In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld 4 – Judgement Day


After a gap of eight years, Terry Pratchett ventured one final time into popular science alongside Professors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, writing one final novella. And it’s just like the very first Science of Discworld book: too much science, far too little Discworld. The proportions are vastly out of balance to the dissatisfaction of all except those who buy the book for the Science.
I had trouble remembering whether I’d even re-read this book since buying it whilst staying with a mate in Shropshire. And yes, this was only my second reading of the Judgement Day novella, which is, frankly, dreadful.
For one thing, the actual story is terribly sketchy. Unseen University sets out to equip itself with a Great Big Thing and accidentally transfers Senior Librarian Marjorie Daw from England, Earth, Roundworld onto Discworld. Despite being a seriously sensible person, except for her Jimmy Choo shoes, she takes it completely in her stride, believing everything Ridcully tells her with the barest minimum of boggle.
Coincidentally, a backward-looking sect of the Church of Om that still believes Discworld is a Sphere, sues for ownership of Roundworld. Despite having nothing but their belief as evidence, the matter comes to ‘court’ in only two days, with the Patrician (behaving with improbable silliness) as the Judge. The Omnians have no evidence to produce, elevate their beliefs over facts and even refuse to listen when they’re directly contradicted by Om, and when judgement goes against them, they try to kidnap both Vetinari and Roundworld.
Marjorie goes running after the one with Roundworld, and is saved from decapitation by two naked women, which is what Captain Angua (in werewolf form) and Captain Sally (in horde of bats form) are presented as being in a deus ex machina moment that lacks any kind of inspiration (and which is a terribly sad final appearance from these characters). Then she’s sent back.
And that’s it. Save for the bit where the former Dean and Rincewind go for a trip to contemporary Roundworld to chat about it in extended chunks of narration, that’s the be-all and end-all of the story, but the worst of it comes in the realisation that nobody sounds right. Ridcully and Vetinari sound themselves in inconsistent flashes, but that’s about it. The chapter with Rincewind and the Dean is an extreme example of it: they don’t even sound as if they’re speaking human dialogue. It’s the sparky, witty, sharp-edged stuff Pratchett usually places between what the characters say to each other. It doesn’t sound real in what’s supposed to be a conversation, and it’s nowhere near sparky, witty or sharp-edged enough either.
As for Marjorie Daw herself, her every word is stiff and stilted and doesn’t sound like any sentences a human being would speak. She’s unreal from start to finish. And the bit I’ve already mentioned, with Angua and Sally, is not only perfunctory but contradictory of the pair’s relationship and background, not to mention coming over as cheap and demeaning.
What this story is about is religion, and about thought, belief and faith, the kind of faith indulged in by fanatics who will refute every bit of irrefutable evidence that they are wrong. In a sense, it’s a sequel to Small Gods, yet it’s hard to believe that this is by the same writer who wrote so brilliant a condemnation. Small Gods was a masterpiece of Show not Tell. Judgement Day is all Tell, and not even Tell but Editorialise.
People talk in Leader Columns and nobody has ever talked like that. They just don’t talk like people.
First time round, I read this and thought it just wasn’t good enough. Judgement Day followed the non-Discworld book, Dodger, which was prime Pratchett, surely evidence that he was being very successful in keeping his condition at bay. It was more Judgement Day‘s thinness that bothered me.
But I’ve spent months reading the Discworld series, one after another, reading them with a critical eye to what they are about, how they are framed, how Pratchett developed from one to the next. Reading a book in order to write about it is a vastly different experience from reading it solely for the pleasure it gives you.
Which is why the contrast – more than contrast, it’s a comprehensive fall – is so great, and so noticeable.
I enjoyed, but expressed concerns about Raising Steam when it appeared. I’m almost dreading re-reading it as the penultimate book.

