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 III – Darwin’s Watch

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

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.