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


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: 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.