Tag Archives: Discworld

A third anniversary

Attribution below

Today, 12th March, is the third anniversary of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, a number of books not set in Discworld, and co-author of three books bringing serious science to the masses (The Science of Discworld). He was only 66. During his life he authored many books. There are 41 in the Discworld series alone. He received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, had a number of honorary doctorates from universities, and won a number of literary awards.




The librarian at Unseen University was turned into an orangutan and has avoided all attempts to turn him back into a human

I am a Terry Pratchett tragic. I have all his books in hardback in a glass-fronted book case to protect them from mould (which is a constant problem here in the sub-tropical north). An orangutan keeps watch over my office from his perch on one bookshelf, a job he shares with Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, and Princess Leia, who preside above the glass-fronted bookcase. (Which probably tells you a few Things About Me.) I’m sure he won’t mind me not using his title, though. I don’t think he was ever that kind of guy. Although apparently he was so disappointed that he didn’t get to keep the sword after he got his knighthood, he made one for himself – literally, right down to digging up the iron ore and making a kiln. You’ll find the details of that story here.

Terry was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and departed arm in arm with Death in 2015 – having written another seven books before he succumbed. Although he was a great advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he died naturally. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and I would not wish it on anyone but I find it particularly evil that this man of words had words stolen from him at such a young age (58). While Death is the great leveller, disease is a torturer.

A documentary about him, called Back in Black, was made after his death. Here’s the link to the version on Youtube. Actor Paul Kaye did an excellent job of portraying Terry, complete with his unusual accent. Sure, there were talking heads. His great friend, Neil Gaiman, his personal assistant, Rob Wilkins, Discworld’s illustrator, Paul Kidby, his daughter, Rhianna, and others all contribute information about the man they knew. But a lot of the facts were delivered by Pratchett himself (through Paul Kaye). The stand-outs for me were as follows:

  • Terry wasn’t a child prodigy. When he was six years old his headmaster told him he would never amount to anything. That put a fire in his belly that never left him.
  • He left school at age 17 and never attended higher education.
  • He had an accident as a small child which left him with a speech impediment. And he also had a stutter. As a result, he was bullied.
  • He got a voluntary job in the local library where he read everything he could get his hands on. Books were his friends.
  • Over time he collected all those books he would subsequently write into his head. At one stage he was publishing three books a year. And it seems he also worked on as many as three books consecutively. Wow. Just wow.

Terry Pratchett’s Death – a seven-foot skeleton wearing a black robe, carrying a scythe and riding a white horse called Binky – is among Terry’s most popular characters. He stars in several of the Discworld books – Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather, and Soul Music – and has a cameo appearance in most of the others. Death is fascinated by humans and their foibles. Terry can ask himself questions such as what would happen if Death took an apprentice? What if he decided to be a short-order cook instead of doing the Grim Reaper duty? What I particularly like about Death comes from the little cameos where he turns up to take a life. The recently-departed asks about where they’re going. “Will there be [insert folk belief of choice]” to which Death replies, “Do you want there to be?”

The results are funny, sure. But most of Terry’s books are character-driven. The Discworld is just a nightmare’s distance from our own, but the people are us. He shines a light on prejudice, where trolls and dwarfs substitute for Arabs and Jews or whoever we don’t like at the moment. He talks about women’s rights in Equal Rites, Men at Arms and in fact many other books. He pokes fun at Academia through the (male, celibate) wizards at Unseen University, and contrasts them with the worldly-wise witches, who perform the simple magic of midwifery, medicine and plain common sense.

All that reading Terry did in the little country library stood him in good stead. He often picked up a legend and shook it around to see what fell out. Hogfather, which was made into a terrific little mini-series, is about Christmas – what it used to be, as opposed to what it has become. The Hogfather (Father Christmas) has been kidnapped, so Death (seven-foot skeleton riding a white horse called Binky) assisted by his grand-daughter, Susan, takes on the job of doing the Christmas run, including the obligatory appearance in a department store. Elves are given their treatment in a few books, notably Lords and Ladies. For Terry, they weren’t the noble master race you’ll find in Tolkien. He goes back to earlier times, when they were nasty individuals, prone to playing tricks on people – and not in a nice way.

