Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my on-going complete Discworld re-read project

…I don’t know what to say about this one.

It’s a frustrating novel, this. For two thirds of the book, it is in many ways among Pratchett’s best. It’s funny, it’s very pacey, it’s weird, it’s interesting, it’s intellectual. Surprisingly intellectual – I couldn’t help noticing that some passages come very close in content to another book I’m reading at the moment, John Wisdom’s once-seminal (now largely forgotten) classic of Oxonian analytical philosophy, Other Minds (though this says as much about Wisdom as it does about Pratchett, I think).

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Then it all collapses. Pratchett doesn’t seem to have planned ahead to incorporate any sort of coherent ending. He gives it a go, to be sure, but this basically amounts to 100 pages of “run over here!”, “now run over there!”, “do something deus ex machinaey!”, “run around in a circle a bit more!”, “repeat that bit from earlier in the novel only now it’s later in the novel so it must be more important”, “have something completely irrelevent happen”, “let’s just run around really fast a bit more,” and “ok I don’t know where this is going let’s just have something cute happen, that’ll keep’em happy.” It’s simultaneously dull and exhausting, and I’d say it was slightly confusing but I won’t because that implies that under the confusion it did actually all make perfect sense, and I’m not sure that it did.

Oh, and the finale’s obviously very big and serious and important… so why not punctuate it with some really stupid jokes about how women are all obsessed with chocolate and can’t stop eating it, and then let’s have a female character scream and twist her ankle at an important moment. Oh, and themes, we’ll need some of those, only why not reverse a bunch of them right at the end so that it’s not clear what the point of any of it was? Yes, that sounds like a plan.

And then you notice the problems that were actually there all along. Like the plots. There are three plots – two only tangentially related, and one that’s claimed to be related but seems like an excuse for some very dull, repetitive humour. One of these plots only happens at the end, out of the blue, and another of the plots basically disappears for the entire development section of the novel.

Which leaves us with one plot, with two characters. This plot itself isn’t all that great, since at its core it just goes back to copying the plot of The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites (with nods to the plot of Sourcery): travel rapidly from the Ramptops to Ankh-Morpork to prevent the world being eaten by the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but nobody is going to know how exactly until everything works out for the best in the end somehow thanks to magic, only this time the Things have been renamed. [Or, more confusing, the enemies this time around are heavily implied to be a species of Things, even though they’re completely unlike Things in every way except in the role they have in the plot]. And did I mention that the way that everything works out for the best in the end is basically a matter of people saying “I just know we should go over there and do such-and-such even though I don’t know why” and they do and it’s all OK; it’s kind of like the Rincewind plot in The Last Continent in that way, and that’s not a compliment.

That plot could be OK if it had the right characters. Instead, it has Lobsang and Lu Tze. Lu Tze recurs from Small Gods, but with more spotlight on him he shows himself to just be Granny Weatherwax in drag and with the accent from a martial arts film. He’s also even more pompous, narcissistic and… well, a bullying arsehole, frankly. Imagine the worst of Granny and Vimes put together into a vaguely racist caricature. This actually wouldn’t be a problem, since he does provide some comic relief and he can move the plot along – the problem is that the author seems to agree with the character (and everyone who has ever heard of the character – one of the least appealing habits Pratchett has is the way he has Lesser People fawning over how wonderful his heroes are, and that makes up a major percentage of this book) that the character is the greatest thing on the planet, so we get a hell of a lot of a guy who would have worked wonderfully if kept more in the background. He even gets his own incessantly-repeated catchphrases, as though this were a comedy from the 70’s. [In the process, Pratchett revisits a throwaway gag from a much earlier novel and fleshes it out. I can see why he did this, and I understand his Thematic Point, but to be honest it worked better as a one-off joke than with an entire novel devoted to it… then again, that could be said of a lot of his later work, couldn’t it?]. And Lobsang? I can’t criticise Lobsang as a character, because he isn’t one. He’s a walking plot device. He’s got probably the least personality of any of Pratchett’s main characters so far.

