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The Dark Side of the Sun (SF) - Terry Pratchett ***(*)

Terry Pratchett was a great writer of humorous fantasy novels, but not everyone knows he tried his hand at straight science fiction before starting on the Discworld books. I had a real problem rating this book - I really need to be able to give it four stars for ideas and three for quality of writing.

Pratchett takes us on a whirlwind trip (there's probably not more than about 50,000 words in the book, but he packs a huge amount in) around a future universe where there a few humanish species (plus intelligent robots and a couple of strange entities like a conscious planet that acts as a bank), living in the shadow of a much older, mysterious disappeared species known as the Jokers, who left behind vast, incomprehensible monuments. The central character, Dom Salabos, is about to take over his planet-wide family company... except first he has to survive increasingly frequent attempts on his life and to discover a destiny put in place by his father.

To get the less positive bits out of the way, it's not a particularly original plot, and Pratchett is still finding his feet as an author - it can sometimes be difficult to follow his writing, and the whole thing is incredibly rushed (the love interest, for example, is introduced so late in the book that she (one of the few female significant characters) is little more than a caricature. Equally, some really interesting settings which look designed to be the locations for interesting set pieces (a maze planet, for example) are just used in the background, suggesting this was perhaps intended to be a significantly longer book. Perhaps the weakest aspect is 'probability math', a version of Asimov's psychohistory on steroids, which is even more improbable (ahem) than the original and is tied into a kind of many worlds hypothesis universe.

However, on the plus side, there's loads of invention here. Although some aliens are classic humans in a different shape, others are genuinely alien-feeling. There's lots of fun technology (including a sarky robot that puts Marvin the paranoid android to shame) and Pratchett piles on the content, from an inverted society where the rich lead very spartan lives to the aforementioned one-of-a-kind conscious oddities. For Discworld fans, you will even find a couple of religious concepts (Hogswatchnight and Small Gods) that he reused in his fantasy books.

It's a fascinating period piece (first published in 1976), both for Pratchett fans to see how his writing evolved and as a piece of idea-packed, if imperfectly written, science fiction.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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