So today is a day of mourning for me. I’ve read and re-read Terry’s books since that day when I first read the prologue to The Colour of Magic in a newsagency at Perth airport back in the late 1980’s.

I’ve copied this list of his achievements from his Wikipedia page to save you the trouble of looking it up. Not bad for a kid who’d never amount to anything.

Photo by Luigi Novi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org w/index.php?curid=22449958

Musings on death

picture of Death as a skeleton with a scytheDeath. It’s something that everyone reading this post must face at some time. At my age, many people I have known and loved have passed the final portal. Some deaths were expected, and indeed, were a relief to the dying and to those left behind. Others died suddenly, brutally, and far too young. Yet others took their own lives.

Just recently another person I cared about succumbed far too young to cancer. I knew that, unlike me, this woman had believed in God and I suppose that’s the reason I’ve written this.

If you ask me, I’ll tell you I’m an atheist, that I do not believe that anything but the strange and arbitrary forces that operate in the universe ‘created’ us. But actually, if pressed, I would have to say that I’m an agnostic. Just as the religious among us cannot prove there is a God, those of us who don’t believe in the imaginary father figure in the sky (or whatever) cannot prove there is no such thing as ‘god’.

So what happens as we face death? My anticipation of what will happen is as certain as anyone else’s. I believe my body will cease to function. I will go to sleep and I will never wake up. The cells that together made up my being will be swept up into a new creation. My ashes will help something else grow and thrive. It fascinates me to think that every cell in my body – indeed, on this planet – was created from elements once spewed out into the universe from the death throes of a giant star. It’s only right that those building blocks will be passed on, in some way, to something new.

Those with a religious bent believe there’s more to life than the corporeal, that we have something else, call it a soul if you will, that ‘lives’ on independently of the body. What happens next can vary, according to tradition. You might be reincarnated as a new entity. You might go to heaven or hell. You might be entertained forever by virgins, or have the Valkyrie sweep you away to feast in the halls of your fathers. Or whatever.

Terry Pratchett has the most wonderful way of dealing with the mythology surrounding death. In his Discworld books Death is real, an anthropomorphism of an idea. Over the centuries death has often been pictured as a skeleton with a scythe, an image which Pratchett uses in his books. He adds bright blue, distant lights in the eye sockets of the skull, which always makes me think of those stellar super giants whose fiery deaths are an act of creation. Death has a cameo appearance in almost every Discworld novel and has a major supporting role in Reaper man, Mort and Hogfather. And he likes cats. In the best traditions of witchcraft, witches and cats can see him while they’re still alive.

Just about every time an important character dies, Death appears, speaking in sepulchral tones (all caps) never dictating what will happen next. If the recently deceased asks if there will be dancing girls, he says, “Do you want there to be?” Perhaps that’s the best thing you can wish the family of someone who has just died, that their beloved is now at peace/in heaven/carousing with the Valkyries/about to be reincarnated as a cat.

Sorry about the morbid navel-gazing. We will now return to normal programming.


Dark energy, dark matter and fractals – Cosmology according to Greta


This guy could be causing snow in Scotland

I’m not a scientist, folks. This is mainly because I suck at maths. I’m good at logic, though. You have to be if you want to be a half reasonable computer programmer. And along with that, I’m curious. As a kid I looked at the stars and wondered, I looked at animals and plants and wondered, I looked at history and wondered… So I read books and magazines and found out about the night sky, constellations, the moon and planets. Ultimately, I started reading about Cosmology. Where did the universe come from and all that stuff. Those subjects are not easy, either from a science/maths point of view, or from a philosophical, get-your-head-around-it point of view. Take the Big Bang theory. We have to ‘believe’ that 13.5 billion years ago, everything was nothing, until it exploded, and there’s plenty of measurable evidence to support that contention. Rather than mess my head with numbers, I particularly enjoyed reading Isaac Asimov’s many articles which explained complex science to intelligent lay people like me, without peppering us with too many mathematical formulae.

That’s why I’m delighted with the Science of Discworld books; real science iced with a bit of Discworld. I’ve just finished The Science of Discworld 4: Judgement Day, by Terry Pratchett and Doctors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, which delves into Cosmology and Divinity. I’m not going to discuss God. I don’t care what others choose to believe, but I don’t. End of argument. What I’m very happy to discuss, though, is dark matter, dark energy and fractals.

