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: Hogfather


As with Soul Music, my initial reaction to Hogfather was mild disappointment, and perhaps from the same reason. Pratchett once again uses a plot he has previously employed: Death foregoes his role as the Grim Reaper, and that forces his granddaughter, Susan Sto-Helit, into his sphere.
There’s considerably more to it than that, however, since Death does not actually abandon the role of Death as take on another, more urgent anthropomorphic personification, any more than Susan actually uses the scythe for real. And, a couple of years on from Soul Music, she’s a far more sympathetic character than her sixteen-year-old self.
But Susan Sto-Helit still cuts across the grain of Discworld, with her furious determination to be resolutely normal, her heels-dug-in resistance to being put in a position to use the ‘powers’ she has inherited from her grandfather, notwithstanding her eminently practical attitude to childhood fears and fancies. Which usually boils down to using the poker.
In due course, it will kill the villain, as is only right and proper.
As with Reaper Man, the adversaries are again the Auditors of Reality, still determined on eradicating humanity and unpredictability from the Universe. Their vehicle, on this occasion, is the Hogfather, the Discworld’s Father Christmas, or rather it’s NOT the Hogfather, since the first thing they do is to have the guy killed.
Or, as this is commissioned through the Assassin’s Guild and their most seriously over-the-edge member, Mr Jonathan Teatime (pronounced Te-at-tim-eh), we had better say inhumed. For Mr Teatime has worked out how to kill all the Discworld’s major figures and it doesn’t take long before the reader realises that he is rather eager to turn his hypotheses into facts.
So: Mr Teatime ‘kills’ the Hogfather on Hogswatch Eve (by what manner, Pratchett doesn’t let on, reasoning correctly that this is one of those things best left to the reader’s imagination rather than be spelled out and be found inadequate or impossible to believe): Death, in order to prevent belief in the Hogfather from dying out, steps into his shoes to distribute Hogswatch presents with the maximum amount of evidence the fat guy has been around: the spare Belief psychically released by the Hogfather’s absence manifests itself by creating all sorts of unexpected but logical Anthropomorphic Personifications, like the Verruca Gnome, the Cheerful Fairy and the Oh God of Hangovers, especially around Mustrum Ridcully and Unseen University: and Death specifically forbids Susan to investigate why her grandfather is running around in a red robe with a false beard and a cushion tied around his waist.
Pratchett builds his story around four inter-locking strands, two comic, two serious. The Wizards are the purely comic element: from the uncovering of the determinedly-hidden B. S. Johnson bathroom and its inevitable short-comings, through the array of improbable creations introduced with an ominous glingleglingleglingle, they provide the bulk of the laughs, with little connection to the serious element of the story.
Similarly, Death’s progress as the psuedo-Hogfather is primarily played for laughs, a combination of the basic incongruity of the role and his continuing inability to fathom out the necessary rituals of the role, which also feeds into Death’s own increasing interest in humanity and why it is. It’s far more firmly attached to the story, and Death does indeed come into its conclusion in wholly dramatic terms, but its main gravity is in the chance it gives Pratchett to paint a picture of Christmas – and children – under the skin.
Susan is always going to be a serious element by her very nature. Pratchett gets over the implied matching of her to Imp y Cellyn by simply ignoring that ending to Soul Music, though this tactic is less successful when applied to the thought of why Susan, as Duchess of Sto-Helit, a Duchy that her father and mother governed well and influentially, has become a nobody of a Governess.
Of course, being Susan, she’s not exactly a nobody, but when Pratchett jokes about the difference between Susan’s social status and that of her middle-class employers, he does draw attention to the discrepancy. And though Susan is determined to surround herself with normality, that doesn’t prevent her from being able to see the imaginary childhood fears, like bogeymen and the bears that wait to gobble up children who step on the cracks, and indeed the illusion of childhood itself.
So she’s halfway into the world of the Death of Rats and the talking raven with an eyeball fetish even before Death’s specific instructions not to look into things further press her into an investigatory role that will take her to the place where somebody absolutely, urgently needs to go, which is the one place Death can’t go.
Which leads us full circle to Mr Teatime, an outwardly cheerful young man who seems to be permanently on the up-curve of manic depression but who is completely and utterly a psychopath. Not only has he inhumed the Hogfather, but he has also gotten himself and his band of top notch Ankh-Morpork street thugs into a strange kind of castle in a strange kind of world, the land of the Tooth Fairy.
This is where the book starts, for me, to lose track of what it is about. Teatime has been hired to inhume the Hogfather, and it is precisely he who the Auditors want rid of, and whose ability to preserve himself (with Susan’s help) ensures that the sun will rise in the morning. Teatime commences this process by attracting the attentions of the Tooth Fairy (well, one of them at any rate), and using her delivery service to slip out of reality as we and the Discworld knows it.
But Pratchett never establishes, or even hints at a connection between the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy. Indeed, the former has his own ice castle, which crumbles into nothingness ear;y on, whilst the Tooth Fairy’s base – a child’s drawing made three dimensional in superbly creepy manner – continues to exist.
And Teatime, after collecting all the teeth, a surprisingly horrifying image, and making them available to control ALL the children by magic, is after the wizened being who lies behind the Tooth Fairy operation, which is NOT the Hogfather, and is in fact THE Bogeyman, who has been collecting the teeth to protect them from being used, and who fades out of existence, leaving an obvious void.
What confuses further is that Pratchett’s etiology for the Hogfather leads back to similar roots, with the two figures perhaps as balancing images: The Bogeyman is the old dark, the Hogfather the turn of the seasons, the restoration of the sun from its darkest period to the light. The path from there to the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas has no clear route in either case.
It’s a confusing ending, and one where I really do not see what Pratchett was trying to say, which is one of the reasons where, despite the tremendous humour, I really can’t place Hogfather amongst the front rank of Discworld novels.