In Praise of Pratchett: Unseen Academicals


There was no Discworld book in 2008, Pratchett taking that year off to publish Nation. For those concerned as to the potential effect of his Alzheimer’s, this was a splendid rebuff, for Nation  was one of the finest books Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and if it had been the only book he had ever written, he would still be entitled to be regarded as a first-rank author.
We returned to Discworld the following year with Unseen Academicals, a story bringing together the Faculty, social growth and change and the sport of football. On a first reading, I thought this book was one of the all round funniest Discworld books in years, though part of that could be attributed to my desperate need for humour and lightness in a time of great upheaval and depression.
What’s certain about this book is that it’s a much smaller and more personal matter than any book for quite some time. Pratchett has been dealing, in one form or other, with great social themes for a very long time, and whilst that aspect isn’t entirely ignored herein, a book whose major concerns are the fashion industry, street football and the personal relationships of two young couples is something of a holiday.
Where Unseen Academicals does line up with Pratchett’s more ‘traditional’ concerns, it is in the small, seemingly helpless form of Mr Nutt, of who, or rather what he is, and upon his absorption into the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork.
Mr Nutt is, as we discover about two-thirds of the way through the story, an Orc. That, in itself, is a very specific borrowing from Tolkien, unusual in Pratchett’s work (when approached on a serious level): his interpretations of fantasy have otherwise always stuck to the traditional characters of oral storytelling history.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Orcs were an invented race, akin to the Goblins, a corruption of the Elves into nasty, brutish, violent, hateful and irredeemable creatures: they are damned as a race in a manner that we would nowadays equate with racial prejudice, except that they are specified as a race deliberately corrupted to be such things.
Such things don’t exist in Pratchett and Discworld. Nothing and no-one is beyond redemption, and the last years of his life and fiction revolved around the bringing of outcasts into the brilliant circle of reasonable and responsible life, as functioning citizens who are ‘just like us’, to put it very crudely. Orcs are hated and feared in Discworld as they are in Middle-Earth, and the consensus is that such few of them as are now discovered to have escaped extermination should be wiped out, finally.
But there is Mr Nutt. He is a candle dribbler, a quite specialised albeit ultra-lowly position at Unseen University. He is small, skinny, fearful, yet highly, almost excessively competent and intelligent, whilst being ignorant in most respects of ordinary life. There is a mystery about him from the start, known to only a few: he comes from Uberwald, where he was once chained to an anvil for seven years until freed by Pastor Oats (the Omnian priest of Carpe Jugulum), he is a ward of Lady Margolotta and in Ankh-Morpork only Lord Vetinari and Archchancellor Ridcully know what he really is.
Though the mystery intrigues, by the time we are let in on Nutt’s nature, we have seen enough for us to see him as Nutt, not a crazed, indefatigable, destructive killing machine. His frantic need to accumulate worth is gradually growing into an acceptance of having worth, he’s a deep thinker, quoting continually from all the best German philosophers, and he’s training the Unseen Academicals, the University’s revived football team, to take on a joint Ankh-Morpork side in a game that’s assumed the dimensions of a social test. But more of that later.
What bemuses me somewhat is that, whilst the idea is great and glorious, it’s also a curiously narrow and private idea. We’ve gotten used, down the years, to Discworld being a funhouse mirror, in which the distorted reflections of our own society create far more revealing and fundamental portraits of what is wrong about the way we live.
We’ve seen dwarves, trolls, even vampires find a place in a society that reflects our own, inner need for things to stay the same and be recognisable, and to learn from those who are different in order that we continue to grow. The redemption of the Orcs via Mr Nutt is a metaphor for tolerance and understanding, but it’s entirely too personal. The Orcs are just too extreme a race to reflect ourselves: we don’t recognise in them aspects of ourselves that we need to learn to deal with. And they are too much a private conception, they belong to Tolkien in exactly the way that everybody else belongs to Humanity’s collective consciousness. It’s not long enough since The Lord of the Rings was first published for them to have disassociated themselves into the collective mythology.
I’m not decrying the story, but I don’t think it has the universality that Pratchett wanted for it.
Nor am I wholly convinced by the story’s upfront theme. So far, Discworld has never seriously subscribed to the idea of sport, at least not as something for the unwashed masses to become involved in. The nobs, the movers and shakers, that’s a bit different. So you can say that in introducing football, Pratchett is for once operating on a very democratic level.
In essence, the story is this: Ponder Stibbins, in his new role as Master of the Traditions, discovers that it is imperative that the Wizards play a football match within a very short space of time or lose a bequest that funds 87% of their food bills. Facing the threat of a cheeseboard with, at most, three choices, the Wizards decide to play.
At the same time, the Patrician has decided that it’s time to absorb football officially into the life of the city, despite his personal aversion to it. It’s supposed to be banned, but as long as it keeps to the side streets, a blind eye (though not an uninformed one) is turned.
But this is not football as we know it. It’s a street game for indefinite numbers, a pushing, shoving, clogging business that’s closer to fighting than football, in which the ball is rarely seen by anyone, least of all the spectators, and which Trev Lively’s late Dad, Dave (who was kicked to death in a game) is an imperishable hero for his unheard of lifetime achievement: Dave Lively scored four goals.
What football is about is The Shove, the packing of the street by the masses, crammed in, surging to-and-fro, hither-and-yon, come together in a mass mind, if mind it be called. It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty brutal, but the point is made, more than once by one of the book’s three main viewpoint characters, the Night Kitchen cook Glenda Sugarbean, that it’s by and for and of the people: it’s their own thing, created without influence or order from those above who believe the common people to be incapable of running their own lives.
Because Vetinari is about taming football, domesticating it, turning into something resembling the early days of Nineteenth Century football: a better game, a better spectacle, but defanged: better for the lower classes. It’s an unusual viewpoint for Pratchett to allow, and it’s one for which he has no answer, save for the practical one that the Patrician is a Tyrant (and besides, some kind of football Goddess also has a vested interest in this).
Between this unanswerable point, and the inexorable adaptation of Vetinari’s new Football, there’s a curious dichotomy that undercuts the book. It’s compounded for me by the fact that, though he can write with understanding about allegiances and their competing natures, I don’t get the feeling that Pratchett likes Football or, deep down, understands it as we fans understand it. He feels much more at home with Vetinari’s caustic denunciation of all physical activity, early in the book, than with the game itself.
All of the above deals primarily with the abstract themes in the story, and yet the book remains more a story of private concerns, which is down to the four, seemingly insignificant people at its heart, who bridge both strands and keep them related.
I’ve already mentioned Mr Nutt, Trev Likely and Gloria Sugarbean, and the fourth of these is Juliet Stollop, aka both Jools and Jewels. Nutt we know about. Trev is his workmate and, technically, superior, but he’s a lazy sod, a likely lad, and street-wise kid, but without any evil in him, not like his fellow fan, Andy Shank.
Gloria knows Trev well. She’s a cook, a very gifted cook, as she needs to be because she’s also very fat: not Agnes Nitt fat but enough to make her sexless, as in who’d-want-to-do-it-with-her? She’s very common-sensical, very practical, and she’s also a crab bucket, though at first she doesn’t know it, then doesn’t understand it, but when she gets her head around what it means, she’s smart enough to change.
She’s best friends with Juliet, who also works in the Night Kitchen. Juliet, in complete contrast, is a gorgeous, tall, slim, long-legged, blonde-haired knock-out. She’s also pretty dumb with it, her head filled with the Discworld equivalent of Hello and OK. Juliet is a natural model, a role that she discovers by chance when she’s picked out by the Disc’s first great fashion designer, Pepe. He’s the one who calls Glenda a crab bucket, not directly as such, but rather as being the product of a crab bucket.
And slowly, Glenda realises what that means, and how she is one, and that whilst Juliet is never going to become an intellectual, the main reason she’s as hopeless as she is is that whenever she struggled at anything, Glenda didn’t act like a friend and show her how to do it, she acted like a mother and took it off her and did it for her.
But Juliet’s found her niche, and Trev’s in love and wants to live up to her, and Glenda’s insistence on being helpful has done much for Nutt’s worthiness, so much that four friends become two couples (though without anything more raunchy than hand-holding for Glenda, which may be just as well, given that Nutt is, after all, an Orc, but Glenda’s still a fat girl. Only the normal sized Trev and Juliet get to kiss. Sex just isn’t a thing in Discworld, it’s somewhere locked, barred and bolted away, only allowed for those who are physically normal).
So there are three things in one in Unseen Academicals, even if a couple of them don’t quite add up. And Pratchett does get in one shot that is firmly on his best form: Tolkien’s Orcs were corrupted from his Elves, but Pratchett’s are corrupted from Men: no other species could have that viciousness and imaginative cruelty inherent in them to begin with.
One final point, one thing that, for me, stuck out and worried me as to the possibility Pratchett’s Alzheimers was already affecting him. I mentioned Andy Shank. He’s another in Pratchett’s seemingly unending line of bastards, cruel, bullying, tormenting bastards, vicious and violent and unhinged. Andy’s a psychopath, one of those who prods and pushes and taunts and drives others into snapping,  but who is always innocent. There is no reasoning with him, no lever with which to divert him. Like others in the series, he can only be stopped by being put down, and this is made explicit, several times.
But all Pratchett does, in a sequence of false endings in homage to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s most famous line, is send a harder man after him to blind him. The unstoppable Andy lives, and that’s so not Pratchett, so not Discworld at all. It’s a soft ending in a series never afraid of hard endings. It was a palpable doubt.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld 2 – The Globe


