Site Four

Resident Population: a little under 400 million

History: the military bases on Zheng were once a prestige project rather than a major colonial endeavour; but ever since the Invasion and the Founding of the ruling military Protectorate, Zheng has become the political capital of humanity, as well as the largest military concentration outside the Solar system. As a result, its population has grown.

Natural Attractions: Zheng is planet of towering glaciers, jagged rocks, and rocky beaches.

Artificial and Social Attractions: The city of Resistance is home to many of the most important members of the species – though the committee room of the Special Committee itself is buried beneath a glacier nearby. Most settlement on Zheng takes the form of single-structure arcologies, usually an imposing and featureless black. Inside, the population is extremely dense, and the culture is vibrant and communal.



Capital: Defiance

Resident Population: a little under 1 billion 400 million

History: Degama was once a flourishing colony of hundreds of millions of people. And that’s what it is today. In between, however, almost all its original population was killed or abducted in the Invasion.

Natural Attractions: due to its age, Degama has extensive vegetation, particularly along its shores and rivers, though large inland areas remain barren. It is cool and dry, and vegetation is mostly grassland. Many newcomers make a point of travelling through the interior, often in the company of nomads, and in particular seeing the towering ice of the southern polar cap.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Degama has two sides: its dense, populous cities (at over 100 million inhabitants, the new capital, Defiance, is a respectable size even by Earthican standards), and its rolling farmland (mostly small towns, clustered around cities or mining sites).


                The Second Phase: Exploitation

The first colonies were demonstrations of concept. Before long, however, human ingenuity sought to find a way to make money out of colonialism, and a century of colonial projects each attempted to find ways either to exploit native resources or to draw in wealthy immigrants from Earth. The colonies from this era have grown highly distinctive over centuries of divergence.



Capital: None (the largest city is Tanager)

Resident Population: a little under 1 billion 400 million

History: originally a ‘luxury’ colony that particularly appealed to archons and their families, Battuta is proud of its independence, and even attempted to remain outside Protectorate control for several decades.

Natural Attractions: the cities of Battuta are all built on the plains – which are kilometres below the immense upland plateaus and kilometres more below the peaks. Most of the smaller lakes are vividly coloured with native halophile microorganisms, which provide patches of colour in the endless grey-green sands; the sky is a pale but striking olive, fading to turqoise and lavender over the larger water bodies.

Artificial and Social Attractions: the soaring and often tangled arcologies of Battuta are humanity’s tallest artificial structures – the Great Pinnacle of Amazilia is 8km tall. Within the arcologies, Battutan society has moved away from capitalism toward a society of clans, blood ties, feudal obligations, and patron-client relationships.



Capital: Neworchard

Resident Population: 1 million

History: Hong was once the most populous of all the extrasolar colonies, but its population was massacred and abducted during the Third War, and almost all the survivors chose to be evacuated to a safer location – Hong is far too far into nomansland for safety.

Natural Attractions: Earthlike climate, but a little warmer and wetter. Large forested areas.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Ruins, and stubborn scattered settlers, along with military bases.



Capital: Elcano One

Resident Population: around 150 million

History: oxygenating this oceanic super-earth was a lengthy, and ruinously expensive, endeavour.

Natural Attractions: Water. There is a great deal of water on Elcano.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Elcano’s city-ships, with their unique architecture, host a distinctive, highly-individualist culture. Citizens lead largely solitary lives, with spacious living conditions, but local politics is a raucous national sport.



Capital: Rabban

Resident Population: a little over 600 million

History: founded for free spirits, particularly those seeking lower-tech, simpler lives. Later was briefly the homeworld of the Leveller movement.

Natural Attractions: Barsauma, like Elcano, is a water-planet. However, a large percentage of the surface of Barsauma is occupied by the local flora, a form of mossy sea-weed that fossilises after death into a pumice-like floating rock.

Artificial and Social Attractions: as the mossberg ‘continents’ drift towad the destructive hurricanes of the tropical regions, the human inhabitants are constantly migrating northward. As a result, almost all habitation is in easily-transportable ‘container’ cabins. This helps to enforce a culture that has little interest in material possessions, and a greater focus on spirituality and community.



Capital: Eldorado

Resident Population: around 400 million

History: founded as a mining enterprise. Was the de facto capital of the short-lived Free Colonies movement.

Natural Attractions: a largely arid world, the red sands of Herjolfsson are chiefly remarkable for their immense mineral wealth.

Artificial and Social Attractions: a planet that was once home to an indolent ruling elite is now an egalitarian socialist society, in which vertically-integrated worker-run organisations known as ‘unions’ control all aspects of life. The planet’s architecture is also famous – many of the early founding structures were built according to the brief architectural school of ‘hypercore’, and later architecture has often mimicked this distinctive style.



Capital: Arundell-Salinas

Resident Population: a little over 200 million

History: founded as a haven of decadence for wealthy minor relatives of archons.