In Praise of Pratchett: Reaper Man


Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.

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.

In Praise of Pratchett: Sourcery


The early Discworld books were certainly inconsistent: odd was naff, even was good. Sourcery certainly lived up, or down, to this syndrome.
It’s definitely a step back from Mort. Rincewind is once again the main character, along with the Luggage, but for the most part, the supporting cast add very little to the setting, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Pratchett feels the need, at the end, to reset Discworld’s reality to negate everything that’s happened in a decidedly ‘…and then they woke up and it was all a dream’ style.
Having tackled deeper matters, Pratchett moves back into pure fantasy, the novel being solely about magic, and the wizards of the Discworld. It’s an old saw of fantasy that wizard’s are made from the seventh son of seventh sons (which translates into eighth of eighth on the Discworld) but what if we go a generation further. What is the magical status of the eighth son of a wizard? He is, in fact, a sourceror.
The pun is obvious, but it’s also central to Pratchett’s conception of the subject. Wizards manipulate the natural magic of the Disc, sourcerors are a conduit for raw magic itself. Into the comfy, cosy world of Unseen University, which is rapidly beginning to evolve away from the serious practice of magic as seen in earlier volumes, towards the Old Buffers’ Club we recognise from today, is dropped a sourceror, with much the same effect as a red-hot iron on a best dress shirt.
The sourceror’s name is Coin, and to everybody’s surprise, he’s only ten years old, a suitable age it may seem for the faux-naivete with which he approaches any question that interests him. And there’s only one question that interests him, which is, why aren’t wizards ruling everything by eminent force.
The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, that, since the Mage Wars of aeons ago, there is no longer the strength in the Discworld’s natural magic field to enable them to do so, and secondly, the wizards don’t really want to rule. They want to potter around, leisurely, making sure to not be too far from the table when the next meal is served.
But Coin brings with him so much raw magic, accessible by all – even Rincewind can perform spells, which should tell you all you need to know – that the first objection is just blown away. And whether it be by fear of the boy sourceror, or else reverting to natural type when accessing unlimited power, Coin pretty much overwhelms the second objection as well.
Not that it’s actually any of his fault. Coin, we deduce, is being manipulated, even ordered about, by his ultra-powerful Octiron staff, in which the spirit of his bitter, twisted father, Ipslore the Red, has taken refuge to escape Death (but not forever, naturally).
Where does Rincewind fit in to all of this? Far from having become Archchancellor, as the ending to The Light Fantastic hinted, he’s ended up as Assistant Librarian, in charge of the banana supply. But despite his utter ineptitude, he finds himself becoming responsible for preserving the Archchancellor’s hat, the true ‘head’ (heh, heh) of wizardry, and keeping it from being possessed by Coin.
In this quest, he is aided by what must be two of Pratchett’s weakest creations, Conina and Nijel the Barbarian. I would prefer not to say anything about Nijel, a barbarian of three day’s standing, who’s obeying his mother’s instructions not to take off his woolly vest. Only the, mercifully brief, presence of a yuppie genie, horrendously dated, spares Nijel from being the worst thing in this book.
