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: 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 Last Hero

The Last Hero describes itself, on its cover, as ‘A Discword Fable’ and that’s a very good description for it, although the story is as ‘real’ as is anything else concerning this amazingly improbable and impractical creation.
Like Eric, it appeared as an oversized book, illustrated by the new Discworld cover artist, Paul Kidby. Indeed, illustrated is hardly the word, though most people append the adjective profusely. Kidby appears on virtually every page of this story, and is considerably more integrated into the book than was Josh Kirby, in Eric.
By the time The Last Hero appeared, in 2001, Kidby had already been working with Pratchett for several years, starting with the works quickly collected as The Pratchett Portfolio. He doesn’t just add art to the story, he gets deeply into it, and he produces several diagrams that are clearly co-works with the author, and which underpin this fable with lots of structural detail.
The story, which is pretty much a sequel to Interesting Times, is fairly straightforward. Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde, motivated principally by the death of one of their number, Vincent, through choking on a fishbone, have decided to go out in a blaze of glory. They have decided to take fire back to the Gods, in their retreat, Dunmanifestin, at the spire Cori Celesti, at the centre of Discsworld.
The problem is going to be that it won’t just be them going out in a blaze of glory, it will be everyone, up to and including Discworld itself, elephants and turtle as well. Their little firebomb will cancel the Discworld’s magical field, leading to instant… well, instantness.
Something’s got to be done to head them off though, as this is the Silver Horde, who have got to their present age by outliving all their enemies, mostly by use of swords, that’s not going to be easy. The team that’s going to do this consists of Rincewind, as the only person that might be able to talk to Cohen, Leonard of Quirm to design and pilot a craft that can get the expedition to Cori Celesti, and Captain Carrot, to arrest the Horde if need be.
The ‘support’ team for this project therefore consists of the Faculty, directed primarily by the over-bright Ponder Stibbins and a for once out of his league Patrician. Bring ingredients to boil, stir well and pour.
Despite the fact that The Last Hero involves such a manifest and critical danger, it’s still a fairly slight story, written with little more behind it than the urge to have fun and create drama. In large part, that’s because it’s entirely external, to use the terms that I’ve been developing along this series of reviews.
Pratchett never internalises any of his mixed cast, preferring to keep us outside everybody’s head, except in the case of immediate emotions, mainly those of Rincewind (think fear, and flight). This is usually the case with Carrot anyway, as I have observed more than once, but as this book doesn’t include any characters that examine him for us, it renders him into a superficial character who, though an obvious choice for this mission, has nothing to do during the course of it.
The same goes for Leonard, who is Leonard throughout with very little variation on the perpetually brilliant inventor we’ve seen before. However, with no-one around to comment upon his detached perspective and his habit of designing extreme death war machines whilst doodling, again he comes over as something of a still-life.
Only Rincewind receives something of the attention we normally expect.
And, of course, Cohen. The Horde are out for their last ride. Cohen’s tried being Emperor of Agatea, and the Horde have tried living in the lap of luxury but it hasn’t taken. They’re just not trained for it, and the loss of Vincent to a death that they cannot but see as demeaning has fired off some primal anger. The age of heroes is gone, and they can see that, and see just how out of place that makes them. They’re the last ones, and they have no worlds left to conquer, so they’re going to take it out on the Gods themselves for, in some indefinable fashion, doing this to them.
They’ve even dragged a bard along to compose a proper saga about it.
Though the mission team get slightly more of the book, it’s Cohen’s journey, with the final shucking off of barbarian tropes that contains the emotional heart of this Fable. The Horde themselves want to make sure everything’s done properly according to the Code, one last time.
But when the Horde realise that their last time is going to be everybody’s last time, there is a change of heart. There’s got to be a world left behind them, in which sagas can be sung, otherwise there’s no point. So the final charge of the Silver Horde, into myth and legend and, also, the stars in the heavens, is outwards.
The Discworld is safe, and after all, no-one finds any bodies, and they were always difficult to kill. And there is the saga…
It’s a moving end, but it doesn’t disguise the main problem with The Last Hero, which is that it’s too thin. It’s got too little in it, when the truth is that it’s a bigger story than Pratchett wants to pretend, and it lacks the substance it should have had.
On the other hand, it was intended as a showcase for Kidby as well, and Pratchett had a lot of writing going on this year, so it’s understandable. For for me, The Last Hero goes down as a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s good, but it could have been much better.