Natural Attractions: hot and rapidly-rotating Burton is famous for its continual windstorms. Introduced life has flourished near inhabited areas, forming rich swamps and forests.

Artificial and Social Attractions: Burton remains the most libertine of the colonies, and is also a haven for transhumanism. Many citizens of Burton are easily distinguished by their vibrant bioluminescent genetic skin-patterning.



Capital: Afanasy

Resident Population: 400 million

History: founded as a religious colony; later recipient of a brief burst of migration during the early Exodus.

Natural Attractions: a world with high obliquity, Nikitin has an unusual climate. The southern and northern continents are torn between freezing winters and summers hot enough to boil water; the tropical continent is under a permanent icecap.

Artificial and Social Attractions: the founding city of Afanasy, being one of the few easily inhabitable places on the planet, is home to more than half the colony’s population, and is the largest extratellurian human city. The initial spiritual orientation of the colony has remained, despite the diversity of later immigrants.


Influential Authors in Fantasy, 3

The Macabre

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)
Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)
Bram Stoker (1847-1912)
Arthur Machen (1863-1947)
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918)
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

While the bulk of ‘gothic’ writing evolved in the direction of realistic but creepy novels that involved elements of madness (as in the works of the Brontë sisters), some of it evolved in a more explicitly fantastic, and dark, direction. One of the most important early figures was Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was a key foundational work of both horror and science fiction – she went on to write the apocalyptic SF novel The Last Man, though it was not greatly influential at the time. In America, meanwhile, Poe was likewise pushing the gothic genre into macabre and sometimes supernatural directions, while also often incorporating the latest scientific and pseudoscientific hypotheses; just as importantly, as a critic, he harangued those who relied on over-obvious allegory, helping to create a space for fantastic tales that were not simple ciphers for political and religious views.

Le Fanu, likewise, was a writer of short macabre stories. His most important work was probably as a writer of ghost stories, in which he established and codified the genre, even if he hadn’t invented it; he’s now most famous, however, as the creator of the modern vampire, in his Carmilla. In Carmilla, vampirism is a not-so-subtle metaphor for lesbianism, and the sexual overtones, if not the details, are carried over into the most famous vampire novel of them all, Stoker’s Dracula, which combines the macabre and orientalist traditions to set modern, rational englishmen against an ancient, accursed, decadent and deviant evil from the east.

Another element of horror and dark fantasy came to the fore with Arthur Machen, who combined the macabre with the tradition of fairy tales, turning those fairy tales into an invasive force of darkness and illogic into modern settings. In doing so he not only proved a great influence on horror and dark fantasy, but more generally helped to legitimise the fairy tale as containing something for ‘grown-ups’, and as something potentially destabilising.

William Hope Hodgson, on the other hand, took horror in a different, more otherworldly direction, merging it with fantasy and science fiction to produce nightmarish visions of the far future, and of worlds on the verge of assaulting and consuming our own.

Finally, Kafka brought the gothic into the twentieth century, and married it with a mystical and irrational – and unexplained – supernatural element, laying the foundations for Borges and the Magic Realists, as well as many horror writers.

Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

[part of an ongoing re-read of the Discworld novels]

Many people say that this book is where Discworld gets brilliant. I’d have said that myself, before I read it. Unfortunately… I find myself a little disappointed.

That’s not to say that it’s not a good book. It is. It’s a great book. It just… isn’t quite there yet.

Wyrd Sisters is a book that’s both a continuation of earlier themes and a new direction for Pratchett. First, the familiar – the setting is the Ramtops again, and Granny Weatherwax from Equal Rites makes her return. This creates a bit of a problem, in that her established stomping grounds don’t really seem to fit in this new kingdom of ‘Lancre’. It seems that Pratchett has landed an entire kingdom on Granny’s doorstep, with the royal castle just down the road, making the area feel a good deal less remote and wild than it did in Equal Rites – yet Lancre the town, capital of this kingdom, feels a lot smaller and more ramshackle than the cosmopolitan neighbouring town Granny and Esk visited in Equal Rites. More generally, Lancre doesn’t feel as real and as important as Bad Ass did in the opening section of EQ – there’s a good deal more distance (in EQ, every individual in the area was a character, whereas here we read about villages being burned down en masse, in throwaway comments, with nobody being that perturbed by it). Nor does Granny feel as fully-rounded a character as in her first outing, having reverted to more of a stock bad-ass old woman, without the complexities and vulnerabilities we saw before (some of this may be explained in-world by her increased age and experience, and the fact we only see her through the eyes of cowed adults, not through the perceptive intimacy of a child’s perspective as before – but it still makes it less fun to read). All in all, it feels as though Pratchett began by wanting to write a Macbeth pastiche, and then decided to put in his existing character – a good decision for the franchise, but not an entirely natural fit. In other continuity news, Wyrd Sisters features the same hero(ic archetype) as in both Mort and EQ – it may even be argued that Rincewind also represents this type, albeit in an older, more cynical, more beaten-down-by-life variation.