The Science of Discworld 2 (henceforth known by its sub-title, The Globe), is much better than Science of Discworld 1. This is because Terry Pratchett’s part of the book is occupied with a much more compact story, with a dramatic unity lacking in the first volume, and also making for better and more frequent jokes.
Literary readers will immediately sniff out that the story revolves around William Shakespeare, so it’s not giving anything away to admit that, rather than a participant in the story, Bill the Bard is actually its solution.
It’s all down to the Elves. Somehow, they have made it out of their parasite universe, through Discworld and into Roundworld, accidentally dragging with them a group of Wizards out on a team building exercise. Rincewind, as Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography, keeps Roundworld on his shelf and receives the message from Ridcully about getting in here, in order to get them out.
Of course, by the time Rincewind and Ponder Stibbins get into Roundworld, courtesy of the Librarian and the mysteries of L-Space, the Wizards have settled down in Elizabethan times, made friends with Elizabeth’s chief magician, Dr John Dee, thoroughly confused him by telling him there is no magic (which, after all, is the case on Roundworld, due to its lack of narrativium), and have decided not to let the Elves get away with it.
Except that sending the Elves back where they came from, in the pre-history on Roundworld, leaves a world of humans without intellect, curiosity, intelligence or initiative. The Elves are necessary for the development of humanity as a species. Unfortunately, if left unchecked, humanity will not get off Roundworld in time to escape the destruction that was established in Science of Discworld 1.
So it becomes the job of the Faculty to work out a away of allowing the Elves to kickstart fear, curiosity and intelligence, whilst preventing them from scaring the human race into oblivion.
It’s in these various attempts that the meat of the story exists, including Pratchett’s exposition on what is becoming a recurring theme in this mid-period Discworld books, namely the separation between the space outside and the space inside a person’s head, and how much the latter becomes a fundamental part of our ability to be what we are.
The Elves stay mostly offstage in this story, unlike in Lords and Ladies, save only for the Queen, who is not at all changed from her role in the earlier story. She remains arrogant, convinced that the Elves have succeeded, and for the same reason, namely the belief that they cannot be defeated. This means that she is completely blind-sided by the attack that is made entirely out in the open.
And of all people it’s Rincewind who knows how to defeat the Elves permanently. What Roundworld needs is its greatest playwright, William Shakespeare: to be born, to survive, to leave Warwick, to enter the Theatre (the achievement of which being the responsibility of the other Wizards, continually shifting things about to create the only line of alternate futures that produces this outcome).
Because Bill the Bard will write, and the players of the Globe Theatre will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And by doing so he will place in the minds of Men an image of the Elves that will grow to become the only image of the Elves, which will supplant and thus deplete the image of the real Elves that they have thus far maintained.
The Wizards take the battle away from the Elves, away from every battlefield on which they can fight, by removing it, oh so very gently, onto the one battleground they cannot attend. And without ever knowing how, they lose. What Humanity becomes survives long enough to leave the planet on cue…
It’s an ingenious solution, though not an original one. Neil Gaiman had long been close friends with Terry Pratchett when The Globe was written, and in issue 19 of Gaiman’s comic, Sandman, Dream of the Endless engages William Shakespeare to write a play that will retain the memory of Oberon and Titania, not to mention Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, on a plane from which the host of Faeirie has departed.
A different story, a different purpose, a different end. But not a different idea.
Yes, The Globe is a much better book, because Pratchett is allowed to tell us a story instead of a history. He’s given space to do it properly as well, none of those ‘chapters’ that barely extend over the page, so that not only does he get a decent run-up at the gags, the story is far less choppy to read, even when you’re cutting Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s bits out.
And I know I’m denying the whole purpose of the Science of Discworld books by doing so, but if the science interests you, feel free to hang back and read it. I have the book that has been my favourite of all Terry Pratchett’s novels to reconsider next.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld


Terry Pratchett wrote two Discworld books in 1999. I can’t remember the publication dates but, given the general schedule of Discworld novels since he stopped writing two a year every year, I think it most probable that The Fifth Elephant was the later of these two, Which means that I now have to consider the first in the series of collaborations Pratchett produced with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen which, incidentally, featured the first cover drawn by Paul Kidby and not Josh Kirby.
The Science of Discworld books are not usually counted as proper Discworld novels, which is understandable in respect of the amount of story in them. Nor is there any crossover from the books into Discworld continuity as such (except for Rincewind’s honorary appointment to the now-vacant post of Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography). But come on, there’s Rincewind, and the Faculty, and the Librarian, and if that isn’t enough there’s the D-word up there in the title, so let’s not be pernickety about this.
The Science of Discworld is an unusual book, combining popular fiction with popular science, in alternating chapters. I’ve read the bits by Stewart and Cohen, which seem clear and readable and which contain nothing of so great a scientific complexity as to baffle me (not like A Brief History of Time then). If anything, in a few places, I found that the effort to put things at the level of the ordinary reader a bit too jolly hockeysticks, to the point of being patronising, and I am no science buff.
After the first couple of occasions, I’ve tended to miss out the factual bits, and just read Pratchett’s own contributions. Unfortunately, in this book, that pans out as inadequate.
There are two things here that prevent Pratchett being enough of Pratchett to make this an utterly enjoyable experience. The first is the book’s structure: Pratchett writes the odd-numbered chapters, Stewart and Cohen the even-numbered chapters. We’re not used to reading Pratchett in chapters, nor in any kind of discrete chunks. There’s no flow, no rhythm, no sustainment. And worst of all, after every piece, we have to sit back and have it explained to us in realistic terms. It’s a constant change from chocolate to cabbage: we, and Pratchett, never get a proper run at things.
It’s an effect that’s only magnified the longer the book goes on, as the explanations get longer and longer, and Pratchett’s set-ups – because that’s what they are – get shorter and shorter, and we’re sometimes lucky to get as many as two pages of Discworld at a time.
The other problem is that Prachett is not actually writing a story. There’s no plot, no conflict, no drama. Or rather there is, but it’s not of his doing: it’s being dictated to him because it’s the story of the evolution of the Universe, the Earth and its creatures, including that seriously-late-to-the-party arrival, Man (and Woman).
Pratchett puts a frame on that story by first introducing one of Ponder Stibbins’ experiments that, upon splitting the thaum, creates enough magical energy to swallow the entire University whole, en route to taking everything else with it. That is, until Hex sops up the magic by using it to run the hitherto theoretical Roundworld Project, an experiment in creating a completely absurd world that is not only spherical instead of the normal flat, but also without magic. Or Turtles. Except the ordinary ones.
Once this is in place, Pratchett has his Wizards investigate the phenomenon as only they can. It’s amusing, frequently, but since his primary purpose is to dance through the sequence of events to set up Stewart and Cohen, it’s a story written under built-in constraints that bog him down.
It’s a positive pain to read through this book carefully flipping over all the even-numbered chapters (there are twenty-two of them). In The Science of Discworld, the story isn’t really worth it.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Last Continent


