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Terry Pratchett Is Not Fantasy

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Recently I decided to do something I haven’t done for quite some time – read a book because I wanted to. I know this may not sound like a big deal but when you review books all the time, there isn’t much time for reading for pleasure.

I had, for several months, been craving — if you can crave reading a book — to read something by Terry Pratchett, so that is what I picked up. A couple of days after I began reading my chosen novel – Going Postal in this case (Terry Pratchett is the author of more than forty books so choosing one can be fairly time consuming) – I was at the coffee shop, book in tow, having a coffee with friends.

When asked what I was reading – when you’re a critic everyone wants to know either what you’re listening to or what you’re reading – and I told my friend, she got a look on her face rather like she had been eating a lemon and said simply “I’m not into fantasy.”

Great A'Tuin“Neither am I,” I thought to myself.

It was then that I wondered how many intelligent, well-humoured, highly literate people are missing out on one of the wittiest, most talented, and engaging authors currently living simply because some publishing house dickhead decided that writing stories about a place where magic is real and that take place on a flat world, riding on the backs of four giant elephants, who are standing on the shell of a giant turtle named A'Tuin, as it slowly swims through space, is fantasy.
OK, in retrospect it can sound a bit fantasy-esque, but his stories aren’t. Well no more than any stories filled with wizards, witches, small gods, gnomes, golems, elves, the undead, werewolves, vampires and even death. And by death I mean DEATH the man, the anthropomorphic personification of death. You know the fella’, the Grim Reaper, The Angel Of Death, the guy with the long black cloak and scythe who will come for you when you die.

In Pratchett’s novels DEATH rides a giant white steed with a mane of blue flame named Binky (And what would you name your horse if you were DEATH?). Terry Pratchett’s DEATH is a rather sweet, kindly old-gentleman type man…person…whatever, who is rather curious about people and has a real love of humanity. And he is probably the most intelligent, multi-faceted and charming character in Pratchett’s entire arsenal of unforgettable and engaging characters; an array that is truly mind boggling.

The fact that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series are only actually a series because they all happen on the same world seems to have escaped many. But by this definition anything written by John Grisham or Stephen King would be a series because they all happen on Earth.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are as much fantasy as Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a biblical epic. Yes, a few are about regular, recurring characters but they aren’t ALL about the same set of characters. And although they can swim through novels in which they are not the primary character this just serves to demonstrate what a rich, complex universe Pratchett has created.

One example would be the city of Ankh-Morpork, a city-state that is as corrupt as its river is polluted. The river Ankh is so polluted you can walk on it and even slice it into sections; it’s a river that oozes rather than flows. Ankh-Morpork is the largest city and spiritual and economic capital of the Discworld as well as being the home of the Unseen University, the only magical university on the Disc. Ankh-Morpork has the feel of a working medieval city with flavours of the Flintstones, or Gilligan’s Island. With ingenious gadgets galore, frequently aided by magic of course, to make life that much sweeter.

Samuel VimesIt is also the scene of much, rather comedic violence as it is also one of the few cities on the Disc that is multi-cultural. And in this instance multi-cultural means Dwarf and Troll, Vampire and Werewolf living side by side, all natural mortal enemies of course – think cats and dogs with battle axes, clubs, blood-sucking fangs and nasty claws.

Luckily for the city they have the City Watch, local coppers led by Commander Vimes. A working-class born, man-of-the-people, with policing in his blood who has through marriage become, very reluctantly – not reluctant about the marriage just the titles — His Grace, The Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir SamuNobbyel Vimes and most recently His Excellency, Ambassador for Ankh-Morpork. Vimes is Dirty Harry with more dirty and less harry.  Ffeeling the city in his feet, through his boots, Vimes seems to believe that the city lives and breathes and he can tell when it’s holding its breath.

Helping Vimes is a rag-tag group who truly represent the multi-culturalness of the city and includes watchmen from all ethnic groups including dwarfs, trolls, werewolves and the undead. Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson is the muscle bound, six-foot-six, always-cheerful, unfailing honest dwarf – adopted by dwarves when he was a baby – who is possibly the lost heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork. Carrot helps keep peace along with his girlfriend Sergeant Angua von Überwald – werewolf.

