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.