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: Eric

Eric, or more properly Faust Eric as it’s known nowhere except the cover, is an amusing but slight thing, little more than a short story. As a book it’s thin, because it was written for a special, large-scale (and large-font) volume with a considerable number of illustrations by the late Josh Kirby, and it really shouldn’t be read in any other format.
As the title indicates, Pratchett intends the story to be a loose, indeed very loose riff on the Faust legend. Our Faust-manque, who is a rather naïve would-be demonologist from Psuedopolis named Eric, summons a demon to do his bidding and to execute three wishes: to rule the world, to live forever and to meet the most beautiful woman who ever lived.
And to make the point that, when you come down to it, these are not merely selfish and even petty desires but pretty damned juvenile ones as well, Eric turns out to be 13 years old.
So Pratchett has fun turning these ideas inside out, whilst setting them against the background of a Hell that has become ever more repellent and torturous by being placed under the control of a Demon King with the soul of a Middle-Manager in a large corporation.
As for the wishes themselves, Pratchett roams Discworld space and time to parody their application through, firstly, an Aztec/Inca-like civilization of sacrifice, secondly the Trojan Horse and, lastly, the previously unrecognised point that, in order to live forever, you have to go back to the very beginning of everything…
Incidentally, the Trojan Horse sequence mandates the appearance of a Helen of Troy figure. Pratchett takes his usual realistic approach to such a scenario and picks up on a point that must serious purveyors of the legend tend to ignore, namely that the siege lasted a couple of decades. And, leaving aside the question of whether such a beautiful woman as Helen would have been prepared to sit and knit for all that length of time (and in Discworld the answer is decisively no), there’s the fact that after twenty years of hanging around and eating – and childbirth – Helen may not be quite as she was when the accolade was granted…
No, Eric is not a major contribution to the Discworld series save in one respect, for which it is invaluable. Eric’s trying to raise a Demon. Hell is on the mark to tempt him. But in a momentary lapse of concentration it’s not a Demon that scoots out of the Dungeon Dimensions and back to the Discworld, but our old friend Rincewind. Yes, this is Pratchett’s vehicle to rescue his original hero from the rather sticky and seemingly permanent situation into which he had dropped him at the end of Sourcery.
So it’s worth it for that, but otherwise this book is rather too dependant upon Kirby’s art for its best effect, which is not a good sign.