And if that isn’t character enough there is always Cecil Wormsborough St. John "Nobby" Nobbs. The only human in the city of Ankh-Morpork to carry a certificate signed by the Patrician himself, verifying that Nobby is indeed a human, and probably the only person to need it. Nobby is the kind of man who steals from the dead, in fact he makes a habit of it. And he possesses the wisdom of every flat-foot through the ages which equals nil, particularly by mouth.

Lord VetinariAnd keeping all this barely contained anarchy running smoothly is the Patrician, Lord Havelock Vetinari. With an interesting array of by-hook-or-by-crook tactics — usually by crook as they work harder when the other option is death – which includes letting Guilds run certain aspects of city life, i.e. The Assassins Guild, The Thieves Guild and most importantly The Seamstresses Guild – the kind of seamstresses who walk the streets and charge less if you use protection, if you get my point.

This is only one of the beautifully diverse places on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. His Discworld is as diverse as our round world, mirroring our societies with sarcasm and irony like only a Brit can; making fun of everything from the nature of belief, to the character of human nature using colourful characters and whimsical story telling as his props. He expertly and viciously points out all the ridiculousness that we cling to everyday, in a way that is intelligent, charming and inoffensive. Terry Pratchett is a man among gods. Small gods yes but gods notwithstanding.

All graphic art by Paul Kidby.

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About A.L. Harper

  • Danny in Canada

    “Oh, this can’t be Fantasy. Fantasy is all crap, but this is good! Whenever we find a book that looks like Fantasy, but is actually good, we invent a reason for it to NOT be Fantasy.”

    Special pleading disgusts me.

  • Aoede

    Perhaps he’s got it mixed up with a different Pratchett? Discworld elves are nasty and unpleasant and only appear in, what, two books?

  • Dr Dreadful

    Stomper, it doesn’t sound as if Baronius has actually read any Pratchett. He’s certainly not describing the books I know.

  • Stomper

    I disagree with your assessment of Pratchett. You are entitled to your opinion, even though your opinion is wrong.

  • Baronius

    Every genre’s credibility is hurt by its worst authors. Sci-fi carries the burden of 1930’s spaceship stories and some of the lousy Star Trek episodes. Fans do more damage to sci-fi’s reputation when they don’t recognize the difference between good and bad works. Let’s face it, some Star Trek episodes were awful.

    Who are fantasy’s worst authors? I would have thought that if there was one author we could agree to throw to the wolves, it would be Pratchett. He’s definitely fantasy, with the most off-putting feature of bad fantasy: whimsy. His writing has nothing to do with the characters or story. His books are only about one thing, the delight he has in his own preciousness. The one good thing about Pratchett is that his works are so forgettable. A few pages of more substantial writing (like the newspaper), and the bad writing smell washes right out.

    I agree with Stomper that fantasy, or any genre, speaks to universal truths. That’s what makes it relatable. Maybe some people reject fantasy because of the elves, but fantasy’s not about the elves. On the other hand, guys like Pratchett get a free ride from fantasy readers because he’s got elves. That’s just as wrong.

  • “I’m not a dress-up and pretend sort of fan. I’m not sure why those sorts of fans should cost an entire genre its credibility. I agree that they do, but I’m not sure why. I suspect that most people simply find it easier to laugh and sneer at the nerds than to appreciate the depth of the nerds’ admiration for a complex piece of story-telling.”

    I think the reason that it does discredit an entire genre would be for the same reason that dressing up as your favourite Star Trek character or say taking Kligon language lessons are not considered socially acceptable. Those activities are different from the social norm and we don’t live in a society were different is good. In fact many seem to think that different is a synonym for bad or wrong.

  • Stomper

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you make that distinction, though your headline suggests that you do. Rather, I was responding to your friend’s reaction.

    I’m not a dress-up and pretend sort of fan. I’m not sure why those sorts of fans should cost an entire genre its credibility. I agree that they do, but I’m not sure why. I suspect that most people simply find it easier to laugh and sneer at the nerds than to appreciate the depth of the nerds’ admiration for a complex piece of story-telling.

  • Stomp – I agree it would be ideal if an entire genre wasn’t tarred with the same brush. But for all that Fantasy and Sci-fi can open our minds and delve into those hidden and still taboo subjects as most other fiction does not (I don’t agree it can’t, but simply that it doesn’t) it isn’t always so.

    Fantasy authors like Anne McCaffrey have been tarring all fantasy with the same brush for years. It is easy to believe that McCaffery and others like her, those who are the best-selling public face of Fantasy and Sci-Fi are the rule.

