The Geekery Guide: Who is Sir Terry Pratchett and What is the Discworld?
Anyone whose browsed the fantasy section of any bookshop in the past 30 years would have noticed dozens of titles carrying similar artwork and bearing the name ‘Terry Pratchett’ on the spine. You can’t miss them, there’s HEAPS of them. Several shelves worth. There’s a good chance you’ve read some of them, but if you haven’t you should.
Pratchett’s last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, will be in our hands in a matter of hours so if you’re curious now is the time.
In a Sentence: The ‘Discworld’ series takes place in another dimension where physics and magic have become jumbled, and holds up a mirror showing a satire of us as a people and society.
Englishman Sir Terry Pratchett spent his childhood pursuing interests in astronomy and literature. Lacking the mathematic skills to go into astronomy he focused on science-fiction. Leaving school at 17 (crediting his education to the local library), Pratchett followed his interest in writing and his first novel was published in in 1971. After a number of sci-fi comedy novels and jobs in journalism and PR, the first ‘Discworld’ novel The Colour of Magic hit shelves in 1983.
In 1985 the BBC begun broadcasting The Colour of Magic as a serialised story, and a sequel to the novel was published the following year. This caused a boost in sales and the series begun to build a fan base. Having created his fictional world Pratchett would put out between 1 and 3 novels in the series every year, making it his full time job. Prior to J.K. Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter novels, Sir Terry Pratchett held the distinction of being the best-selling British author worldwide and at the time of his death earlier this year he had sold more than 85 million volumes, the majority of which being ‘Discworld’.
Described as being set in ‘an astral plane that was never meant to fly’, the stories are set on Discworld, a flat planet resting on the back of four elephants who are carried through space on the back of a gigantic turtle. Over the course of the series the stories have explored many different cultures and locations on the Disc, but the majority centre around the bustling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork. This heavily populated, heavily polluted city is home to many of the main characters and plenty of corruption, innovation, religion and crime.
Each story takes on a specific focus, with direct sequels being quite rare (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are the only two stories in the main series that directly follow each other). Each would focus on a particular aspect of our world, satirising our society and trends. Themes cover a wide range of topics from cinema in Moving Pictures to Buddhism in Thief of Time, the internet in Going Postal and fairy tales in Witches Abroad. Some stories will spoof a specific source, such as Wyrd Sisters being an alternate take of McBeth told from the point of view of the witches.
Some of the novels can be grouped together based on which characters they follow. Failed wizard Rincewind, stern and traditional witch Granny Weatherwax, grizzled City Watchman Sam Vimes, gifted apprentice witch Tiffany Aching, fast talking con man Moist Von Lipwig and the perpetually curious Death and his wayward grand-daughter Susan are the protagonists of most stories, while some characters only feature once or twice. There is some continuity throughout the series, but it’s not considered essential to read them in order. The only character who appears in every story (bar one) is Death himself, one of Pratchett’s most endearing creations.
Prior to his passing Pratchett has written and published a whopping 40 novels in the ‘Discworld’ series. The 41st, The Shepherd’s Crown, will be released this week.
Why Is It So Popular?
The Discworld series can be equated to the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy book series with a fantasy bent rather than sci-fi. It’s classic British satire, thumbing it’s nose of authority and convention delivered in a deadpan fashion. Such comedy stylings have already been popular in Britain, as seen with long running shows like Blackadder and Yes, Minister. Fantasy literature has always taken itself seriously, so adding this comedic element into an easily identifiable fantasy universe.
As the series moved away from it’s fantasy origins and began focusing on it’s real world parallels and developing it’s characters it started attracting new readers. Early stories Equal Rites and Mort were the first break out hits. Equal Rites dealt with gender equality with the closed society of wizards standing in for the patriarchy and Mort turned the Grim Reaper into a sympathetic character by having him take on a human apprentice. These both marked Pratchett as a writer capable of addressing topical issues and able to put a new spin on classic tropes.
Like Lord of the Rings much of the fandom comes from the authors ability to summon a full and functioning world from their imagination. Aside from the odd continuity hiccup (41 books, what do you expect?) the consistent setting of Discworld is a rich and detailed world. Cultures, languages and traditions are extensive, and the series has plenty for the obsessive fantasy nerd to lose themselves in.
Between a knighthood, piles of sales records and dozens of books to his name, Pratchett had his legacy set in stone long before he departed this plane of existence. Discworld itself has produced cookbooks, maps, guides, soundtracks, science textbooks, trivia books, artworks, almanacs, board games based on in-world games, children’s books, video games and even a real world twin city using the street names of Ankh-Morpork. That’s not even factoring in works of the fans. Then there’s his others works including the ‘Long Earth’ series, the ‘Dark Side of the Sun’ series and the ‘Carpet People’ series in addition to stand alone novels and his celebrated collaboration with Neil Gaiman ‘Good Omens’.
Pratchett has contributed more to the world than literature. He was pioneering user of the internet, setting a precinct for fan interaction with authors and communities build around pop culture. He was a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation U.K. and contributed greatly to the preservation of the species. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (what he called his ‘Embuggerance’) he used his public profile to generate donations to research institutes and public awareness, as well as public support for assisted suicide.
Over the years Pratchett has supported and inspired numerous new authors, represented in the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award for unpublished sci-fi authors.
How to Piss Off the Fans: “I don’t really like fantasy like that.”
Is It Worth Checking Out?: Yes. We suggest starting with Going Postal, Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards! or Mort. After that you should clear your schedule because there’s a good chance you’ve got a lot of reading ahead of you.