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So how could I have thought the book was so good, if the characters are so flawed? Well, the thing is, for running around in the middle of a book, these are pretty good characters – a little irritating, but mostly pretty good. Right balance of ability and inability, of humour and seriousness. The difficulty is when we get to the end and expect these characters to be able to bear the strain of the novel’s emotional arc… and they can’t. The end struggles to a large extent because I don’t care about these people, or even really understand who they are [Granny works because she’s that imperious old woman in the village, only more so; Vimes works because he’s the dogged guy we know who won’t give up, only more so; Lu Tze doesn’t work in part because I don’t know any caricatured enlightened Buddhist ninja monks from a bad comedy martial arts film, and Lu Tze is one of those but even more so]

It’s helped out at the end by the return of Susan. It’s not helped out by what Pratchett has done to her: first by turning her from a strong-willed, no-nonsense woman into an arch-conservative petty fascist harridan (her school career being mostly an excuse to bitch about New Labour education policies and how it were all much better when he were a lad and they had proper discipline and respect and none of this being nice to people or encouraging them shit – which come to think of it is really odd coming from a man who grew up under the education system he’s lamenting the loss of, and who as a result was a failure at school who did all of his learning by himself in a library instead…) and then, just when we’re coming to terms with that (well OK, people grow up, sometimes not attractively, and we can see her point of view in the circumstances and maybe that sort of thing sometimes is for the best?) she’s warped again into a weak-willed, hypocritical and-because-she’s-a-woman-she’s-obviously-obsessed-with-chocolate-and-a-glutton butt of stupid jokes. Yet even this version of Susan is still ten times more interesting and appealing than I-can-barely-remember-his-name Lobsang…

So, this is a great example of why endings matter. I would be writing a completely different review if he’d pulled off the ending, because these things you can gloss over if it all seems to work. When it doesn’t…

But I have to be fair. I may be annoyed with it now that I’m writing the review, but at the time I really enjoyed most of this novel, and even the ending was only… disappointing. Maybe a bit frustrating. Not, at any rate, infuriating. My reaction was only “really? is that it?” rather than book-hurling rage.

And before we get to the finale, there is so much to like here. There are some great funny lines, but there are also some really great meaningful, beautiful, or moving lines. There’s a fantastic cameo from a favourite character from another part of the world. There’s some really interesting thinking about, not the meaning of life, which is such a boring question, but the nature of human life, which is something less commonly inquired about but a far more beguiling topic. And where I think the novel does actually excel the rest of the cycle is when it dips into serious horror territory: it’s not frightening, but some parts are genuinely horrifying – unnerving, off-putting. Chilling.

It’s also, incidentally, extremely cinematic. Pratchett has always had a lot of visual content, but in the earlier books this was undermined by some sketchiness, and a great deal of content coming in the form of a sardonic narration. Here, more of it is on camera, and it’s easier to imagine the blocking and the pacing and the cutting. I thought about The Truth that much of it would look great on film, but that’s even more the case here. Lots of dutch angles needed in the horror sections, though! And close-ups! And may I suggest black-and-white after you-know-what happens? But colour for the chocolate shop, of course.

Ooh, the bit in the art gallery. Someone needs to film this, they really do. Bits of it, at least. And I say that as someone who knows how bad most of the film adaptations of Pratchett have been. May I suggest a collaboration between Wes Anderson and zombie Carol Reed?

Of course, the easiest way to adapt it would just be to cut the first two thirds of the book, because although they’re the least problematic bits they’re also, come to think of it, more or less just filler…

So anyway, please don’t think I’m ranted about this book because it’s awful. I’m not. It’s not. I’m ranting about it because it could have been great, but isn’t.

It’s a very Pratchettian book, really. Most of what makes him a great author is here. Wonderful sardonic, romantic prose, insights into the human experience, great ideas along the way, plenty of laughs. But there’s also a lot of what sometimes gets in the way of his greatness. Erratic plotting, a habit of lazily going broad when he’s not sure what else to do, weak endings, confused themes.