In Praise of Pratchett: Sourcery

The early Discworld books were certainly inconsistent: odd was naff, even was good. Sourcery certainly lived up, or down, to this syndrome.
It’s definitely a step back from Mort. Rincewind is once again the main character, along with the Luggage, but for the most part, the supporting cast add very little to the setting, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Pratchett feels the need, at the end, to reset Discworld’s reality to negate everything that’s happened in a decidedly ‘…and then they woke up and it was all a dream’ style.
Having tackled deeper matters, Pratchett moves back into pure fantasy, the novel being solely about magic, and the wizards of the Discworld. It’s an old saw of fantasy that wizard’s are made from the seventh son of seventh sons (which translates into eighth of eighth on the Discworld) but what if we go a generation further. What is the magical status of the eighth son of a wizard? He is, in fact, a sourceror.
The pun is obvious, but it’s also central to Pratchett’s conception of the subject. Wizards manipulate the natural magic of the Disc, sourcerors are a conduit for raw magic itself. Into the comfy, cosy world of Unseen University, which is rapidly beginning to evolve away from the serious practice of magic as seen in earlier volumes, towards the Old Buffers’ Club we recognise from today, is dropped a sourceror, with much the same effect as a red-hot iron on a best dress shirt.
The sourceror’s name is Coin, and to everybody’s surprise, he’s only ten years old, a suitable age it may seem for the faux-naivete with which he approaches any question that interests him. And there’s only one question that interests him, which is, why aren’t wizards ruling everything by eminent force.
The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, that, since the Mage Wars of aeons ago, there is no longer the strength in the Discworld’s natural magic field to enable them to do so, and secondly, the wizards don’t really want to rule. They want to potter around, leisurely, making sure to not be too far from the table when the next meal is served.
But Coin brings with him so much raw magic, accessible by all – even Rincewind can perform spells, which should tell you all you need to know – that the first objection is just blown away. And whether it be by fear of the boy sourceror, or else reverting to natural type when accessing unlimited power, Coin pretty much overwhelms the second objection as well.
Not that it’s actually any of his fault. Coin, we deduce, is being manipulated, even ordered about, by his ultra-powerful Octiron staff, in which the spirit of his bitter, twisted father, Ipslore the Red, has taken refuge to escape Death (but not forever, naturally).
Where does Rincewind fit in to all of this? Far from having become Archchancellor, as the ending to The Light Fantastic hinted, he’s ended up as Assistant Librarian, in charge of the banana supply. But despite his utter ineptitude, he finds himself becoming responsible for preserving the Archchancellor’s hat, the true ‘head’ (heh, heh) of wizardry, and keeping it from being possessed by Coin.
In this quest, he is aided by what must be two of Pratchett’s weakest creations, Conina and Nijel the Barbarian. I would prefer not to say anything about Nijel, a barbarian of three day’s standing, who’s obeying his mother’s instructions not to take off his woolly vest. Only the, mercifully brief, presence of a yuppie genie, horrendously dated, spares Nijel from being the worst thing in this book.
As for Conina, she’s a perfectly normal, sweet, platinum blonde with an ambition to become a hairdresser, who just happens to be a daughter of Cohen the Barbarian and to have inherited all of his strength, speed, reactions, instincts and skills. It’s an attempt to pull two widely disparate stereotypes together, and for once Pratchett fails to pull it off.
Indeed, he fails to pull the story off, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rincewind, Conina and Nijel racket around, getting the Hat to Al Khali, where it ends up gravitating to the Grand Vizier, after which a straightforward magical battle with Coin and the Ankh-Morpork wizards ends in the destruction of the Hat, with no more consequences than the destruction of an ordinary cloth cap.
Pratchett also tries to pull off another pun in the threat of the Apocralypse (a kind of Apochryphal Apocalypse that no-one really believes in) which calls for the riding out of the Four Horsemen, except that Rincewind, Conina and Nijel steal everyone’s horses from outside the pub so they stay for more drinks and never set off. It’s a scene the mature Pratchett would have knocked off in his sleep, but in this book it just fails to generate a single bubble of laughter.
In the end, it all boils down to the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are forever lurking in the background in these early Discworld books. Coin’s magic is too much of a draw for them. Rincewind manages to get far enough with a half brick in a sock to finally inspire Coin to stand up against his father, but all its gets them is trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions. One wrong move…
That wrong move never comes. Rincewind identifies the need to avoid the use of Coin’s magic as that would tip the balance and, in an excess of courage, uses the other sock, full of sand, to draw the Things away on an eternal, seemingly fatal chase, whilst Coin returns to Discworld and puts everything back the way it was, with most of the memories clouded.
The ending feels very much like a writer trying to dispose of a character he’d grown tired of, like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Pratchett felt anything like that, and having had Rincewind as hero for three out of five books so far, with a cameo in a fourth, it’s possible that he may have felt confined by his audience’s expectations, he still left a note of hope that, in due course, would be happily fulfilled.
There’s little else to say, save to note that Sourcery is where the Patrician is first named as Lord Vetinari, and first outlined in the shape we know him as, although he spends most of the book transformed into a small, yellow lizard. Pratchett is yet to appreciate the subtlety of the man.
It’s also noticeable, and faintly worrying, that Sourcery sees a recycling of ideas by Pratchett, and only five books in. They may have been created for different purposes, but Coin and Eskarina Smith cousins under the skin: children possessed of a magic that they may control physically to an extent unsuspected by them, but who lack the moral imagination and life-experience to understand the full implications of their actions.
Above all, though, I see Sourcery as a slight failure of nerve on Pratchett’s part, a retreat to pure fantasy after entering deeper waters in Mort. If so, it’s only a momentary hesitation. The Discworld pendulum would swing up again for the sixth book – even numbers – but after that it would only rarely swing back occasionally, as Pratchett’s humour, and the depths we was prepared to explore, took his readers to ever increasing heights.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Light Fantastic