On the originality front, however, Pratchett has the cunning idea of hiding this hero for most of the book (though it’s easy to work out what will happen as soon as you find the character familiar…). In place of the pivotal central figure of all the previous Discworld books, Wyrd Sisters features an ensemble cast, lead by two new witches to give support to Granny. Of these, Nanny Ogg is a great success – a character with impressive hidden depths (though, at least in this book, I found her surface often somewhat irritating – and did anyone else notice that her first words seem to be in an Irish dialect, promptly forgotten about?); the other, Magrat, is fair enough, I suppose, but a little too obvious. The two villains are a mixed bag as well – the Duke is fantastic at times (and it’s always good to find someone who can happily, even easily, face down Granny), but I didn’t feel Pratchett was able to fully sell his extreme and convenient personality changes, and the book would have worked better if his madness had built up over time rather than hitting top gear right away; the Duchess, unfortunately, is a walking aggregation of cliches, who was never remotely interesting. All in all, there are probably ten significant major characters, which is impressive, and the cast is for the most part handled very well (unlike, for instance, in Sourcery, where extraneous characters hung about on screen for far too long). On the other hand, while this is an interesting and mostly succesful experiment, the ensemble approach does, I think, weaken our emotional involvement it, thanks to the lack of a real central protagonist.

A lot of what is good about the book, and what is bad about it, comes from its direct and explicit pastiche of Macbeth. Resting so much of the book on such a famous prior work allows Pratchett to take shortcuts, both narratively (the plot may not be exactly the same, but we know how these stories are meant to play out, as do the characters themselves) and comedically (the riot of Shakespearian allusions). It lets him summon up some of the emotive power and resonance of the popular cultural myth. But it also causes problems for him. The plot is too big for the book, and everything feels quite rushed. Because he’s taking shortcuts, some of the leaps don’t feel like they really stand up if you let your mind pause too long on them. Aesthetically, borrowing so much from, relying so much on, another work makes this feel like a step backward from, say, Mort.

In the end, though, the problem is the end – and how we get there. We are railroaded rapidly toward the end, with almost everything being done, and done quickly, to move the plot along. But when we arrive at the end, with expectations of something really clever happening… it doesn’t work. It’s just too easy. After an entire book that feels like putting things in place, after arranging a big conceit for the purpose… it feels both as though the ending is un-earned (because they haven’t done enough to accomplish it) and over-earned (because the simplicity of the ending makes the complexity of the set-up feel wasted). It feels as though we’re meant to buy a sort of karma here – they trade the plot for the ending. But although there’s a lot of plot, I don’t see how it equates to the ending. When I was young, I bought this completely, because, I think, I was overawed by the clever irony and the literary allusion and the big fancy grand wittering about destiny and narrative causality and stories shaping themselves and whatever, but now it feels like a lot of gloss on a rickety beam. The fairly crude farce that surrounds the conclusion is also not helping matters for me. And then when you think about it a little more, you see just how much handwaving and inconsistency has lead up to this – the plot has been driving the characters, not vice versa.

Then again, having an ending that even momentarily looks satisfying is an improvement over most of the earlier Discworld books, it must be said.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Plenty of incident and some tension. However, a slightly scattergun feeling (probably resulting from the large cast size and complicated plot) prevented any real excitement.

Emotion: 2/5. Doesn’t have the strongly sympathetic protagonists of Equal Rites or of Mort; didn’t really feel there was any one character with an arc that I could get worked up over.

Thought: 3/5. Clever, primarily in its use of allusion and irony. But not stunning.

Beauty: 3/5. Could mark this up for its irony, but that would probably be being over-generous.

Craft: 4/5. Very nearly flawless in construction. Didn’t feel there was quite the pop to the writing that there was in Mort, and more importantly the structural work is still a little rickety.

Endearingness: 3/5. Close to 4/5, but things like the lack of a clear protagonist and the (admirable but alienating) moral ambiguity of the characters make it hard to love.

Originality: 4/5. Borrowing heavily from existing sources and tropes, it probably ought to be 3/5, but the cleverness of the execution and the distinctive authorial voice push it up a notch.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Wanted to love it, but didn’t – I thought the ambition outsped the execution. Nonetheless, it’s a good and enjoyable and memorable book – and probably particularly suited to a younger and less critical audience who might not notice some of the cracks in the foundations.

P.S. I think it might be a good idea for me to take a breather and read something else before I go on to Pyramids. Pratchett’s an author whose style can become repetitive, and although I don’t think I’ve lost the ability to judge objectively yet, I imagine that I will if I read too many more of his books consecutively…

but six down, and only… …thirty-three!?!?!?… to go? Oh lawks, this is going to take me a while, isn’t it?

P.P.S. you have to admire an author who’s willing to make a pun that hardly any of his readers will understand… and then make it the title of his book! Chapeau, that man!