Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Book Report

Every so often, I start these little personal research projects. Not tied directly to anything I'm writing, necessarily, though there are usual tangential connections. Instead, they're usually areas in which I feel I should be better versed. The novels of a particular author, for example, or a particular television series, or whatnot. A few years ago I decided to revisit the works of Michael Moorcock, and so for a period of a month or two read nothing but his books (in the end, I read three dozen of them before I got distracted and had to set them aside--close enough to see the goalposts at the end, but not enough to reach them). A year and a half ago, or thereabouts, I decided to try watching all of Doctor Who from the beginning, but that project only made it a few months before going off the rails, and I didn't even make it to the end of the First Doctor's tenure.

It's been a while since I started a new project, and a couple of weeks ago I decided it was high time to kick one off. I chose the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. I started reading the Discworld books in college, shortly after Good Omens introduced me to Pratchett's work. I came for the Gaiman, as it were, and stayed for the Pratchett. That would have been in 1990, and between the UT library system and second-hand bookshops, I was able to read Discworld from the beginning, so that by the time Small Gods was published I had caught up with the new books. (Those were dark times for Pratchett fans, when the gap between the UK publication of a Discworld book and the US edition could be as long as years; thankfully there were a handful of genre booksellers in Texas who sold import editions, if the wait became untenable).

I kept up with Discworld religiously for a decade or so, reading each new book as it came out--which, at that point, was at a rate of one or two novels per year--along with buying all the maps, the guides and companion volumes. If you've ever read one of Pratchett's novels, I don't have to explain the appeal, and if you haven't read one of them, you should stop reading this now and go find one. In addition to being the finest satirist in the English language in decades--arguably since Twain--Pratchett is an accomplished stylist, capable of writing the most effective--and effecting--endings of any writer I've ever encountered. The level of imagination and invention in Discworld is unparalleled, I think, and that's without considering the kind of social and cultural commentary he works in about our world.

In any event, I was for years obsessed with Pratchett's work and with Discworld in particular. But about nine years ago, things went off the rails, and the pace at which I was able to read Discowrld books was overtaken by the pace at which Pratchett was writing them. I kept buying the books in hardcover, putting them on the To Read shelf, and waiting to find time to read them, but year followed year and the time just never seemed to arrive.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to browse through an out-of-town used bookstore I hadn't visited in years, and found a couple of Discworld books I hadn't picked up yet--including Paul Kidby's Art of Discworld and the one Discworld map I hadn't bought yet, the Lancre one. I brought them home and flipped through them, and had a sudden yen to read a Discworld book again. But having been away for so long, I had forgotten a lot of the minor characters, as well as a major character or two. And thinking back, I realized it had been nearly two decades since I read the first half-dozen of the books, which I could recall now only dimly.

Luckily, I had the books there on the shelf, and it only remained to find time to read them. Fortunately for me, I had just turned in a big project, and had a bit of breathing room before starting on the next one, and so I started in on The Colour of Magic right away. In the weeks since, I've made my way through the first six books in the series, reading in publication order--The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, and Wyrd Sisters. I'm having to take a break for a couple of weeks, to read a big stack of Warhammer 40K novels and change the shape of my head a bit, but as soon as I'm able I'll be starting up again (though I may start reading them out of order a bit, when I do).

What's refreshing about revisiting these early Discworld books after so long a time is how well they hold up. Clearly you can see Pratchett working out the possibilities of the world and the kinds of stories he can tell in it, and the first couple of books are more limited than the later installments as a natural consequence, but even in them the level of invention is alarmingly high, with huge, clever ideas whizzing past every few pages. And by the time you get to Equal Rites, Pratchett is doing things with language that just dazzle.

As I've said, if you've never read a Pratchett book, what are you waiting for? And if you have, how long has it been? Well, as the chili commercial used to say, "Partner, that's too long."

Now, a few links of Pratchett-related interest, some recent and some of a somewhat older vintage:
As a final closing note, I should point out that I once had a chance to introduce myself to Pratchett at a convention, but somehow got it into my head to do so in the worst possible way. I won't sully the internets by recounting the humiliating details here, but for the price of a beer at a convention I'll happily tell the story to anyone who'll listen.


I started reading the series several years ago but I only got up to Reaper Man before I went away from it. I really liked them and should get back into it.
I'm curious to reread Reaper Man, all these years later. I felt at the time, and for years after, that it had the best ending (that is, the best last few pages/paragraphs) of any novel I'd ever read. I'll be interested to see if that's still the case.

(And for anyone playing along at home, it was my opinion for about the same years that Jonathan Carroll wrote the best openings of any novelist; I'd have to revisit them, too, to know for sure, but I seem to recall touting Outside the Dog Museum and Sleeping in Flame as having particularly good opening lines.)
You have to love Pratchett, but those first couple of books are weak compared to what came after. You're right -- Equal Rites is where we really see the power of his imagination.

I had picked up the first two books in paper in the UK while on visits, and never looked back.

Still, hard to determine which of the sub-series are my faves and I enjoyed the Science of Discworld books too.
I just picked up the first Science of Discworld book last week, actually, but haven't had a chance to do much more than skim through it yet. Looks good so far, though.
Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen are great (have you read their SF? Read Heaven).

The second volume, Science of Discworld ii: The Globe may be the best.

Go for the science, stay for the narrativium.
I've not read Stewart's and Cohen's stuff before now, I don't think. I'll have to hunt down a copy. Thanks for the tip!
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