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: 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.