It’s a novel that is, in particular, quite at odds in its project from what came immediately before. The Truth, as I said in that review, reads very much like a manifesto for a new Discworld; Thief of Time reads like a straggler from the old, more spectacular, magical Discworld. It’s a tension that Pratchett seems on some level to have realised himself: this is the last outing for Susan and the ‘Death’ books. The cycle of perspectives (Witches – Watch – Susan – Rincewind, with the more personal ‘Jingo’ and ‘The Truth’ inserted into the rotation at random) that had dominated the middle portion of the series has now well and truly broken down: the Witches and Susan/Death have now both been dropped, and Rincewind’s final appearance in the next installment will be abbreviated, shared, and his last (as a POV character; he makes one more cameo later on). Only the Watch remains; and that series has already reached its natural conclusion.

As a result, this is a time of crisis for Discworld. And crisis can be an exciting, stimulating thing, as creativity sparks, trying to find its route to earth through some new locations. The results can be surprisingly great… or surprisingly bad. Or sometimes, as in the case of this book, both at once.

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Adrenaline: 4/5. Pacey action-adventure that kept me gripped, at least up until the morass of a final act.

Emotion: 2/5. Didn’t really care about anyone, and not much happened to them anyway.

Thought: 4/5. Doesn’t go off on formal lectures much, but packs a good deal of… well not thought exactly but, more interestingly and authentically, thinking.

Beauty: 5/5. Both some really great writing and some really beautiful scenes being written about – both attractive beauty and horrifying beauty.

Craft: 4/5. Honestly, I think Pratchett’s writing at this point is at the highest level. But the end – and the weaknesses in plotting and characterisation that the end reveals – lets him down.

Endearingness: 3/5. Right now, I want to say 2/5. Because I got quite frustrated and… put-off… by the final act. On the other hand, I did really enjoy a lot of what went before, so that wouldn’t really be honest. A par score overall, I feel.

Originality: 3/5. Not very derivative of existing stories… but quite derivative of himself in many ways. Some very good ideas, but also some that have become rather too comfortable.

OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. Much, much better than I remembered it being: I think all my gripes from the first read stuck in my memory, but the good things – which are after all harder to talk about – I had forgotten. The book is actually much more mixed than I thought it was. It’s probably only a hair worse than The Truth, and if that one was just over the line into ‘very good’, this one, which would have been on target to better its predecessor for much of the book, dips down at the end into merely ‘good’. I do think it’s important to stress that while I try to make these numerical grades commensurable, the verbiage of my reviews will always tend toward grading on a curve. From any other author, I’d probably be raving about how good it was. Even from Pratchett earlier in his career, this would really stand out. I have it ranked higher than almost all the first ten Discworld novels, for example. But at this stage of his career, it feels like a disappointment, like less than he is capable of – less than he delivered two books ago with The Fifth Elephant, and indeed less than the potential shown by this book itself. It’s a book with some great ideas, and some great passages… but it is not itself a great book.

I don’t even…

…what? what’s happening? HOW is it happening?

Looking at the election results, the polls… everything makes no sense. It makes no sense, people! On any level!

…I think I’m going to have to go to bed and hope that this was all some sort of hallucination.

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett

It’s a remarkable book, The Truth. That’s not saying anything about how good it is – just the fact that it is. This is, as is proudly and prominently displayed not only on the cover of the hardback but even on the inside lining, the 25th Discworld novel. Twenty-five novels in one setting! That’s impressive. But what’s remarkable is that The Truth doesn’t feel like the 25th novel in a series: it feels like the first.

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Pratchett is certainly aware of what has gone before. The very first line of the book, after all, is a call-back to the opening section of The Colour of Magic, published 17 years earlier. It’s not the first such reference: the book is filled to the gills with knowing winks and nods, most of them so well-crafted that anyone who didn’t know the joke wouldn’t spot that the joke was there at all (my favourite was the innocent, unaware call-back to the climax of Men at Arms). It’s a craft that extends, incidentally, to most of the pop-culture references – unlike the blunt force humour of books like Men at Arms or Guards! Guards! the allusions in The Truth are made much more subtle. Though not necessarily any less brazen: the entire novel hinges around a repeated near-quotation from Mark Twain.