In which Terry Pratchett changes publishers from Victor Gollancz to Doubleday and both Rincewind and the Faculty visit the continent of FourEcks, which no-one is particularly surprised to discover is Australia, turned up until the knobs fall off…
After all, where was it that Rincewind ended up when expelled so dramatically from Ancient China the Agatean Empire?
After the heavy subtext of Jingo, Pratchett drops any pretence of significance and comes up with a story that is just all out funny, provoking roar-out-loud laughs several times a page from beginning to end. Nor is it pointed or sharp humour, intent as much on exposure as in hitting the funny bone. Pratchett’s single goal in The Last Continent is to leave us rolling on the floor, and he succeeds gloriously.
Does that diminish The Last Continent when compared to such books as Small Gods and Jingo? Of course not. There’s merely a different end in sight, and given how difficult it is to create true humour, there’s no way I’m going to knock a book that made me laugh as hard as this one did when I first cracked its pages.
In typical fashion, Pratchett divides the actual story in two. The book begins with the McGuffin: the Librarian is ill, the Library’s running a rampage without him. Every time he sneezes, it affects his body’s morphogenetic field and he changes shape. In order to put an end to this, the Wizards want to cast a spell, but that means knowing the Librarian’s real name. The only person who knows it is his former assistant, Rincewind.
The Great Wizzard is currently bumming his way around the vast, red, dessicated deserts of Australia EcksEcksEcksEcks, the Last Continent. It’s a rainless, overheated, dangerous place to be for those who know how to cope with it, but Rincewind is thriving (to a given value of thrive). Every day he accidentally falls into a waterhole.
The thing is, FourEcks wasn’t made by the creator of Discworld. There was this wide open expanse of ocean just crying out for someone to sneak in and add a continent, but it’s a bodged together, twisted, badly-constructed continent that doesn’t properly fit, a rush job that needs twisting around like a jigsaw piece. And Rincewind is the man to do that, because he’s already done it, except that it’s because he’s done it that this disappearing kangaroo knows he’s the one who will do it, only he’s still got to actually do it. Got that? No? Good.
Meanwhile, Ridcully and the Faculty go looking for the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography, who seems to be spending an inordinate time in the bathroom, which could be because his bathroom is actually an idyllic South Sea island. Under the pretext of doing the poorly Librarian some good, the Faculty go on various research projects on the beach. It’s all very pleasant, especially in an Ankh-Morpork winter. That is, until Mrs Whitlock brings the Gentlemen some refreshments and, in order to climb over the sill with Respectability, removes the prop that has been holding the window open…
That the climax will depend, in some unforeseeable manner, on bringing the two sides together, even though the Faculty are somewhere about thirty thousand years in the past, is clear, and that the ultimate aim of the story is for these interlopers to bring rain to this dry, forsaken land where no-one believes in rain or even clouds, is equally apparent. That’s the architecture. All books need one, to keep the pot boiling whilst the author gets on with the serious business of joking, and Pratchett goes at it with a will.
Rincewind’s progress is the main strand, and it’s a glory. Pratchett simply throws in every Australian joke, cliché and theme he can think of, and runs Rincewind through the gamut. A couple of the gags may be a bit time-specific for younger readers, not familiar with the films of the time the book was published. The Mad Max references have recently been refreshed by the new film, but the Crocodile Dundee and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert riffs may not entirely sink home.
But no matter if they do. If a joke misses its target, there’s another dozen chasing it along, and if the reader only gets fifty percent of them, he or she is going to be sick laughing long before the end.
Everyone has their favourite moments. For me, it’s the scene at the Sheep Station, where Rinso has to shear a sheep, and insists on a chair, mirror, scissors and hair lotion before he starts…
But whilst Rincewind is running into every Australian cliché you can think of, the Faculty are pursuing a different, and slower path. Where Rincewind is continually on the move, the Wizards spend most of their time on Mono Island, a very unusual island, indeed, one might say a very singular island (heh heh), with Mrs Whitlock.
Now Mono Island is a very comfortable place, given that whatever the Wizards want turns out to grow on trees, literally. And within a couple of hours of the wish being spoken aloud. The presence of a woman does rather affect these elderly gentlemen who have spent their lives conscientiously not even thinking of women (we hope), especially the Senior Wrangler.
Indeed, of all the books featuring the Wizards to date and to come, this is the one in which I find it possible to tell the buggers apart!
There is an explanation for all this evolution gone wild, and this is possibly Pratchett’s most convoluted creation: a God. Not one of your lightning-and-thunder types, not unless he’s feeling stressed, and certainly not the manifesting kind. This is a God who doesn’t want to be worshipped, who’s limited his omnipotence to a very tiny area, without worshippers, and who’s busy with experiments that avoid repetition.
In short, he’s the God of Evolution. And think your way round the contradictions in that.
The Wizards provide a counterpart to Rincewind, a different source of humour, a change from the flow of wonderfully exaggerated Australianism. It’s also something of a showcase for young Ponder Stibbins who, despite his being half a century younger than the rest, at the very least, is more or less a full member of the Faculty. We already know him as the main figure responsible for Hex, but in this book, Pratchett develops him as a viewpoint character.
It’s an interesting distinction, and I wonder how much of it was calculation on Pratchett’s part. I’ve commented on the process in the City Watch books, mainly in the context of how Pratchett never lets us into Carrot’s mind, and only ever presents him through the eyes of the other Watchmen. Ponder is the only one of the Faculty whose thoughts we share (to a lesser extent, the same goes for the Bursar, whose last significant appearance this is, but he’s out of it for the most part, so the effect is different).
We see and hear a lot about/from Ridcully, but even when it’s not through the medium of Ponder, it’s still very external. We’re told about him by the narrator: the rest we have to apprehend for ourselves.
At the end of it, let’s come back to the most important thing about The Last Continent, that it’s one of the most concentratedly funny Discworld books. And that’s not to be sniffed at.

