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Parallel Evolution and Two Big Dumb Objects

a review feature by John D Owen

Listen, I know comparisons are supposed to be odious, but just occasionally, there is a concatenation of events that make comparisons not just inevitable, but also desirable, after a fashion. Take this pair of books I have in front of me at the moment.

The first, Ringworld's Children by Larry Niven, is the latest in a successful series of books that started way back in 1970. The second, Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, is also the latest in a long running and very successful series, one which started back in 1983. So far, so similar.

The basic idea behind both series is somewhat similar, too. Both feature rather interesting Big Dumb Objects as their main setting. In Larry Niven's case, it's the ubiquitous 'Ringworld', a great, sun-encircling artifact with the land area of a million Earths. It's a great concept, one that really caught SF fans' imagination when it was first unveiled to the world back in 1970.

Terry Pratchett's BDO is somewhat more whimsical in nature, as befits a world that is built for fantasy, rather than SF, adventures. Discworld, after all, is based on old cosmology, being a disc of material resting on the backs of four huge elephants, who in turn are standing on a giant turtle swimming through space. Discworld's basic operation is dependent on the existence of magic to keep it all working properly.

The real differences come when you look at what each author has done with their creation. Pratchett's first Discworld book came out in 1983, thirteen years after Larry Niven's first Ringworld book. Pratchett has produced a further twenty-eight volumes in the series (thirty-one if you count the junior Discworlds) since then, getting progressively better as he goes along. Niven has produced just three more Ringworld novels since the first, getting progressively more strained and unreadable with each book.

Pratchett is rightly regarded as a national treasure, one of Britain's best humorists (but he's also so much more than just a writer of funny books). Niven seems to be living on past glories, on the reputation built up when he was a 'bright young thing', with Hugos and Nebulas to his name. He simply hasn't done anything in recent decades to live up to that early promise. Pratchett still shines brightly, Niven seems a pale shadow of his former self.

So why have the two writers, each starting from significantly different places, with Niven at the top of the SF pile, Pratchett from a position near the bottom of the heap, putting out amusing parodies of fantasy cliches, switched places so comprehensively?

The first answer has to be persistence: while Niven has only produced four Ringworld books in thirty-four years, he has produced another twenty odd novels (many in collaboration), and a good number of short story collections. Pratchett, on the other hand, has proved remarkably persistent in developing Discworld, with thirty plus books in twenty-one years, plus another eleven novels, only one of which was a true collaboration (Good Omens, with Neil Gaiman).

While Niven had a great idea, and a potential for thousands of stories amongst the teaming hordes of Ringworld (and the rest of Known Space), he has never really gone beyond telling the story of one set of characters (Louis Wu and his various associates). In a very real sense, Niven only comes back to Ringworld to touch base and keep the fans happy, and I think it shows in the laboured storylines and the disinterested writing evident in Ringworld's Children.

Pratchett, by comparison, has consistently developed multiple storylines (Rincewind, the Guards, the Witches, Death, etc), all very effective, all developing in interesting directions, and all capable of working in many different settings. And he keeps on coming up with new storylines, with original characters, to refresh the series and keep it moving. After twenty-nine books, one would normally expect a certain amount of by-the-rote writing to have not just crept in, but moved in and put its coat on a hook and its boots up on the table. But it's not there. Pratchett has managed the difficult task of keeping the fans happy, while at the same time doing interesting things with plot (which has got much more complex as the series has gone on), with characters (both developing old characters, like Vimes and Vetinari, and inventing new ones for them to play off), with setting (using the familiar, like Ankh-Morpork, and recasting it with modernisation, as in The Truth or Going Postal). Terry Pratchett simply keeps getting better at what he does, and the crazy thing is, he is still basically doing what he did all those books ago in The Colour Of Magic. He takes a cliché and he riffs off of it, like a master jazz musician, turning the bland and obvious into the fantastic and the diverting.

That's what it seems to come down to, in the end. Of the two, Larry Niven came to the forefront of his profession quickly, but scarcely seems to have developed as a writer since then. Terry Pratchett, in contrast, started out on a lower rung, but has never stopped developing as a writer since those early books. The first lost his touch along the way, became stale and now produces frankly boring work. The other has found out how to write with a magical touch, and continues to entertain and surprise with every book.

Review-feature by John D Owen.

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