As for Conina, she’s a perfectly normal, sweet, platinum blonde with an ambition to become a hairdresser, who just happens to be a daughter of Cohen the Barbarian and to have inherited all of his strength, speed, reactions, instincts and skills. It’s an attempt to pull two widely disparate stereotypes together, and for once Pratchett fails to pull it off.
Indeed, he fails to pull the story off, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rincewind, Conina and Nijel racket around, getting the Hat to Al Khali, where it ends up gravitating to the Grand Vizier, after which a straightforward magical battle with Coin and the Ankh-Morpork wizards ends in the destruction of the Hat, with no more consequences than the destruction of an ordinary cloth cap.
Pratchett also tries to pull off another pun in the threat of the Apocralypse (a kind of Apochryphal Apocalypse that no-one really believes in) which calls for the riding out of the Four Horsemen, except that Rincewind, Conina and Nijel steal everyone’s horses from outside the pub so they stay for more drinks and never set off. It’s a scene the mature Pratchett would have knocked off in his sleep, but in this book it just fails to generate a single bubble of laughter.
In the end, it all boils down to the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are forever lurking in the background in these early Discworld books. Coin’s magic is too much of a draw for them. Rincewind manages to get far enough with a half brick in a sock to finally inspire Coin to stand up against his father, but all its gets them is trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions. One wrong move…
That wrong move never comes. Rincewind identifies the need to avoid the use of Coin’s magic as that would tip the balance and, in an excess of courage, uses the other sock, full of sand, to draw the Things away on an eternal, seemingly fatal chase, whilst Coin returns to Discworld and puts everything back the way it was, with most of the memories clouded.
The ending feels very much like a writer trying to dispose of a character he’d grown tired of, like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Pratchett felt anything like that, and having had Rincewind as hero for three out of five books so far, with a cameo in a fourth, it’s possible that he may have felt confined by his audience’s expectations, he still left a note of hope that, in due course, would be happily fulfilled.
There’s little else to say, save to note that Sourcery is where the Patrician is first named as Lord Vetinari, and first outlined in the shape we know him as, although he spends most of the book transformed into a small, yellow lizard. Pratchett is yet to appreciate the subtlety of the man.
It’s also noticeable, and faintly worrying, that Sourcery sees a recycling of ideas by Pratchett, and only five books in. They may have been created for different purposes, but Coin and Eskarina Smith cousins under the skin: children possessed of a magic that they may control physically to an extent unsuspected by them, but who lack the moral imagination and life-experience to understand the full implications of their actions.
Above all, though, I see Sourcery as a slight failure of nerve on Pratchett’s part, a retreat to pure fantasy after entering deeper waters in Mort. If so, it’s only a momentary hesitation. The Discworld pendulum would swing up again for the sixth book – even numbers – but after that it would only rarely swing back occasionally, as Pratchett’s humour, and the depths we was prepared to explore, took his readers to ever increasing heights.