One thing I’d noticed when reading New Scientist and the like, was the introduction of this stuff called ‘dark matter’ and a force called ‘dark energy’. It seems there wasn’t enough matter in the universe, and that certain interactions didn’t work as they should. With these two ‘dark horses’ introduced, the calculations worked as expected. I thought at the time that scientists seemed to be making up stuff so their equations would work. And in SoDW4, Cohen and Stewart said just that! They also mentioned the search for the elusive Higgs boson, and what scientists have – and have not – discovered from inferring the existence of something based on its destruction.

To me, Nature works by the KISS principle. It all looks very complex, but break things down far enough and it isn’t. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this is fractals, those beautiful, enigmatic patterns which go on forever, never quite repeating. We see them at work in coastlines, leaves, snowflakes, weather and the storms on Jupiter. You’ve probably heard of the famous Chaos weather butterfly (top left) which can cause storms on the other side of the world.  This video plunges into the most famous fractal of all, the Mandelbrot set. This BBC documentary explains the whole idea.

Cohen and Stewart included a chapter in their book, discussing whether the Big Bang theory had had its day. The need for additional constants to make the calculations work was one of the reasons given. Dark energy, dark matter and the Higgs boson are just three examples. I can’t help thinking that it’s not going to be so complicated. Nature isn’t like that.

One solution that makes lots of sense to a lay person like me, is that the Universe itself is fractal. I’d seen a tiny article in New Scientist to that effect, some several years ago. And now I’ve just found this slideshow. To me, it’s simple, and elegant. Circles and spirals, repeating patterns. Will it need dark matter and dark energy? I don’t know – but it sure does explain why the universe is lumpy.



A dark, warped mirror

I’ve just finished reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s latest, “Snuff”, a Discworld novel. Most people who know me are aware that I am a one-eyed, besotted Sir Terry fan and some people wonder why? I mean, let’s face it. The Discworld is a flat expanse riding on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a turtle. The place is so unlikely that only a powerful magical force keeps it going at all. And there’s witches and wizards. Pure, unadulterated fantasy. And he uses adverbs and long passages of exposition. Good grief, the man even has footnotes.

Right, you’ve had your sneer. Now consider yourself grabbed by the scruff of the neck and look at the Discworld. Look at its Dwarfs, Trolls, Werewolves, Vampires and Nac Mac Feegles. Look long and carefully at their lives and struggles, their politics and prejudices and what you will see gazing back at you is us. It’s a dark mirror, perhaps a little bit warped but you’ll recognise the players.

In this book I giggled at a six year old boy besotted with poo (well, they are, aren’t they)? I read the conversations between Sam Vimes, reluctant Duke of Ankh, Commander of the Watch, reformed alcoholic and one-time blackboard monitor from Cockbill Street in the Shades, and his patrician wife Lady Sybil, and giggled some more. They reminded me in many respects of my own conversations with my husband, accompanied by ‘yes, dear’ and knowing when to say nothing. Sir Terry described the machinations of a country manor house not with meticulous description but by playing out the interactions of the characters. He did the same with a country pub. As always, there is a mystery, which Sam notices because while he’s supposed to be on holiday, is a policeman ever on holiday? We have unlikely characters who discover that they could be heroes, prejudice in its most ugly form and politics at every turn. Vimes is the hero, of course, but he’s no Captain America. He is on the side of Justice despite having to prevent the dark side of his psyche from winning the internal battle. I was along for the ride, every step of the way.

And this without strict adherence to the Rules of Writing. There are no chapters, he uses adverbs and adjectives (although, it must be said, not excessively), he’ll tell you what the mood of the crowd is even though that’s outside the immediate point of view of the character, he’ll have sections of pure, unadulterated narrative as he explains certain points. And the footnotes; if you’re a fan like me, you’ll almost always read the footnotes as soon as they appear on the page. They’re always funny.

Sure, Sir Terry’s books are not to everybody’s taste. I’m sure he’d smile and shrug. When you’ve sold in excess of seventy million books, I guess you can afford to be magnanimous. One thing’s for sure – he’ll sell a hard back to me every time he has a new release.