In Praise of Pratchett: Hogfather


As with Soul Music, my initial reaction to Hogfather was mild disappointment, and perhaps from the same reason. Pratchett once again uses a plot he has previously employed: Death foregoes his role as the Grim Reaper, and that forces his granddaughter, Susan Sto-Helit, into his sphere.
There’s considerably more to it than that, however, since Death does not actually abandon the role of Death as take on another, more urgent anthropomorphic personification, any more than Susan actually uses the scythe for real. And, a couple of years on from Soul Music, she’s a far more sympathetic character than her sixteen-year-old self.
But Susan Sto-Helit still cuts across the grain of Discworld, with her furious determination to be resolutely normal, her heels-dug-in resistance to being put in a position to use the ‘powers’ she has inherited from her grandfather, notwithstanding her eminently practical attitude to childhood fears and fancies. Which usually boils down to using the poker.
In due course, it will kill the villain, as is only right and proper.
As with Reaper Man, the adversaries are again the Auditors of Reality, still determined on eradicating humanity and unpredictability from the Universe. Their vehicle, on this occasion, is the Hogfather, the Discworld’s Father Christmas, or rather it’s NOT the Hogfather, since the first thing they do is to have the guy killed.
Or, as this is commissioned through the Assassin’s Guild and their most seriously over-the-edge member, Mr Jonathan Teatime (pronounced Te-at-tim-eh), we had better say inhumed. For Mr Teatime has worked out how to kill all the Discworld’s major figures and it doesn’t take long before the reader realises that he is rather eager to turn his hypotheses into facts.
So: Mr Teatime ‘kills’ the Hogfather on Hogswatch Eve (by what manner, Pratchett doesn’t let on, reasoning correctly that this is one of those things best left to the reader’s imagination rather than be spelled out and be found inadequate or impossible to believe): Death, in order to prevent belief in the Hogfather from dying out, steps into his shoes to distribute Hogswatch presents with the maximum amount of evidence the fat guy has been around: the spare Belief psychically released by the Hogfather’s absence manifests itself by creating all sorts of unexpected but logical Anthropomorphic Personifications, like the Verruca Gnome, the Cheerful Fairy and the Oh God of Hangovers, especially around Mustrum Ridcully and Unseen University: and Death specifically forbids Susan to investigate why her grandfather is running around in a red robe with a false beard and a cushion tied around his waist.
Pratchett builds his story around four inter-locking strands, two comic, two serious. The Wizards are the purely comic element: from the uncovering of the determinedly-hidden B. S. Johnson bathroom and its inevitable short-comings, through the array of improbable creations introduced with an ominous glingleglingleglingle, they provide the bulk of the laughs, with little connection to the serious element of the story.
Similarly, Death’s progress as the psuedo-Hogfather is primarily played for laughs, a combination of the basic incongruity of the role and his continuing inability to fathom out the necessary rituals of the role, which also feeds into Death’s own increasing interest in humanity and why it is. It’s far more firmly attached to the story, and Death does indeed come into its conclusion in wholly dramatic terms, but its main gravity is in the chance it gives Pratchett to paint a picture of Christmas – and children – under the skin.
Susan is always going to be a serious element by her very nature. Pratchett gets over the implied matching of her to Imp y Cellyn by simply ignoring that ending to Soul Music, though this tactic is less successful when applied to the thought of why Susan, as Duchess of Sto-Helit, a Duchy that her father and mother governed well and influentially, has become a nobody of a Governess.
Of course, being Susan, she’s not exactly a nobody, but when Pratchett jokes about the difference between Susan’s social status and that of her middle-class employers, he does draw attention to the discrepancy. And though Susan is determined to surround herself with normality, that doesn’t prevent her from being able to see the imaginary childhood fears, like bogeymen and the bears that wait to gobble up children who step on the cracks, and indeed the illusion of childhood itself.
So she’s halfway into the world of the Death of Rats and the talking raven with an eyeball fetish even before Death’s specific instructions not to look into things further press her into an investigatory role that will take her to the place where somebody absolutely, urgently needs to go, which is the one place Death can’t go.
Which leads us full circle to Mr Teatime, an outwardly cheerful young man who seems to be permanently on the up-curve of manic depression but who is completely and utterly a psychopath. Not only has he inhumed the Hogfather, but he has also gotten himself and his band of top notch Ankh-Morpork street thugs into a strange kind of castle in a strange kind of world, the land of the Tooth Fairy.
This is where the book starts, for me, to lose track of what it is about. Teatime has been hired to inhume the Hogfather, and it is precisely he who the Auditors want rid of, and whose ability to preserve himself (with Susan’s help) ensures that the sun will rise in the morning. Teatime commences this process by attracting the attentions of the Tooth Fairy (well, one of them at any rate), and using her delivery service to slip out of reality as we and the Discworld knows it.
But Pratchett never establishes, or even hints at a connection between the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy. Indeed, the former has his own ice castle, which crumbles into nothingness ear;y on, whilst the Tooth Fairy’s base – a child’s drawing made three dimensional in superbly creepy manner – continues to exist.
And Teatime, after collecting all the teeth, a surprisingly horrifying image, and making them available to control ALL the children by magic, is after the wizened being who lies behind the Tooth Fairy operation, which is NOT the Hogfather, and is in fact THE Bogeyman, who has been collecting the teeth to protect them from being used, and who fades out of existence, leaving an obvious void.
What confuses further is that Pratchett’s etiology for the Hogfather leads back to similar roots, with the two figures perhaps as balancing images: The Bogeyman is the old dark, the Hogfather the turn of the seasons, the restoration of the sun from its darkest period to the light. The path from there to the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas has no clear route in either case.
It’s a confusing ending, and one where I really do not see what Pratchett was trying to say, which is one of the reasons where, despite the tremendous humour, I really can’t place Hogfather amongst the front rank of Discworld novels.

