Parallel Evolution and Two Big Dumb Objects
a review feature by
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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