OK, another post that doesn’t have anything to do with astrobiology, but hopefully someone will enjoy it.
Terry Pratchett is a British author who specialises in comic fantasy. His most famous works are the Discworld novels, a series of 38 books set on a disc that travels through space on the back of a giant cosmic turtle. He was the best-selling UK author throughout the 1990s, and the 7th most read foreign author in the US.
Why am I writing about Terry Pratchett?
Well, when I was young, probably between the ages of about 7 and 14, I loved his books and have many fond memories of reading them. In 2008 I learned that Terry Pratchett had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and in 2010 I found out that he had been involved in campaigning for the rights of people to commit suicide, and the right’s of others to assist in suicide. So he was on my mind, if not a bit towards the back of it.
I’ve recently returned to live in the UK and have been nostalgically revisiting my past, and picked up a copy of The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld book. It reminded me of how talented Terry Pratchett is and how crushingly depressing it is that he has been struck down with such an awful disease.
I’ve begun re-reading the Discworld series and the shear brilliance of Pratchett’s imagination and talent inspired me to write this post, and hopefully this will inspire someone else to read these books or even to go back and revisit them
So what’s so great about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series?
Lots. There’s the brilliant cast of characters, Pratchett’s pervasive dry humour, his creative references to popular culture, history and literature, and the sheer sense of wonder and entertainment his writing engenders (more on these later). But the thing I enjoy the most about his writing, OK, it’s the characters, but I also really enjoy the unique science Pratchett has created for the Discworld.
Terry Pratchett clearly has a very good understanding of science and how the Universe works, and he’s used this understanding to expertly warp the laws of physics to support the existence of his unusual world, and the elements that exist within it, such as magic and elves. I suspect Terry loves science, you get a very strong sense of this in his writing, as he treats it with reverence, insightful-understanding and with humour. This line in Lords and Ladies is, I think, my favourite line Terry has ever written, “in the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.” It succinctly displays understanding and veneration, but at the same time pokes a bit of fun at science.
Magic on the Disc is portrayed as a scientific force. It has a field that exerts an influence on matter and time, rather like a combination of the gravitational and electromagnetic forces from our world. For example, on the Disc, a strong magic field slows-down the velocity of photons, causing light to travel more slowly on the disc than in our Universe. There are a number of beautiful scenes in his book in which Terry describes how light slowly flows across the surface of the disc each dawn, filling and then overflowing valleys, a bit like golden water slowly covering a landscape. Pratchett has identified five fundamental forces for the Discworld too, “earth, fire, air, water and surprise”.
Common Sci-Fi staples such as time-travel, parallel universes, alternative dimensions and even artificial intelligence are a relatively common occurrence on the Disc, but are used inventively and steer-clear of stereotypically well-trodden ground. One of my favourite examples of time-distortion is in The Colour of Magic, in which Terry describes a type of wine made from a plant called a re-annual, which grows backwards in time, so that the wine matures a few years before the plant itself is planted, and allows its drinkers to see into the future, which is actually the past for the plant.
The Discworld is carried through space by a giant cosmic turtle (Chelys galactica), called Great A’Tuin. On the shell of this turtle stand four vast elephants, on the backs of which the large rotating Discworld is supported, described as being “like a geological pizza but without the anchovies“. The Discworld has a sun too, obviously. It’s much smaller than ours; a couple of miles across, and its orbit travels across the Disc, under the belly of Great A’Tuin, and back across the Disc again. Brilliantly, Pratchett has considered the scientific implications of such a setup. The sun passes closer to the Rim of the Disc than the centre (the Hub), consequently the Rim is warm and tropical (like our equator), and the Hub is cold and icy. The Disc takes 800 days to rotate full circle (one year on the Disc) and has eight seasons per year, two winters, two summers and so on, because the sun orbits in a fixed path, and it’s the Disc that moves. Thus a given location on the Disc is close to the sun twice a year, and furthest from the sun twice a year. Pratchett didn’t have to work this out, but I imagine he did it for fun.
Directions like north and south don’t work on the Disc either, as its constantly rotating. Instead, “there are four cardinal directions on the Discworld: hubwards, rimwards, turnwise and widdershins. Seasoned travellers have learnt to navigate solely by the sensations that they feel. If it gets warmer, you are headed rimwards. If it gets colder, you are headed hubwards. If you get dizzy, you are headed widdershins”.