In Praise of Pratchett: Interesting Times


If too much of Soul Music was the re-use of previous ideas, Interesting Times shows instead how to build upon the existing structure of Discworld in a way that doesn’t merely repeat the same format, with different jokes.
Erudite readers would have taken one look at the title and surmised that, in the same way that Pyramids was Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fell off, Pratchett’s seventeenth Discworld novel would be about tuning Ancient China up until you had to go hunting for the knobs under the nearest furniture. And they would be right, for the Ancient Chinese had a curse which invited people to live in interesting times, these being the periods that the historians like to write about: you know, wars, rebellions, upheavals, disasters…
In itself the concept, and the wealth of possibilities that were inherent in it would have made a superb book but, for a second novel in a row, Pratchett was aware of his own creation’s history, and of inevitable things…
Interesting Times is another Rincewind book, the first since Eric, giving Pratchett yet another excuse – beyond his unbounding enthusiasm – to use Ridcully and the Faculty. A message has come from the Agatean Empire, the Counterweight Continent, demanding a visit from the Great Wizzard, an epithet no-one can decipher until somebody finally twigs the spelling, and the Great Irony.
So, by magical means that involve shunting people around the Disc, Rincewind is firstly dragged back from his desert island, which has just been invaded by a nation of nubile women seeking someone to repopulate their civilisation (which only arouses in Rincewind an urge for potatoes), and secondly despatches him to the Agatean Empire in exchange for some strange kind of mechanical object with a string on fire…
For the Agatean Empire is our analogue for Ancient China, though given the continuity of life in China throughout centuries, it’s a China that carries with it some modern echoes, such as a Red Army, and a wall to keep everybody in that foreshadows China’s Internet Firewall of this century.
But this Red Army are still the rebels, the not-Communists long before the Long March: innocents, idealists and adolescents who try to combine revolution with their innate respect for tradition, but who are unaware until someone as cynical as Rincewind comes along that they are no more than a complex game being played by the Grand Vizier of the Empire, Lord Hong.
For Lord Hong proposes to overthrow the ancient, senile yet still smilingly psychopathic Emperor with the Red Army as stooges. It’s all part of a game to cement his role as pre-eminent between the five major families, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Sungs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs. Very old, established family, the McSweeneys.
And then there’s his long term ambition, to visit Ankh-Morpork.
But Lord Hong’s plans are affected by the presence of another force seeking to overthrow the Emperor. This is the Silver Horde, and their leader is Cohen the Barbarian. Like Cohen, they’re all barbarians, unused to the mores and expectations of civilisation. Like Cohen, they’re all incredibly old (except for Boy Wullie, who’s only 79). They’re the least probable invading force there ever has been or could be, even with the advice of Mr Ronald Saveloy, aka Teach, a former schoolmaster, who’s trying to educate them on the civilised way of taking over Empires, which to the Horde’s immense disappointment and puzzlement, doesn’t involve fighting, looting or killing.
The thing is, though, the Silver Horde have got where they are by not having been killed. Given what their profession consists of, the ability to not be killed by an enemy for over 80 years argues for considerable expertise when it comes to fighting.
Ask yourself which one you expect to come out top? Especially, or should that be even with Rincewind on their side.
But this isn’t just a book of jokes about Ancient China, and fledgling rebels. If it were, Interesting Times would be good, but it wouldn’t be Pratchett. In his portrayal of the Empire, of the sheer rigidity of its society, of the gulf between those who rule and those who merely survive, as cannon-fodder for every second of existence, Pratchett draws a picture of a slave society held in place not by whips and brutality and torture, but by something easier for those on top: by whips in the soul.
Like too many ordinary people, both in this fiction and in our world, the chains of slavery exist in people’s heads, in too much of an acceptance of the strata of society, of the concept that there are those who are better than you, innately so because they start on top, and your life is only fit to be ordered and ruled upon by them. The Agatean Empire and its peasants are an extreme example of this, but too much of China and its satellite nations is the same thing.
Nor do the rebels get any better shrift. Pratchett is even more dismissive of them, disposing of their pretention to be on the side of the people, to be for better conditions for them, but for the moment intent on telling them what that better life is going to be.
The best bit for me is how much this book is founded upon the reappearance, in unexpected form, of the other of Pratchett’s earliest two characters, Twoflower.
Yes, the little man with the round face and the glasses, the Discworld’s first tourist, and the most naïve, unworldlywise and optimistic person you could ever meet. Twoflower passed through the first two books in total ignorance of everything around him, causing disaster wherever he went (usually for Rincewind, to whom he looked up as the Great Wizzard).
As with the eventual fates of Mort and Ysabell in Soul Music, Pratchett understands the logic of Discworld. Twoflower went to see the world. Admittedly, what he saw was mainly in his own head, but enough of the reality that underlay it penetrated as an unbelievable contrast to the life of the Agatean Empire for Twoflower to inadvertently turn himself into a pebble.
Of course he’s going to want to tell everybody about his holiday when he gets back. How could he not? And equally, to a closed in society like China, ‘What I Saw On My Holidays’ is a magnificent provocation, and an eye-opener.
But Twoflower is still, when he first appears on the page, the same old cartoon of those early, unworked out books, impossible to think of as real. That is, until the girls of the Red Army cadre ‘led’ by Rincewind turn out to be Twoflower’s daughters. There’s a reference, dismissive, offhand, shied away from, to a former Mrs Twoflower. Imperceptibly, the little man begins to grow real, to put roots down into a life.
Wisely, Pratchett doesn’t make much of this, or even involve Twoflower onstage. Until that moment which, for me, is the very heart of this book, when Pratchett sets Twoflower fully up on this earth, when – the least qualified person to do so – he faces the shrieking, defiant, still lethal Lord Hong.
Twoflower’s reasons are a mystery to Lord Hong, for whom the little man is beneath everything. But Lord Hong killed Twoflower’s wife. Not by his own hands, but by his soldiers, without thought, without intention, without meaning. And Twoflower’s well aware that he hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell, but he acts from the heart, and he says the words that matter most, that maybe be possessed of a romanticism that this book, that Pratchett’s works eschew, but which are nevertheless utterly true.
“The important thing is that someone should stand up to you. Whatever happens to them afterwards.”
He doesn’t die. He doesn’t kill, either, trust Rincewind and the Faculty for that, as comeuppances are distributed with casual accidence. And Rincewind is propelled somewhere else that we recognise as a ripe place for tuning up until those knobs fall off again, somewhere down the line.
A great book. The run is back on.