But Pratchett at this point knows the difference between honouring the past and obeying it. I said in my review of The Fifth Elephant that that novel felt very much like the end of Discworld… well, The Truth feels very much not only like the beginning of a new Discworld, but like the intentional beginning of a new Discworld. Most blatently, just as in Soul Music Pratchett lampshaded similarities to Moving Pictures to emphasise that the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions wouldn’t be coming back, here he lampshades, right at the start, similarities to Moving Pictures and Soul Music (and more indirectly to Reaper Man also), to stress that we are no longer in a reset-the-world-at-the-end-of-the-book universe… and what’s more, we’re no longer in a magical, metaphysical world either, now we’re in a world of hard facts and facing up to reality. There are, to be sure, magical elements around the edges in this novel, but it will not be driven by incomprehensible forces from beyond the dawn of man, and nor will it be resolved in that way.

But the remarkable thing isn’t even so much the bold authorial decision to use his anniversary novel to take his world in a wholly new direction; it’s the enthusiasm with which he does so. Because if there’s one thing that leaps from the page here, it’s enthusiasm. No, actually it’s more specific than that: it’s fury. It’s not perhaps entirely clear who or what Pratchett is furious about, and I don’t think he’s entirely sure either – if Pratchett does have one constant fault, it’s a lack of a fully coherent ideological framework to hang his passions onto – but he’s clearly mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more. Despite several critics having latched onto this ‘Pratchett was angry’ idea since his death, I can’t say it’s honestly something that comes through that much in most of his books. Grumpy, yes, politically and morally agitated, yes, and didactic as a consequence, but that agitation is usually kept hidden under an obscuring veil of gentleness, gentility, humour, and mannered stiff upper lip. The Truth is Pratchett mad in a way I don’t remember having read since Small Gods.

If it feels perhaps a more personal book, there’s an obvious reason for that. The Truth is a novel about journalism – and Pratchett was a journalist for many years. I’m tempted to say, a real journalist – he worked at a local newspaper. The novel therefore is filled with a duality, a duality that come to think of it is often at play in Pratchett: the conflict between the small and the personal (the local residents Pratchett reported on, interviewed, and was read by) and the big and important (the national and international issues that helped shape the lives of those residents). In Lords and Ladies and in Men at Arms, first Granny and then Carrot tell us firmly: “Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is.” It’s an ideology of selflessness and the big picture that Pratchett never abandons… but he also seems to have doubts about it, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Truth. What local journalism must constantly remind you, I think, is that for the little people in the street – which is to say everybody, in the end – the personal can be very important indeed.

The Truth is unusual in having a great big unresolved ideological clash right in the middle of it. So often, Pratchett writes as though he Knows Best, even if what he knows is not always totally consistent. But in The Truth, we have a clash of views that is never really resolved. It bursts into life in a big ideological debate in which Our Hero is rebuked for failing to understand the importance of everyday life to ordinary people, chastised for expecting people to care about politics when they’re on the edge of starvation. It’s an argument that the hero is able to answer… but crucially there is no real sense that we’re expected to believe that he has refuted it. He merely does enough to keep his case alive until another day, another argument that we never quite get to. Yet this isn’t everything, either. These two ‘idealistic’ viewpoints are themselves put up against two different sorts of pragmatism – those of Vimes and Vetinari.

The Truth has perhaps the protagonist who feels closest to being Terry Pratchett himself, in budding journalist William de Worde. Curiously, de Worde’s biography is eerily close to that of Rudyard Kipling – privileged background (relatively speaking, in Kipling’s case), horrible boarding school (nightmarish, combined with abusive foster parents in Kipling’s case; normal public school horribleness for de Worde), constant pressure to always tell the truth (to pathological consequences for Kipling), followed by running away from responsibility and parental expectations to become a journalist at a young age (Kipling was 16 when he fled back to India). Then again, this may just be close enough to a conventional case history biography for an educated Englishman of the era that it may be just coincidence.