In Praise of Pratchett: Equal Rites


I remember looking at Equal Rites in hardback in Waterstone’s and almost choking with laughter at its first two pages. I remember buying the book in paperback, six months later, and being dreadfully disappointed throughout.
After The Light Fantastic, this was something of a blow. Indeed, over the first half dozen Discworld books, which frequently fell under discussion on Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Crown & Anchor, a consensus grew that the odd-numbered ones were pretty crap, but the even-numbered ones were the business.
The pattern’s still there to be seen but, on re-reading the book these many years later, I think it’s due for a decent reappraisal.
Of course there are things wrong with Equal Rites, the biggest one being Granny Weatherwax. It’s her first appearance, but it’s not Granny as we know her. This village witch might have the same temper, and the same attitude to ignorance on her own part, but she uses magic an awful lot more, and more overtly, and she’s far more ignorant than the Granny we know and love. And the finale is completely wrong, and Pratchett was very wise to completely ignore it in all future books.
However, Granny is not the nominal star of Equal Rites, but rather its main supporting actress. The book is about Esk, or more formally, Eskarina Smith, aged nearly nine, wizard.
But Esk, being a girl, can’t become a wizard. True, she’s the eighth son of an eighth son, or rather she’s the daughter of an eighth son, with seven elder brothers, and besides, the dying wizard who has come to pass on his staff can’t wait long enough to check on the baby’s gender.
Esk therefore has the talent (and the staff) but not the training, and she isn’t going to get the training because, well, it’s against the lore. Women can’t become wizards, they have to be witches.
So Granny takes Esk in to train her, except that it doesn’t work. The wizard magic from the staff is too strong. It won’t let witchery take hold. Granny holds out against it for as long as she can, but the end is inevitable: a long and eventful journey to Ankh-Morpork and Unseen University where, exactly as expected, the very idea of Esk as a wizard is poo-poohed. Worse than that, it’s patronised.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a way into the University, which is round the back, through the laundry and the head Housekeeper, Mrs Whitlow. Esk can clean and sweep (actually, the staff does that) and can attend lectures. Only, she can’t read, and nothing is being explained to her, so it’s all going nowhere.
Until we come to Simon.
Simon is a trainee wizard, met on the journey to Unseen University. He’s the archetypal wimp, with a stammer and terminal hayfever, but he has a highly advanced brain, and the wizards flock round him. The only problem is that use of magic – any use but especially the high level use this entails – draws the things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are constantly attracted to the Universe of warmth and light, and who can make their way in via minds like Simon’s. And Esk’s.
To rescue and restore the souls of this young pair, the staff is needed. Unfortunately, in a fit of fury, Esk has thrown the staff away, and it’s sulking. To save the day, Granny has to team up with Archchancellor Cutangle (who she knew as a child and quasi-courted) to bring it back.
Mission accomplished, everybody relaxes a bit. Simon comes back without his stammer, and with a new theory of magic that will turn on the idea of not using it, as opposed to actually using it.
Pratchett will adopt this as a general course in the future, but for the moment (as we’ll see in Sourcery), that theory is far from his plans.
The other angle, which Pratchett afterwards drops like a stone, is the idea of a potential future relationship between Cutangle and Granny. The experienced mind rejects the very thought, and especially the idea that Granny might be a handsome woman (in any light!). No! No!
At the end of the day, Equal Rites takes a fantasy cliché and gives it a slight twist by changing genders, and then sets out to explore the effect. A dozen, even a half-dozen books later, the concept would have been manna to the mature Pratchett, given the male/female assumption/opposition inherent to the idea, and we would have seen an immeasurably better story. But 1987 was too early for Pratchett to realise the potential of his cute little notion.
However, as I said, it’s a better book than I’ve long given it credit for, despite the false start with Granny Weatherwax. Pratchett would iron out the true Granny for her next appearance, whilst Esk would disappear without a trace, until very very late in the sequence. Simon disappears completely. We’re still a way from the proper Unseen University, (“Oook!”) saving only the presence of the Librarian. That would take a lot longer to pull properly into shape.

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.