    Sci-Fi has a bad image because of all those people who attend Sci-Fi conventions in full Kligon battle armour. And images of Conan the Barbarian and the like, that have for years graced the covers of Fantasy novels don’t help. It’s like an 80s heavy metal video, all huge tits and bulging muscles. We shouldn’t judge book by it’s cover, or an article by it’s headline, but apparently we are all guilty of that.

    I am a huge fan of authors who address the wrongs in our society with wit and grace the way that Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and even JK Rowling and Phillip Pullman have done. However there are “mainstream” fiction writers who address the same types of issue with humour and grace but don’t attract the same fringes of society and therefore are widely considered more socially acceptable. This is not right, but it is the case.

    I don’t take those authors listed above any more or less seriously than I take mainstream comedic fiction and even classic witty literature written by Voltaire, Chekhov, Austin, Robbins or Martel. All of whom have addressed with the same witty grace and ironic style, the issues of racism, political, social, and religious inequality.

  • gonzo marx

    ummm..anyone ever read “Gulliver’s Travels” by Swift?

    considered one of the standards of political satire…it would be on the Fantasy shelves today..would it not? at least by the criteria expressed in this thread

    don’t even get me started on some of Twain’s works

    just a Thought…


  • maggie

    How about instead we stop using “fantasy” or “science fiction” as a synonym for “crappy books”.

    Discworld is fantasy, and also amazing. Just deal with it.

    (Same to you, Atwood…get over your sci fi snobbery)

  • Stomper

    Nearly 25 years ago, two-time National Book Critics Circle Award-winnner Stanley Elkin sneered at fantasy (or science fiction — I can no longer recall which one) because it is not constrained by reality. I have never understood this attitude, and I am disappointed to see that it persists.

    A lab experiment suppresses variables in order to isolate (or at least highlight) a specific property or trait. Similarly, fantasy and science fiction milieus can draw our attention to our hidden assumptions, by challenging or highlighting those assumptions in ways other fiction cannot.

    For example, Pratchett’s “Nightwatch” explicitly and implicitly examines the social contracts that let a small number of law enforcement officers keep the peace in a vastly larger population. In the course of a well-told, dramatic story, Pratchett explores police-state tactics, cooperative anarchy, mob rule (NOT the same as cooperative anarchy), and the impact of the peace officer’s approach and psychology (in reinforcing or undermining that social contract). The primary villain is simply an amoral killer who refuses to participate in the social contract.

    Likewise, a fantasy milieu lets J.K. Rowling explore and explain racism, without actually introducing the issue of skin color. None of the teachers at Hogwarts are explicitly identified as belonging to racial “minorities,” but we still see the effects of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. We also see the effects of assuming that the “downtrodden” all want us to save them (i.e., centaurs and house elves).

    Good fantasy and science fiction is internally consistent, and it lays out the rules of its realm (implicitly or explicitly), so that the resolution flows from the characters and the plot, not from a “deus ex machina.” Many people are put off by this, perhaps because learning those rules for each book or series requires additional intellectual effort.

    Elkin’s dismissal seemed to reveal false assumptions and ignorance about the genre, but perhaps I am missing something. Is there a legitimate reason to relegate Fantasy and Science Fiction to “second-class” (or worse) status? Is there a valid justification for excluding these genres from “serious literaure”?

    Granted, some of the fans look silly, dressing in costumes and arguing over obscure details. But is that debate really any different than the kinds of arguments you might see between scholars debating a particular passage in Donne, Milton, Marvell, or Shakespeare? Perhaps fandom’s primary sin lies in actually having fun with literary explication, when the critics want it to be taken more seriously.

    I am a huge Pratchett fan, and his Discworld series has the unusual trait of improving with age. Most writers who find a following in these genres tend to rest on their laurels after an initial success, spewing out sequels that get worse and worse with each new story (Anne McCaffrey comes to mind).

    Pratchett’s writing, on the other hand, is more insightful, more entertaining, and more sophisticated than when he first began. “Thud,” for example, could have easily fallen into the standard action trope of the man who will go to any length to protect his family. Instead, we see a father’s deep love and dedication for his son, while eventually undermining that trope.

    I applaud and encourage those in the “literary establishment” who are willing to read Fantasy and Science Fiction, even if only for entertainment rather than for formal criticism. After all, we can’t expect the critics to take a work seriously if it is actually *shudder* entertaining, can we?