In fact, not only does it appear as though Terry Pratchett has devised a consistent set of scientific principles that allow his Discworld to “work”, he’s also provided a scientific justification for its existence. Pratchett explains that there is a vast multiverse with an infinite number of parallel universes. In one universe one potential set of circumstances are played out, but in the multiverse everything that can happen will happen. Thus, no matter how unlikely an event is to occur, such as the creation of the Discworld, if it can occur, it will, in one of the many different universes. This sounds a bit too incredible, but actually a number of scientific theories, and even some recent evidence, suggest that the multiverse may exist, and that our Universe is one amongst many. If enough universes are created, some of them could be extremely bizarre. Although maybe not Pratchett-level bizarre.
I’m aware that Terry Pratchett has co-authored some Discworld science books, blending real science with Discworld stories, but I’ve not yet ready any, although I’ll probably address this soon.
In addition to science, Terry Pratchett references a huge amount of popular culture, history and literature in his books. Terry has been quoted as saying “to write, you must read extensively, both inside and outside your chosen genre and to the point of overflow”. This shows in his writing, as his books are peppered with references to ancient history, different religions, folklore, literature, and even economics. Pratchett must have soaked these fields up like a sponge before assimilating and adapting them to fit into his Discworld universe. I’m sure I probably missed the majority of these references as a kid, but reading them as an adult it’s inspiring and gives the books a uniquely sophisticated edge. I won’t go into too many examples here, as these references are often found almost on every page, but my favourite is pretty much the whole of Lords and Ladies (also my favourite Discworld novel, I think).
In Lords and Ladies a portal is opened to another dimension in which the elves live. In the Discworld universe Elves are beautiful, elegant and graceful, and like most beautiful people are evil, being utterly self-obsessed and devoid of empathy or compassion. They like music, beautiful clothes, killing for fun, but take the most delight in torture. Pratchett’s Elves also have a unique magic power, they can “project glamour” causing mortals to find elves utterly enchanting and rendering them powerless to resist their every whim and wish. Yep, you guessed it, Pratchett’s elves mock the “beautiful people” of our society, the glamorous but mindless celebrities that many people in the real world worship, despite the fact that they probably couldn’t give a shit for anyone except themselves.
Do people like this view us as an inferior species of little consequence, and wouldn’t care either way if we lived or died, despite the fact that many of us worship them? I’ll let you decide. (But the answer’s yes).
This is a great twist on the Elf myth, but what makes Lords and Ladies so brilliant is it’s mixing of ancient myth, folklore and naturalistic religions to create a rich story that entertains on a number of levels. A few years ago I read a book called The Golden Bough by James Frazer. It’s an account of different forms of sympathetic magic and the many pagan pre-Judeo-Christian religions that are based on worshiping nature and the seasons. I adored Frazer’s book as it explained the true roots of festivals like Christmas (basically the celebration of the virgin birth of the Sun) and Easter (the resurrection of nature), and of many beliefs that still exist in society today; ever wondered why you bring a tree into your house at Christmas, why eggs and rabbits are so popular at Easter, or what the Maypole is really all about?
Because of my interest in pagan naturalistic religions, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale about the intrusion of pagan gods and fairies into an Athenian wedding, and Lords and Ladies is primarily an adaption of this play, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream done Discworld style. The story is an expert blend of elves, magic, pagan rituals and religion, the true nature of witchcraft, stone circles, the importance of Morris dancing and the dwarf Casanunda, who is the world’s second-best lover. Oh, it’s also got my three favourite characters in it too, Magrat Garlick, Nanny Ogg and Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax. More on these three miscreants later.
Terry Pratchett also appears to have a good understanding of the true nature of religion, he gently mocks it, but with a degree of respect. He mostly portrays religion as something that exists in the minds of people rather than existing in nature, but he recognises the social importance of religion through demonstrating how faith and human psychology can cause internal beliefs to manifest themselves in the external world. In Small Gods, Pratchett describes how the gods of the Discworld only come into existence once someone believes in them, and the more believers they have, the more mighty the gods become. It’s a charming and insightful metaphor for religion in our world.
My favourite treatment of religion is in Pyramids though, in which the ancient kingdom of Djelibeybi (read it out loud), the Discworld’s version of Egypt, is transported into a parallel dimension after an accident with a pyramid. In this dimension all of the country’s gods and religious beliefs suddenly become real. Through this event, Pratchett gently makes fun of how insane and inconsistent religious beliefs actually are, and shows that if they were real, the world would quickly fall apart. There’s a particularly great scene where the various different gods who control the movement of the sun start fighting over it like a football.
