In Praise of Pratchett: The Colour of Magic


The first Discworld book was published in hardback in 1983, via Colin Smythe, an independent publisher. But it was not until it was re-published, in 1986, as a Corgi paperback that it made a surprisingly large splash. Despite his having already published three novels, Terry Pratchett was still an unknown. I probably heard about it first through Fantasy Advertiser, the UK’s leading comicszine. There was a now-forgotten serialisation on Woman’s Hour that I never heard. But suddenly the book was everywhere, in large quantities.
Either way, when it all began, Terry Pratchett was rated as what he seemed to be: a Douglas Adams for fantasy. Adams, thanks to The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy was the name for comic SF, and it seemed inevitable that someone should come along and do something similar with fantasy.
(Of course, that’s what we on the inside, as it were, understood. For an idea of just how difficult the outside world found it to get where Pratchett operated, see the blurb on the cover of the Corgi paperback. I mean, honestly…)
I bought The Colour of Magic on that assumption, picking up the paperback in one of those paper-shops that also offered a wall of books, in the days before the abolition of the Net Book Agreement opened up the way for W. H. Smiths and Tescos and the like to undercut the shit out of anyone smaller than them. It had a bright, somewhat confusing looking cover – Josh Kirby’s art was distinctive but usually crowded well past the point where the central imagery could always be discerned – and I went home and read it.
It was amusing, more or less. It passed a few hours undemandingly, but I couldn’t see myself wanting to re-read it so I got rid. You could get some money back on such things in the pre-eBay world, second-hand bookshops proliferated.
Obviously, I bought it back again, in circumstances I’ll relate elsewhere. But The Colour of Magic still isn’t very good. When I talk with people who’ve never read a Pratchett in their lives but who are thinking of trying, I have to point them away. In fact, if you want to get into Pratchett, I’d certainly tell you to read at least three of the other early Discworlds before even looking at this.
The first Discworld book stars Rincewind, the failed Wizard, expelled from an as-yet unspecified magical University. It’s the only portmanteau novel in the series (comprising four individual stories). The premise is that Rincewind – who cannot do magic because he has one of the Eight Great Spells from the Octavo lodged in his head – is assigned to protect Twoflower, an insurance agent from the Counterweight Continent, who has become the Discworld’s first tourist.
It’s what it says on the can: it’s a parody, fantasy as farce. The first story features an easily-recognisable and fairly respectable lift of Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The second has Lovecraftian overtones and a bog standard barbarian parody. The third is an Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders adventure. Only the fourth and final novella does not have any easily discernible antecedents, and it ends with Rincewind (and Twoflower and the Luggage) falling off the Discworld in circumstances that don’t suggest any plans to continue with the characters.
And that’s where it falls down. The Discworld has the shape we know from later books, but Pratchett hasn’t yet begun to understand just what he can do with it. It’s parody and nothing more, whereas Discworld’s real nature is that of a fun-house mirror, reflecting a distorted, but ultimately truer-to-life vision of genuine, human concerns.
There’s nothing like a sense of underlying coherence here. The four novellas take place over four totally different locations, only one of which, Ankh-Morpork, we will see again, but it’s an Ankh-Morpork that, at this stage, is built out of cardboard sets, filched from the generic backdrop of fantasy fiction. Unseen University doesn’t exist yet: instead we have an unspecified Magic Quarter. Wizardry is far more rife than it will become, even though from the first Pratchett (half-heartedly) attempts to set limits upon its practice. But these are limits that he more or less forgets, as magic is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the book.
We are introduced to both the Guild of Assassins and the Patrician, though neither are remotely the institutions we will grow to understand. The Assassins are low-lifes, glorified thugs with silly names, and are covered in scars and cuts, suggesting that they aren’t very good at it really. And the Patrician, who goes un-named, is corpulent and obsessed with sweets and candies.
Pratchett did suggest that this Patrician was indeed Lord Vetinari, who simply lost weight later, and he should know, but if there was ever any plausibility to that suggestion (and I can’t believe it for a second), it was killed off by the appearance of the young Havelock in Night Watch. There is a direct line of causality between the as-yet-ungraduated Assassin and the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and the Patrician of The Colour of Magic is simply far too far off that line to be even distantly related.
This Patrician is not merely too crude, directly threatening Rincewind, but he’s too helpless. The Counterweight Continent is too powerful for Ankh-Morpork and could run all over them any time it wanted to, and this Patrician recognises weakness and has no plans to deal with it? Sorry, you can’t tell me this is Havelock Vetinari. As far as I’m concerned, he has got to be Mad Lord Snapcase.
The Colour of Magic is, for me, very much prentice work. It suffers from an overwhelming lack of detail, detail that could only accumulate over successive books, but even with that objection dispelled, the underlying problem is that Terry Pratchett had not yet worked out what he had. Discworld at this stage is a sketch, pulled from other people’s cheap and crude art. It pokes fun, not very successfully, at very small and very parochial targets. Pratchett was yet to see that the bigger the target, the greater the scope and the wider the reach of a writer who, at this point, is just pissing about, having fun, and completely unaware of what he has in front of him.
Things could only get better. In 1986, I had no inkling of by just how much.

 

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