“The ultimate barrier is one’s viewpoint.”
The Dark Side of the Sun is very early Pratchett indeed: pre-Colour of Magic and pre-pretty much everything, in fact, save The Carpet People. It takes a slightly skew-whiff look at several SF classics; the one I’m most familiar with is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, so I’m going to focus on that.
Pratchett’s novel, then, is set in a far-future universe in which the ability to predict the future has been honed through the scientific discipline of p-math. Our Protagonist is Dom Sabalos IV, newly Chairman of his home planet of Widdershins, which is run by a Board. Using p-math, Dom’s father predicted that Dom would be assassinated on the day of his investiture; inevitably, Dom survives against all the odds (as we know from Discworld, the million-to-one chance comes true nine times out of ten) and swiftly becomes the subject of another prediction (a Prophecy, one might say): that he will discover the identity of the Jokers.
The Jokers are, or were, a mysterious race of beings who left tantalising clues of their preternatural engineering ability scattered around the universe (two stars linked to each other like chain-rings; a really really tall tower on a deserted ice planet). Nobody knows who they were or where they’ve gone; all that remains is a cryptic riddle-poem saying that the Jokers have gone to their new home “at the dark side of the sun”. (Geddit?)
This being Pratchett, the result is a chaotic and rather absurd romp, as Dom careers through the universe meeting characters including but not limited to a sentient planet who operates as a bank, a race of non-gendered, octopoidal, sentient extremophiles and a species of space-faring dog that propels itself by, um, farting. Also, people keep trying to murder him.
Zany as this all is, it doesn’t feel very Pratchett, and I think perhaps this comes down to how it deploys its chaotic elements.
Let’s draw out that comparison with Asimov.
In both this novel and the Foundation series, scientific near-certainties are disrupted by events literally so random that they are impossible to predict (this is the role the genetic mutant called the Mule plays in Foundation and Empire). In Asimov’s series, this sustained disruption opens out the universe the human characters inhabit: people from Foundation discover the planet of Gaia, an entire ecosystem existing as one super-being; the Solarians, genetically engineered humans who hate the sight of each other; and, finally, a robot who turns the entire trajectory of the series inside out. Uncertainty reigns – not because science is wrong but because it is limited by our human perspective; because there are things human science is unable to encompass and predict.
On the other hand, The Dark Side of the Sun posits that the universe is solvable, in the way that a riddle or a joke is solvable. In fact, it puts its finger up at Science (p-math) in favour of Art (the Jokers’ poem). The thing is, the Jokers’ riddle turns on a very human play on words; so, while there is a long expository section at the end explaining the importance exactly of finding ways to expand your viewpoint, the structural effect of the book is to shrink the possibilities of the universe, to make it small and human and humane. All the novel’s chaos only goes to reinforce the narrative – human – logic of the story. Which is very Pratchettian, but not quite right for an SF novel of this type; and, actually, in Pratchett’s later novels we’ll see the absurdity of his plots used not to shrink a universe but to grow it, to show us how utterly ridiculous human perspectives can be.
I think there are things here to delight Pratchett completists – the novel sees the first outing of Klatch, of Hogswatchnight, of the Jokers in The Long Earth – but in no way is it a good introduction to his work. The wit and invention of the Discworld series is still in the future, and these are the first, minor gropings towards that behemoth.