Terry Pratchett and the Color of Magic

Terry Pratchett, best known for the Discworld novels, died yesterday. As a way to eulogize him, I thought I'd share some Discworld recollections with you, and invite you to share yours in return. I can't say I've read all 40 Discworld books, I stopped after about a dozen, through no fault of the writing, I hasten to add... You know how it is. Something resonates at some point in your life and you want to eat it all up, then things change, you get interested in something else, you'll never get to read everything you've ever wanted to.

But I did get into Discworld on the ground floor. I got The Color of Magic, the very first book, in the mid-80s before the second book (The Light Fantastic) ever came out. It was a hardcover from the Columbia Science Fiction Book Club, and that's the dust jacket above. I think I got it on the strength of the catalog's description, where it was no doubt compared to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I'd loved. And it WAS a little like that, only with fantasy. And I loved the idea of a flat world sitting on top of four massive elephants, themselves resting on a gargantuan turtle, swimming through space. It evoked Ancient Egyptian and Indian ideas of the cosmos. The story itself was an amusing trifle, enough to get the second book, which was okay.

But with the third book, Equal Rites, the previous protagonists (a less-than-competent wizard and Discworld's first tourist) were jettisoned in favor of new characters, and though Pratchett would return to the book's witches fairly often, each Discworld novel from then on might focus on an entirely different corner of his universe and a new cast of characters. He kept it fresh, and I was soon grabbing the paperbacks before the book club could ever offer sturdier versions - no waiting!

Call it heresy if you will, but I thought Hitchhiker's got progressively less funny and interesting, whereas Discworld got better over time. I suppose I should count myself lucky that there's so much left for me to discover - some 30 books just in the Discworld series and several more besides. We would all have been luckier still to have kept Pratchett on Earth and in health for longer.


Tim Knight said...

That's interesting what you say about the books getting better and better as, despite loving the idea of Discworld, I was never able to get past the first two.

When I had my extended stay in hospital about a decade ago I burned through a lot of Discworld audio books (read by Tony Robinson aka Baldrick) but these were abridged and didn't really do the stories justice.

Guess I need to conquer my obsession that giant works - like Sir Terry's 40-odd Discworld novels - have to be read in order.

I agree with you on Hitchhiker's. The books were pale imitations of the original radio series (I ignore the more recent efforts to revive the radio series as they're spun out of the later novels, which, as you rightly said, weren't much cop).

For me, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy will always be just the first two seasons of the radio show - from the '70s - and that is all. ;-)

Siskoid said...

You wouldn't have to make a big concession, Tim. Equal Rites is a huge leap from The Light Fantastic and already heralds the modern Discworld novel (as opposed to attempts at writing Douglas Adams sword & sorcery).

LondonKdS said...

I always thought the Adams comparisons were lazy and badly misplaced. As you said, the first two books have some faint "Hitch-hiker's Guide" similarities in concept. But the later books of both men made the difference very clear - Adams was a Capital-A Absurdist, with the essentially depressing nature of that approach to reality becoming increasingly clear. Pratchett, on the other hand, was a much more optimistic kind of existentialist, who believed (most explicitly and didactically in "Hogfather") that humans could create meaning in the universe through their lives.

Siskoid said...

Yes, I'd call Pratchett a satirist. Adams as absurdist is on point.

LiamKav said...

The thing that tripped me up was treating the whole thing as a series, when in lots of cases they are completely seperate but just happen to exist in the same universe. I really struggled with "Fifth Elephant", and it wasn't until a few years later that I realised I'm just not that interested in a Conan-style tour of the world. The stuff that deals with Ankh-Morpock trying to function as a real city, and move towards a modern idea of civilisation whilst fighting against the stereotypical fantasy trappings of the universe it exists in? Love love LOVE it. Most people I speak to like the Witches most, whereas I'm all about the City Watch. Men At Arms is one of my all time favourite books.

Unfortunately I'm bad at reading in general. I'll have a book by the side of my bed, but I'll play video games/read a comic/refresh twitter over and over again rather than read an actual novel. I've had "Nightwatch" next to me bed for two (three?) years now. I did attempt to start reading it last night, but I got a bit too emotional and couldn't do it.

Jeff R. said...

Heresy? I'm not aware of anyone who has an opinion northward of "not quite as bad as everybody things" on Mostly (c)Harmless, let alone thinking that the series improves as it goes. (I could argue for So Long as slightly better than Life, but it's a close run thing.) The Heretical (but true) Douglas Adams opinion is that the Dirk Gently books are superior to HHGtG even at their best.

Pratchett does improve greatly as he goes, yes.

I read the early books more or less as they came out in the US, first as part of a general appetite for humorous fantasy in general (I read Anthony, of course, Asprin, and even Craig Shaw Gardner). I think it was Pyramids and Guards, Guards that moved him up to one of my favorite authors. Then I started going to SF conventions and discovered that the US publishers were holding back on us; I wound up bring home three new books from one of the dealers who did imports and generally kept ahead until he finally got a simultaneous release deal going.

Siskoid said...

Liam: I know what you mean, which is why I only read when there's no snow on the ground, getting 80s minutes' reading walking to and from work.

Jeff: I could never get into the Dirk Gently books. I read them, but found them a little dull, to be honest. Probably a question of expectations, hoping for another Hitchhikers but getting a different animal altogether. Would probably like them more today than when I was a teenager. I, too, read a lot of comedy SF and fantasy, Asprin and Anthony among them. The latter's stuff was great fun and I read most of his series, but they feel juvenile today. I've grown up, I guess.

Bill S. said...

I actually read Monstrous Regiment first, which has the benefit of being a self-contained novel, and one that was good enough that I then started reading the entire series backwards. I want to say that I read the entire series up to that point at an absolutely ridiculous pace, with a book every other day over the course of a couple months. It's by far the most I've ever read in the shortest amount of time. What made it more ridiculous was that I was finishing up grad school at the time, and had plenty of other things that I should have been reading.

The further I went back, the less I found what it was that hooked me in the first place: the humanism, the city of Ankh-Morpork struggling to modernize, a strangely empathetic Death. I was surprised to read the Rincewind books, because when he had shown up in the other books, it was usually just as a cameo.

I haven't read the last couple books in the series yet. I suppose I will correct that now.


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