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.


In Praise of Pratchett: Introduction

Terry Pratchett by Josh Kirby

It’s only a couple of months since we lost Sir Terrance David John Pratchett, to the grief of all. After the public outpourings, people seem to have settled into their own, private thoughts at the loss of Terry, and Discworld, and all those wonderful people within it, though the wound will once again become public in August when the last ever Discworld book, Tiffany Aching’s The Shepherd’s Crown, will be published.
A few days after the news, I sat down to re-read my favourite Discworld book of all, the 2002 Sam Vimes novel, Night Watch. I meant no more than a reaction to a book, to the loss of those characters who had come to be the most important of Pratchett’s creation, who would never develop further, never grow older than they were when last Pratchett had written about them.
A commenter, ‘G’, asked if I was going to blog about more of Pratchett’s books.
I’d never really thought about doing that before. Unlike many of the things I’ve blogged about on here, Pratchett and Discworld have a massive, world-wide, knowledgeable and, in places, near fanatic audience. Who am I to start interpreting Terry’s work to others who know the subject at least as well, if not better, than I do myself? What insight have I that has not been shared by millions of others? What can I say that hasn’t been said, to better effect, by others?
On the other hand, I was there from almost the start. I bought The Colour of Magic in paperback (I have, in fact, bought it three times to date, which, given that I happen to think it a long way inferior to every other Discworld novel, carries a tale in itself).
But the John Crowley re-read/review is complete, and a complete reading of Discworld is mandated, and I’ve discovered to my pleasure that there are lots of things in even familiar books that don’t get seen until you go looking for them, so for the next few months I’m going to re-read the entire works of one of the funniest, most thoughtful, and serious authors to have enlivened and enlightened the times in which I’ve lived.
And you’re all invited to start arguments with me in the space below if you don’t like what I might say. Or even if you do.