Every year, when I went on holiday, in those days before television in the rooms became standard, I would take away with me books to read in the quiet evenings after a day on the fells. In September 1986, I badly miscalculated my reading times and ran out in midweek.
It was late in the evening, I was in Keswick, the bookshops were closed and I was running round the newsagents/giftshops that were open until 8.00pm, desperate to buy something I could enjoy reading. But I was struggling to find something that appealed.
There was another Terry Pratchett book about, The Light Fantastic, a sequel to The Colour of Magic (literally so, the only Discworld book to follow directly on from its predecessor). I was dubious of it but the hour was getting late. It probably wouldn’t be much cop, but at least I knew I would be able to read it, and besides I could always sell it on. So, better than nothing.
I have never seen such an improvement in a writer in just the space of one book.
At the time, I only knew Pratchett from the Corgi paperback of half a year earlier. I hadn’t even noted the hardback publication date, so as far as I was concerned, the writer had made this quantum leap in the space of six months. I roared my head off reading The Light Fantastic, knowing that I’d have to re-buy the first book.
What made such a difference? I can make a few points now, but essentially it was down to my instinctive impression on that night’s reading, that in the intervening space, Terry Pratchett had sat down and thoroughly analysed his ‘first’ book, seen where it didn’t work and had set out to do it right this time.
That it had taken him three years to work it out, not six months, doesn’t lessen the impact.
The Light Fantastic was in every way a better book. For one thing, it was a single, coherent story that went several steps beyond The Colour of Magic in developing several narrative voices across a number of characters. Rincewind and Twoflower are hauled back from their fall off the Disc via a resetting of Reality, whereupon they become the target of any number of Wizards from Unseen University, who want the Great Spell back out of Rincewind’s head.
Which is particularly important because Great A’Tuin, the galaxy-sized Turtle, is gradually swimming out of the Discworld Universe’s space towards a single red star. And people are panicking more than somewhat.
But the book had gained more than a plot, it had gained an authorial voice. Pratchett now sounds like Pratchett. He is still nicking tropes from fantasy fiction, but instead of parodying other people’s works, he’s taking archetypal situations and using them in a basically straight manner, whilst undermining them via the responses of his characters. And his jokes sound like Pratchett.
The version of Unseen University we meet here is very rough-edged, and inherently unstable. Pratchett is still a long way from discovering that the most effective form of magic is the one you don’t do, and the Wizards of this Faculty are still overtly competitive. The entire Faculty, the eight Heads of Orders that Pratchett quickly learns he can do without, are wiped out, Archchancellor Galdor Weatherwax (hmm. Significant name, that) by the Luggage, the rest by Tymon, the ambitious but ultimately grey Deputy.
Tymon is actually the most significant figure in this book. He may be magically apt, but he’s the anti-Wizard, Organisation Man, determined on an efficiency that takes the passion, the satisfaction, the fun out of everything. Pratchett finds his true voice, the true purpose of his talent, in inveighing against him as the antithesis of what is needed to be properly human. He still has to learn to let that voice go, to let the anger within form the solid backbone of Discworld, but this is where it first shows.
The Light Fantastic also introduces us to Cohen the Barbarian. Whereas Hrun, in the first book, is a generic barbarian, distinguished only by his unusually small head, Cohen is a far greater conception, the barbarian who has been a legend so long that he’s grown old in his trade: eighty-seven, bald, toothless and a martyr to arthritis, but still unkillable. In the clash between him and Herenna, the Henna-Haired Harridan (visually a more sensible take-off of Marvel’s Red Sonja), there’s only one winner.
We also are privy to that moment, early in the book, where a ball of wild magic rises through the library, transforming the Librarian into, well, The Librarian. His response is, naturally, Oook.
Rincewind comes out of it seemingly on top, supervising the clean-up at Unseen University, in position to take over as Archchancellor. It was never going to be that way, and Pratchett may well have known that already, but since Rincewind wasn’t going to be used in the next book, it was a sentimental gesture at the time, a tidying-up. Sometimes, writers develop a sentimental attachment to their characters, almost as much as readers do. There’s a scene in a much later book where Pratchett demonstrates by how much he learned to know better.
In short, a vastly better book, and more importantly, one on which Pratchett could begin to build the towering edifice that will become Discworld. It’s less the architecture that we see taking shape, than the attitude of Discworld, that of a world in which a certain literalness will forever undermine the fantastic, putting it into its proper place.
My eyes were now wide open for the next book from Terry Pratchett.

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.