De Worde is, regardless of who his inspirations may or may not have been, a fascinating and appealing protagonist. But his real significance may be in who he isn’t: he isn’t Sam Vimes. The Truth was, apparently, originally written as a Watch book, and indeed its general outline is a very familiar Watch mystery, not far from the plot of Feet of Clay. But, just as with Granny and Rincewind, the character of Vimes is running out of energy at this point. I said in my earlier review that Vimes should have been retired after The Fifth Elephant (with Night Watch as an acceptable coda), not just because the character had become repetitive but because his rise from beaten-down underdog to all-conquering invincible hero has damaged both the plotting of the books (it’s been getting harder and harder to propose any viable threat to Vimes, without taking him too far into supernatural territory where his character doesn’t really belong) and the ideology of the series. An underdog who wins through ruthlessness and force is a message of defiance against the establishment; an establishment enforcer who wins through ruthlessness and force is a brutal tyrant. Vimes came dangerously close to crossing that line in The Fifth Elephant; and Pratchett seems to have realised it. William de Worde isn’t just a replacement for Vimes, he’s a counterweight for Vimes. De Worde is here, bluntly, because somebody needs to be able to stand up to Vimes.

Of course, the idea that William could stand up to Vimes is somewhat farfetched; indeed, there’s a strong atmosphere of naivety throughout the book when it comes to the power of the press (and that’s saying something in a book where the impotence of the press is a running theme!). This is understandable in the historical context, however. The Truth came out in 2000. Pratchett had become used to a safe, placid, liberal world of IRA bombing campaigns on English soil, of assassinations of government ministers and near-assassinations of the Prime Minister, of aeroplanes hijacked and aeroplanes shot down on a regular basis, of police brutality, of the Cold War, of the constant threat of foreign spies, of the possibility of nuclear armageddon at any moment; only two years into the New Labour reign, he probably couldn’t have imagined the ‘unprecedented security threats’ of the new world that would escalate year on year, making the country more and more dangerous the fewer terrorist incidents actually occurred, and hence he has a charming faith in the ability of the press to remain free. When the cops in The Truth debate whether they have the power to insist William not write about something, they conclude that they do, but they don’t have the power to stop him from writing that they told him not to write about it…

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…Oh, silly watchmen, the modern reader will cry. Of course you can stop him, have you never heard of a superinjunction? You can stop him writing about the story, stop him writing that you stopped him writing, and then stop him writing that you stopped him writing about being told to stop writing, ad infinitum! How strange this passage will seem to future readers! If Vimes were operating under the Blair, Brown or Cameron regimes, he wouldn’t have to worry about all these niceties. These days he could simply secretly arrest a suspect, interrogate them secretly without a lawyer present, have a secret trial, without a jury, with a personally handpicked judge, present secret evidence that the secret judge isn’t allowed to see, from secret sources the judge can’t be told about, arrive at a secret judgement, sentence the criminal secretly, and secretly imprison them at an undisclosed location for a period of time at their own, secret discretion, and any journalist who attempted to report any element of this could themselves be subjected to the same process. Now it’s true that Vimes is having to operate under Lord Vetinari, a Macchiavellian mediaeval tyrant with no respect for human rights who has street performers brutally tortured out of personal whimsy, so it’s fair to assume the regime will be substantially more liberal and forward-thinking than any political party in the UK today. But it does stretch credibility that an absolute ruler like Vetinari and an old-school policeman like Vimes would be quite so accomodating to the rival power of a free press.

Similarly, the whole plot of the novel rests upon an assumption of Vetinari’s impotence; and while it’s nice to actually see his political (and physical) superpowers have some limits, they need to be presented with more reasoning and development to be believable. Instead, as they seem to be assumed purely for plot purposes, the result is an apparent failure of continuity and characterisation.