In Praise of Pratchett: Lords and Ladies


So now I could read the one Nigel bought me as a thank you, and the first words were: “Now read on.”
Actually, they weren’t. Those were the first words of Lord and Ladies, the fourteenth Discworld book, once again starring the Three Witches, but they were also the last words of a prefaratory Author’s Note pointing out that this book, more than others, needed a bit of historical context before we readers started.
Which gets me onto the relevant question of, is this or is it not a sequel?
By some loose standards, nearly the entirety of the Discworld series is made up of sequels, if all you need for a sequel is that the same characters turn up again doing something different. I have already gone on record as saying that the only true Sequel in Discworld is The Light Fantastic, because it follows directly on from The Colour of Magic.
But Lords and Ladies does come close. It runs on from Witches Abroad in the sense that it starts just as soon as Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick (not to mention Greebo) get back from their roundabout trip to Genua, and it’s all about something that happens whilst and because they’ve been gone that they have to put right.
However, that’s not enough for me. There’s no thematic connection between the two books, as in, say Dan Dare’s The Man from Nowhere/Rogue Planet: it’s a what They Found When They Got Back, like Rogue Planet/Reign of the Robots.
Terminology aside, it’s another bloody funny, and cruelly serious book, though in the latter respect, Pratchett’s ‘target’ is something of a strange, and many will think trivial subject.
The ‘Lords and Ladies’ of the title are Elves. They occupy what gets identified, late in the book, as a parasite dimension, forever seeking to break through into the Reality of the Discworld (and that’s a joke in itself). A long time ago, they were banished, kept from returning by a circle of standing stones whose effectiveness comes from their magnetic properties. Whilst the Three Witches were away, Circle Time arrived, when the barriers between the worlds becomes ‘thinner’, and the young girls of Lancre, inspired by Diamanda (real name, Lucy Tockley), began practicing their own, half-arsed version of magic, and inadvertently started the process by which the Elves could break back into Discworld.
Circle Time, incidentally, refers to crop circles, which is another dating factor, this book being published when these strange, unexplained but ultimately mundane features were a serious fad.
The theme makes Lords and Ladies something of a throwback to the early books, a pure fantasy with fantasy touchstones, but immeasurably better because Pratchett is so much better a writer by now, but it does leave me wondering slightly about the point. Because the whole essence of the story is to paint a radically different version of the elves, as creatures of cruelty and terror, whose glamour is a weapon that breaks down human’s minds.
It’s not the flower fairies of Victoriana, and it’s the opposite of the noble, elegant elves of Tolkien, and it makes for a brilliant tale, the first half of which is riven with people’s false but overpowering belief, but given what Pratchett was doing in Small Gods, I can’t help but ask why?
The distinction between the Elves of myth and their reality breaks up the Three Witches almost as soon as they get back. Granny and Nanny are old and wise: they know the reality whereas Magrat would neither know nor understand and their refusal to even tell her infuriates her so much that she walks away.
Besides, Magrat has a destiny, and that is to be Queen. Verence has it all organised, without reference to her: date, venue, catering, guest list, even the wedding dress, tells her about it in brisk, practical manner, not a hint of romance or even affection as soon as she returns. Magrat puzzles over the seemingly magical aspect of that and, being Magrat as opposed to Nanny, never even imagines the real explanation until it drops into her lap, namely, Granny wrote and told him to get on with it.
But there are still two witches in Lancre, or maybe a half dozen if you take seriously any of Diamanda’s coven, which includes Perdita (real name, Agnes Nitt, and destined for a more important role before too much longer). There’s a magical duel that Granny wins by popular acclaim, though not by the actual rules, and Diamanda certainly is not behind the door when it comes to powers, though that’s because she’s being fed by the Queen of the Elves, who has a personal animosity towards Esmerelda Weatherwax from the last time the Lords and Ladies threatened to break through.
And Granny’s strength is not what it might be, for she is subject to distractions. For one thing, she’s practically convinced that she’s going to die. For another, which is probably more important to her, she’s beginning to worry that she’s losing her mind, experiencing vivid memories of a life she’s never lived.
And least important of all, at least to her, is a meeting with one of the wedding guests, none other than the Archchancellor of Unseen University, Mustrum Ridcully himself (with entourage: the increasingly detached from reality Bursar, the young wizard who is the Reader in Invisible Writings, Ponder Stibbins, and, naturally, the Librarian).
Because, long ago, a young wizard courted Esme Weatherwax, when they both were young, though she rejected him, and it’s only Ridcully, full of might-have-beens from the moment he sees her again.
(We’ve seen that before, when Granny was introduced in Equal Rites, but that was Arrchchancellor Cutangle. This version is a much better treatment of the idea, illuminating as to both Granny and Ridcully, then and now, and it enables us to lock away a bit of the earlier book that deserves forgetting).
And that’s where things go wrong. Granny’s got Ridcully’s elephantinely playful post-courtship, Nanny’s being wined and dined by the egregious Casanunda again, and Magrat’s locked herself in with her anger and embarrassment, so none of the Three Witches are watching as the Elves re-enter the Kingdom, bringing with them cruelty and glamour in inseparable manner.
There are three inadequate forces ranged against the Elves: Witches, Wizards and the Lancre Morris Men (there are times when I envy non-English readers of Pratchett, for not having any idea what he’s talking about here). And the Witches have three separate approaches. Granny allows herself to be taken before the Queen, knowing she is beaten but relying on her own weakness to overcome the Elves. Magrat girds herself in armour and exposes her own, shrunken but still whole core of bravery, to bring iron to the Queen.
But it is Nanny who, quietly, and in seriocomic tones, comes to the heart of things in this book. For she leads Casanunda to the lewdly arranged barrows below which the King of the Elves waits, more patient than his Queen, able to outlast the iron in men’s heads until the world changes again. And she calls upon him to intervene, and threatens destructive reprisals if he does not halt the Queen.
And she says the lines that go to the heart of this book, the words that bring everything to one white-hot core, and there’s not the remotest trace of humour in them.
‘I’d be a little bit sorry about that, ‘cos you know I’ve always had a soft spot for you. But I’ve got kiddies, y’see, and they don’t hide under the stairs because they’re frit of the thunder, and they don’t put milk out for the elves, and they don’t hurry home because of the night, and before we go back to them dark old ways I’ll see you nailed.
In a book that has immersed itself so deeply in fantasy and fairytale, these words are the most solid and real, and if Terry Pratchett had written Lords and Ladies in order to provide a reason to put those words in the matriarchal Nanny Ogg’s mouth, whatever he had done would be justified by reason of that truth.
So the Elves cannot win. They cannot stand the iron, and despite her weakness, the iron in Granny’s head cannot be overcome, nor the iron in Nanny’s voice, nor yet the iron in Magrat’s mind, no matter how much it derives from an illusion that shapes the fiction she’s girt about her.
And then there’s a wedding, and after that, for all their shyness and uncertainty and ill at ease, there is Verence and Magrat, King and Queen yes, but husband and wife above all. Discworld’s first marriage: enjoy it, there aren’t any more in the rest of the canon.
This is a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the cover depicted above is that of the hardback. For some reason I’ve never really fathomed, Josh Kirby was asked to paint a new cover, depicting the same scene but giving Nanny Ogg more prominence, for the paperback. It makes more commercial sense, I suppose. But the first version is the better image.

