Discworld

Modernizing the Disc

Terry Pratchett with OBE

One of the amazing things about Sir Terry Pratchett (lost, perhaps in the enormous litany of other amazing things about the man) is how open he was to allowing his greatest creation to change.

Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most beloved fantasy worlds ever imagined.  It’s right up there with Middle-Earth and Hogwarts, and yet it goes about the task quite differently.

In Tolkien and Rowling’s world, the universe achieved perfection centuries or eons before the events that unfold in the books.  The characters are usually struggling to keep a way of life alive or–in the case of Tolkien–to return things to the state in which they were back in the good old days.  In both cases, evil is personified in the entity that wants to change it, to shatter that way of life.   In fact, though both Voldemort and Sauron (or Morgoth in the earlier mythology) are evil in other, more obvious ways, their true crime is to try to break the idyll.  It’s a pattern that writers in the literary genre use as well, though in the cases of Waugh, Bassani and Ishiguro they don’t bother to disguise the true nature of the evil.

Readers, of course, can identify and respond to the sense that all times in the past were better.

Pratchett, on the hand accepted none of the wallowing.  The Discworld might be sitting on a giant turtle, perched on the back of four elephants, but it is more flexible and realistic than most other fantasy worlds, because it changes.  And while I have an image of serious writers thinking about how serious issues in our world would be reflected in other places, I have an equally vivid image of Pratchett sitting around and saying… “I wonder how the nutjobs on the Disc would react to suddenly having guns?  Ooh, that could be fun to write.”

He wrote about guns.  He wrote about race relations.  He wrote about rock music.  He wrote about gender (quite a lot, actually).

And he didn’t do it as standalones that wouldn’t affect his other work, either; every single one of these issues changed the Discworld on a fundamental level, and Pratchett reflected that in later works.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The deepest change of all comes in Raising Steam, sadly the very last Pratchett book I will be reading for the first time.  In this one, he brings the Industrial Revolution to the Disc.  Everyone reading will know that the bucolic, strangely provincial life of even the most sophisticated Ankh-Morporkers are going to change forever, the lifestyle of the previous dozens of books will die away, blown through the desert by the winds of change.

And yet, you find yourself cheering the train-building heroes on.  Let them win, let them burn everything down and change it.  And lift a hat to a man whose courage, not just his talent, will be missed more than almost any other’s.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He doesn’t have any bestselling fantasy worlds to burn down, but if you like anachronism in service of comedy in your fantasy, he recommends the hotel credit card scene in his book The Malakiad.  Kindle / Paperback.

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Reading Pratchett, Tinged with Sadness

I’m going to be honest.  If I was allowed to take the complete works of one humorist with me to a desert island, that writer would be P.G. Wodehouse.  For my money, he is the funniest author ever to grace the English language.  And I do mean grace: his sentences are a thing of beauty.  Without ever getting in his own way or using obtuse vocabulary, he managed to build perfect gems of writing… in almost every single sentence.  I can’t overstate the difficulty of managing that.  Sometimes you just want to write a sentence to get you from point A to pint B, but Wodehouse never allowed himself that.

If I had to keep ranking them, the second on my list would be Douglas Adams.  The perfect distillation of the English sense of humor.  Sadly, his oeuvre is too small to keep me entertained for an indeterminate period of time out in the south seas after a shipwreck but it is more intense.  He is more laugh-out-loud funny than Wodehouse is.

But though he doesn’t top my list on the pure humor and entertainment front, Terry Pratchett is by far the best novelist of my three favorite humorists.  He was the man who picked up the torch left by his predecessors and decided that he would not only write humor for humor’s sake, but he would break Wodehouse’s rule about writing a novel and make the books about something.  And they would be funny.

So, you get social conscience and human foibles and difficult topics with your humor.

I’ve read widely, and I’m here to tell you that only Pratchett has managed to handle that particular volatile mix without having it blow up in his face.

Most humorists fall into two camps: the ones that exploit the human condition for a few laughs and the ones who attempt to make us care.  The first group doesn’t really give a damn about humans as a group (or at least they aren’t there to make us think about humanity).  They just want their humor to be relatable enough so you’ll laugh at the right time.  The second group is usually preachy, holier-than-thou and so, sooooo concerned.  They are anything but funny.

Pratchett pulls it off.  You end up caring deeply about the issues in his book without ever having the sense that the writer is obsessed, and that the issues have taken over his work.  (actually, this happens to issue-driven books in any genre, not just humor.  When the agenda pushes the plot and characters aside, it’s a recipe for disaster).

So it’s with great sadness that I am reading the final few Pratchett books for the first time.  One can enjoy a book upon re-reading, but you never have the same sheer joy of discovery as you did the first time you encountered the words.  Since his death, a Pratchett book that I hadn’t read before became a priceless treasure.

Over the last year, I’ve consumed three of those treasures.

A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett

A Blink of the Screen is a rare treat.  It collects Pratchett short stories.  Some of them we’ve all read before, but many are early work published in tiny magazines or very local newspapers.  They show a master at work before he was a master, with flashes of the genius that made him world-famous, but without the skill at weaving it all together.  Still, there are some gems in here, and punchlines that will make you chortle.  I enjoyed it.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff made me even sadder.  It’s a Discworld novel.  If having any unread Pratchett book is a treasure, a Discworld book is like having the Crown Jewels and the Romanoff treasure all at once.  To make things even better, this is a Sam Vimes book.

A side note about Vimes.  While there are many amazing characters on the Discworld, Vimes became the most important of all after Pratchett discovered him halfway through the series.  He represents the everyman, but also the fatalist.  I have a friend who swears by the witches, but it’s Vimes who serves as the backdrop to Pratchett’s most mature work.  I like him even more than I like the Luggage and Death, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The only consolation I had when I finished this one was the knowledge that Raising Steam is still safely buried somewhere in my TBR pile.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

The last book of the three I had to hand was The Shepherd’s Crown. The Tiffany Aching books fall in the Young Adult category and are a lot less funny.  Pratchett’s sense of humor is still there in the background, but these aren’t meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, but a coming-of-age story for a young witch growing into her powers.  All of Pratchett’s humanity is on display in these, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone out for a laugh.  However, it is to Pratchett’s eternal credit that he manages to make a Young Adult story aimed at girls compelling to a not-particularly-young adult male who (as attested to by earlier entries) is more likely to pick up a spy thriller than a book about a teenage witch.

I don’t think we’ll ever see another writer quite like this one for a while.

 

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad coming out on March 22nd (it can be pre-ordered through this link).  If you enjoyed reading Pratchett, you will likely enjoy this one.  Also, the title comes from a very rude word in Greek, so there’s that.