Which finally brings me round to my favourite thing about the Discworld, the characters. Most of the Discworld’s denizens are inspired by existing tropes in fantasy, Sci-Fi and more mainstream literature. There’s witches, wizards, gods, detectives, assassins, thieves and tourists, but rather than conforming to stereotypes Pratchett’s characters usually mock and parody these labels. There’s Rincewind, a wizard, who is actually crap at magic and reminds me most of an introverted Dell Boy from Only Fools and Horses; Carrot, a 6-foot tall dwarf; Death, that skeletal guy with the scythe, who also has a horse called Binky; the Librarian of the Unseen University, who is an orang-utan who takes great objection to being called a monkey; and Cohen the Barbarian, the Disc’s oldest living hero, who would rather swop the crushing of enemies and the lamentation of women with “hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper.” The majority of Pratchett’s leading characters are unconventional, and tend towards being geeky, shy and slightly socially-awkward, so it was a particular pleasure to read these books as a geeky, shy and socially-awkward youngster (and adult too).
As previously mentioned, my three favourite characters are Magrat Garlick, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, who form the Lancre witch coven. They’re brilliant because they each lampoon the common lazy view of witches, ignoring many of the wiccan-style witch trappings in preference for psychology, medicine and good old common sense, and are so well developed that each of them will probably remind you of people you’ve met in real life.
Granny Weatherwax is one of those women with long silver hair who is frighteningly intelligent, sharp as a razor, 100% practical, and suffers fools particularly poorly. The kind of women who quietly and calmly solves a disaster before most people even realise it’s happened, and are comfortable chastising Kings and gods for being “silly boys”. She’s actually capable of powerful magic, but rarely uses it as she can normally fix most situations with a sharp-look and a raised eyebrow. A bit like Jane Tennison.
Nanny Ogg is a large, jolly and randy witch who enjoys a smoke, a beer and a bawdy song. She gives the impression of not really knowing what’s going on, and appears deceptively clueless but amiable. She’s anything but though, and is the only person who ever comes close to matching the intelligence of Granny Weatherwax. She’s equally practical and unflappable too (to me, she’s Dawn French). She’s also got a tomcat called Greebo, who, like all tomcats, likes nothing more than eating, fighting and fathering kittens. The scene in Witches Abroad where Greebo is first turned into a human is unforgettable and I’ve carried it in my memory for about 15 years so far. It’s a scene that all cat owners would relish, as the human Greebo is described as “a dastardly buccaneer ready to unbuckle any amount of swash; a six-foot, well muscled, grinning bully who radiates a greasy aura of raw sexual energy that can be felt several rooms away. Despite everything they see, women are still attracted to him.” I’m not ashamed to say that as a small geeky kid, I wanted to be Greebo.
The third member of the coven, Magrat Garlick, is a younger, more junior witch. At first she embraces the stereotypical trappings of witches, adorning herself with various magic crystals and amulets, and is considered too soft and soppy by Granny Weatherwax. But over the course of the Discworld series she drops the silly stuff and becomes one of the most powerful witches and has a brilliant transformation scene in Lords and Ladies where she dons armour and goes on an elf-killing spree, finally confronting the Queen of the Elves herself. Anyone who’s ever wished they could be more assertive can’t help identify with Magrat, and it’s captivating to see her emerge from her constraints and become a warrior queen.
So, should adults be reading these books? To be honest, I was a little embarrassed when I bought The Colour of Magic a few weeks ago. I even bought the black-covered-covert-adult-edition, rather than the much more fun-looking Josh Kirby art-worked books. I shouldn’t be embarrassed though, I should be proud to be reading Terry Pratchett. Whilst many people view the comic fantasy genre as childish, and less intellectually worthy than “proper books for adults”, this is madness. The typical Discworld book is far more intelligent and creative than the glut of celebrity biographies, schlocky crime thrillers, chick-lit and lad-lit books, and anything by Dan Brown that’s currently choking your average Waterstones, and pretty much anything on TV too. Apparently Terry himself is annoyed that fantasy is “unregarded as a literary form” especially as it’s “the oldest form of fiction“. I agree.
Much of the writing in the Discworld series is breathtaking. I’m trying to write a book at the moment and really appreciate the quality of Terry’s prose; it’s clear and simple, but insightful and very funny. I hardly ever laugh out loud when reading a book, but do laugh a number of times when reading his novels, much to the annoyance of anyone in the same room/bus/tram as me.
If you want to be entertained and charmed then pick up one of these novels and immerse yourself into the Discworld. I recommend you start right at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic, a book that’s now almost 30 years old!