In Praise of Pratchett: Reaper Man


Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.

In Praise of Pratchett: Moving Pictures


After a trio of excellent books, from Wyrd Sisters to Guards! Guards!, Moving Pictures was something of a disappointment. Though it’s a fundamental book in the series, introducing Mustrum Ridcully and practically the whole Faculty of Unseen University, not to mention giving free rein to Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, the book still manages to fall a little bit flat. For me, there are three reasons for this.
By this point, with the series passing into double figures, Terry Pratchett had very firmly locked on to what, in a lesser author, would undoubtedly be called a formula. Each book was based around a theme, some aspect of of life or narrative, to which the unique distorting lens of Discworld would be applied, simultaneously breaking it down into all the little absurdities inherent in the concept, and penetrating to the essential heart, the elemental centre that anatomises what makes this thing significant.
The very title gives away that this book is about Hollywood, the Dream Factory: giving the scene of the action the name of Holy Wood is less a punster’s tip of the hat than a feeble acknowledgement of the fact that there is nothing more subtle that can be done with the name.
And that goes for the entire book. Pratchett is parodying the early years of the Movies, the silent era, and whilst he’s his usually imaginative self in converting/paralleling the events of Tinseltown’s foundational years, he’s up against the fact that those years were so unreal in themselves that too much of the time he’s doing little more than follow.
The problem with parodying something that’s already in a high state of fantasy is that there is comparatively less room to manoeuvre before you hit the badlands of outlandish and just too stupid to be believable.
Though Pratchett does get in some degree of analysis of what Holy and Hollywood actually do, the way he sets up his story, there’s no room for any light to go with the extremely deep shade that lies behind this phenomenon. Pratchett builds what motivates Holy Wood into something irrelievably black and dangerous, that the overwhelming innocence of everyone who gets themselves involved can only appear as excessive naivete. And the fact that someone like Dibbler can so quickly become such a big wheel in Holy Wood doesn’t actually suggest it can have any sort of redeeming factor.
The second factor in Moving Pictures falling flat is the absence at the heart of it. I speak, of course,  of Victor Tugelband, student wizard and proto-Rudolf Valentino. Victor is a very clever but fundamentally lazy person who is prolonging his student days in similar fashion to Roger Zelazny’s Fred Cassidy in his 1975 novel, Doorways in the Sand. Victor’s industrious attention to ensuring he neither fails nor passes his exams leaves him short of any other qualities, and his rejection of even the possibility of growth goes hand in hand with that to deprive him of any kind of charisma, other than that imposed on him by Holy Wood’s own brand of magic.
Victor is nothing more than a clothes-horse for Pratchett to hang jokes on, and as for Ginger, his female equivalent, she’s even more of a character-free zone, given that she doesn’t get to have any thoughts that aren’t interpreted through the filter of Victor. No, the second lead in this book, and the one who gets all the personality, is Gaspode the Wonder Dog, a small, cynical, flea-ridden mutt who’s learned to talk, thanks to Holy Wood’s magic slopping around, and who spends most of the book being ignored.
With such a character void at its heart, the great mercy of Moving Pictures lies in it possessing a wonderful array of supporting players.
There is Gaspode, for one thing, who turned out to be so good that, despite taking the magic away from him at the end of the book, Pratchett found himself having to restore the Wonder Dog at a later stage. And Dibbler who, after having played a mere bit part in Guards! Guards!, was swept into prominence here, and who would go on to be a force all by himself for many years.
But the real advance of Moving Pictures lay in its introduction of Mustrum Ridcully as Archchancellor of Unseen University and, by the endgame of the book, virtually all the Faculty, who would come to the fore in later books, as their nascent series merged with that of Rincewind.
Like Drunken Captain Vimes, our first exposure to Ridcully the Brown feels strange. He’s introduced as exactly what he appears to be: a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ countryman who, in an Anthony Trollope novel, would be at the forefront of the statutory fox hunting scene. Ridcully is chosen as a safe (i.e. stupid and easily malleable) pair of hands, a stable figure after a period of crisis at the University, which has been going through Archchancellors like a hot knife through butter.
Indeed, it’s not certain whether Pratchett actually views him as a serious character or whether he’s just got bored with making up new names for identikit scheming/schemed against Archchancellors. This is emphasised by the way that we never get to see into Ridcully’s head at any time but instead view him through the medium of the Bursar, a born administrator if there ever was one.
For most of the book, scenes at the University centre on the Bursar and Ridcully, with only the ridiculous figure of Windle Poons (the University’s oldest wizard) and, in entirely a side role, the fortunate student Ponder Stibbins.
Suddenly, as the crisis reaches its peak, with Holy Wood’s magic gathering its strength, a party of wizards sneak out to go to the cinema. And they’re (almost) all there: the Dean (of Pentacles), the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes: only the Reader in Invisible Writings and the Senior Wrangler are missing.
I have a confession, one that is probably more common than is usually admitted: even after all these years, I cannot tell the Chair, the Lecturer and the Wrangler apart. Nor, other than the fact that the Chair is described as the fattest wizard at Unseen University, is any effort made to draw any distinctions here. It’s the crosstalk, the meandering, ever-distracted conversations that matter.
But having at a stroke introduced a handy supporting cast, Pratchett then demonstrates that there are greater depths to Ridcully than he’d been letting on. At this stage, it’s mainly the fact that he’s actually quite bright underneath, but it’s the first glimpse of the real Ridcully, and it reminds me of Arthur Ransome’s treatment of Timothy Sterling (aka Squashy Hat) in Pigeon Post, as a shy, quiet, absorbed and fairly ineffectual character, until the crisis strikes and he suddenly becomes both calm and resourceful.
It’s a good supporting cast, but in the end it can do no more than huddle, protectively, around the absence at the centre that is the cardboard figure of Victor Tugelbend.
The third element that works against Moving Pictures is, unfortunately, its central menace. Because the danger of Holy Wood is that it works at one of those points where reality – in Discworld terms – is at its thinnest. It seeks to break through, to enter into that reality because, yes, once again, on the other side is the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions. And by this time they’re running a little stale.
Unfortunately, for all its inventive trimmings, Moving Pictures is one trip too many to the well of the Dungeon Dimensions. Been there, did that, wore one of Dibbler’s t-shirts for the very brief time before it fell apart.
Better was, of course, to come, in the shape of five successive crackingly good and very funny novels, most of them tens on my personal scale of Discworld novels. With a score like that, Terry Pratchett could easily afford the odd book here and there which fell flat.