  • SnarkFish

    UU (Unseen University) isn’t the only magic school on the disc. There’s at least one other in XXXX (read The Last Continent)

  • I didn’t get the rushed feeling from Thud at all, except where Vimes was running across the city so he could read to his son of course. And then the carriage race up the mountains.

  • I agree, more Sybil would have been better, she is such a good character to balance Vimes against. But it was too short and felt rushed to me. Like Pratchett was trying to get it out while the political message in the story was still relevant to current events.

  • Steve – All the fantasy I have ever read, which admittedly is less than you obviously have, has been escapism. Never have I read a fantasy/Sci-Fi novel that in anyway mirrors my life or even has vaguely recognisable situations. I want to live in your world where horses must fly, wizards are real and Frodo could live next door.

    Fantasy and Sci-fi have always appeared to many, to be to Star Trek and Star Wars geeks what the romance novel is to a bored housewives.

    And here I am not talking about people who have seen the films, possibly know a few of the main characters names, but the people who line up for hours to go to a convention to discuss in nauseating detail, what the true meaning behind the, third lieutenant from the rights comments regarding the “relaxin’ missions” true nature, were all about.

    This article was to people who would otherwise avoid one of the wittiest, most intelligent authors writing today simply because of his “Fantasy” label. I should have thought that was fairly obvious to anyone.

    And as to your question about my credentials I would say that I am literate person who reads voraciously, and understands the true nature of literary tags, and what stereotypes they engender. Where as I think it is safe to say, you do not.

    Katie – I am looking forward to Making Money with baited breath. I loved Going Postal and have high hopes for the new civil service driven hilarity. I personally adored Thud, Vimes being a touchy, feely daddy made my heart melt, I just wish there had been more of Sybil in it. I like her.

    Josef – I will check out your book. I love the thought of there being a book genre called “Satirical pseudohistory” and I think we should try and make sure that this IS a genre.

  • Nice review, but I think you missed the point of what fantasy is and is not. Fantasy = not based in reality. There are all sorts of different kinds of fantasy, and Pratchett’s books are just one of those types. The problem is with public perception of fantasy. It’s not all Dungeons & Dragons, and one would hope that a fairly literate person such as yourself could recognize that.

  • Dr Dreadful

    That last comment addressed to Josef.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Well, there’s that whole nother sub-genre called ‘comic fantasy’, which your book probably belongs in along with the oeuvres of people like Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin and so forth. That one was only dreamed up because some people weren’t all that comfortable with Pratchett’s stuff being lumped as fantasy and let’s face it, a lot of his books strictly speaking aren’t, and now lots of people have headaches.

    I will certainly download your book as it looks like a Good Laugh. Nice shameless self-plug there. I like your style.

  • Renee MacGareghty

    I agree with Steve. I stopped reading science fiction at the age of 16. You only need an exceptionally fertile imagination, read the first paragraph of the Nicene Creed….”of all that is seen and unseen”, and the most recent publication, the “Secret.” People in progressed nations keep busy so as to avoid letting their minds go to these extremes. They know but they do not challenge. Nevertheless, the critique shows an exceptional talent. Can we have some of this talent in our politics.

  • I’d be interested in knowing whether you’d consider my novel to be fantasy or not, by these metrics…

    The Banjo Players Must Die

    I couldn’t quite figure out what genre to place it in, and you kind of have to for a lot of online services.

    I like to think of it as “Satirical pseudohistory” but sadly, such avant garde (ha!) genres are not very universally acknowledged.

    Anyhow, it’s worth remembering that the biggest contribution JRR Tolkien made was arguably bringing fantasy over to the respectable side of mainstreal literature. I don’t think there’s really much space left today for people who look down their noses at fantasy.

  • This is a fantastic article. I love Terry Pratchett and Discworld has always been an all time favorite.

    Have you seen the new one coming out? ‘Making Money’ (coming out next month) has the characters from ‘Going Postal’! I’m very excited about it. I was slightly disappointed in ‘Thud’ so I’m hoping ‘Making Money’ will be much better.

  • Steve

    I am curious about your credentials as a critic. All stories of the fantasy or sci-fi genre are just regular stories set in fantastic conditions. If they were stories that people couldn’t relate to their own lives, then they wouldn’t be popular.