In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld III – Darwin’s Watch

And here we are again.
The third Science of Discworld is absolutely in the tradition of the first two: chapters of Terry Pratchett’s novella, Darwin’s Watch alternate with (substantially longer) chapters of science explained by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.
As I fervently hope will be obvious to you, the theme for this third book is Evolution, and Messrs Stewart and Cohen fill up many pages with their explanation of the history, theories and evidence surrounding this still controversial topic. The story of Darwin’s Watch, which as usual is geared to set up the various points the scientists wish/need to make, is the spoonful of sugar to assist the medicine, although by now it’s probably some natural sweetener that in no way contributes to the issues of obesity and diabetes to which sugar contributes so terribly.
The story itself is in many ways a re-run of The Globe in The Science of Discworld II: Wizards notice that once again the plucky inhabitants of Earth, inside Roundworld, do not lever themselves off the planet before their cycle of existence reaches its disastrous end, a fate that has been engineered by interference from a third party force, requiring the Wizards to once more tinker with Roundworld’s history to procure the necessary individual to be the round peg in the requisite round hole.
For the Elves, substitute the Auditors of Reality, for William Shakespeare, substitute who else but Charles Darwin.
There is a catch, however, or rather a twist, Pratchett being too good an author to repeat himself quite so slavishly. This time the task is not to guard the Bard into existence in place of a quite hopeless alternate dramatist, but the rather more pernickety one of getting Master Darwin to write the right book.
For it appears that, instead of The Origin of Species, the influential Darwin has instead written The Ology of Species a sort of Evolution-for-Creationists text book that posits God and Intelligent Design as the centre of creation. The real Origin of Species is eventually written (by none other than the Reverend Richard Dawkins) but far too late to get humanity off the planet.
And when it comes to guiding the course of history through all the hoops requisite to ensuring Darwin writes the book we know, the influence of the Auditors means that the number of possible histories in which this happens is no longer infinite but infinitely small. The Wizards have an awful lot of interfering to do if it’s all going to work…
Pratchett has a good deal of fun with the sheer volume of tiny things that have to be acted upon to keep young Charles on the straight course, but the very complexity of this side of the story, not to mention the (necessarily) perfunctory nature of most of the solutions does tend to deprive Darwin’s Watch of the buoyancy and drive of The Globe. And in its climactic pages, with Darwin having been accidentally sucked into Discworld and the Wizards having to deal with him directly, Pratchett attempts the introduction of a numinous aspect to the conclusion that, for me at least, does not come off as it should.
The epic nature of Darwin’s achievements, and the vision of mind needed to pursue these is told, rather than being shown.
Since we’re only discussing the story side of the book, I’ve got to say that to make the novella work, Pratchett rather has to shut his eye to the historical existence of Darwin’s ‘rival’, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was working on the same theories as Darwin, and who jointly presented his own paper on the subject together with the Great Naturalist. But to have accommodated Wallace simultaneously with Darwin would have been to diffuse the storyline and to make the plot unworkable.
It still remains one of the drawbacks of working with historical personalities in that lives are simply not as simple as legends.
Nevertheless, Darwin’s Watch is still a major cut above the first Science of Discworld, whatever else we may say about it. But the series was, after three bites at the same cherry, starting to run a little stale.

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