But maybe Pratchett doesn’t care. There’s something not quite right about a lot of the characterisation here, although much of that could be handwaved away by appealing to the new viewpoint of William – of course the characters look a little different when seen through new eyes. At times, though, it seems to go beyond that, most eggregiously in a scene where Vetinari launches into an out-of-character comedy routine to allow Pratchett to contrast the New Discworld against the Old. The dialogue all works, it just doesn’t make sense as Vetinari’s dialogue.

It’s only a small point, but it gets to the core of a problem I have with this novel: yes, it’s a passionate book, but sometimes it feels as though the novel is too reliant on that passion. The passion can bend the plot; and indeed, the plot itself is thin (albeit complicated), heavily reliant on pop culture (it’s broadly a parody of All the President’s Men), and more an excuse to write the book than an actual virtue. It doesn’t even really work on an emotional level, since William, while a fascinating character, undergoes very little character development. It feels almost as though Pratchett was so busy talking about journalism that he forgot to include any emotional resonance or narrative arcs.

Having said all that, The Truth certainly isn’t a total failure. It’s a surprisingly funny book – there are some really clunking lines, a feeling that Pratchett is trying to go ‘broad’, but there are also a lot of laughs, including some quite clever ones. But the real saving grace is the villainous double-act of Mr Pin and Mr Tulip. William provides the grounding and the stakes, but Pin and Tulip manage to provide the menace, the plot, much of the comedy, and, unexpectedly, almost all the the emotional significance. They are both – Tulip in particular – glorious creations who just get richer and richer as the book goes on. As newcomers to the city, they also provide us with a much-needed look at how the Ankh-Morpork we’ve seen slowly develop in the earlier novels must appear to those not familiar with it; it’s a brilliant way to homage the preceding 24 novels while still feeling fresh, and it also helps give us sympathy for villains who are certainly bad people but who may also be out of their depth.

So I do I feel about the book as a whole? I’m not sure. It’s one of those books I really, really enjoyed as I was reading it, but that feels a little hollow in retrospect. It does feel fresh, and it feels promising, as though Pratchett knows where he is going next. There’s a real feeling of, to try to put it neutrally, looseness to the novel – a looseness that a critic might interpret as laziness or complacency, but that a fan might instead read as confidence and free-flowing creativity. In a way, there’s a little bit about it that reminds me of the very beginning of the Discworld – not, of course, in style or content, but just in that sense of an author exploring new ground.

In the end, despite the reservations that have emerged in my as I’ve written this review, I have to come down on the positive side. Perhaps I can put it this way: this is a novel where Pratchett opens up a new direction for his later books, and the problems of the later books can be seen in latent form here, as faint cracks when you look at it closely. But for now those cracks do not threaten the integrity of the whole. A limited but solid central character, a passionate, honest and knowledgeable debate about a topic close to the author’s heart, a good balance of effective humour, and above all two of the cycle’s greatest antagonists elevate the novel not only above its limitations but also above the pack. The Truth is a great read, and a very fitting 25th episode in the cycle: a novel that does justice to the past while at the same time looking forward to a bold and exciting future.

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Adrenaline: 4/5. It’s not an out-and-out thriller, but high pace, menace, and stakes combine to make it a gripping and exciting read.

Emotion: 3/5. Potentially a flaw in the book: characters are too static and the threats too distant in significance to really make the reader care. However, in the end the character arcs of the villains redeem this element for me, bringing the score up to par.

Thought: 4/5. There is – as is explicitly lampshaded – a degree of confusion about Pratchett’s views in this novel, but they are interesting and well-supported views. Though the core of the thinking here is about journalism, Pratchett takes his themes beyond that foundation, addressing fundamental questions of life, politics and literature.

Beauty: 4/5. Elegant and witty prose, striking imagery… but just a few too many clunking moments.

Craft: 5/5. I may have problems with the books, but I think they were problems that arose through Pratchett’s priorities, not through his capacities. In terms of what the author set out to do, I think the craft is almost spotless – prose, plot construction and so on are first-rate.

Endearingness: 4/5. Lack of emotional investment is probably what keeps this from being a book that I love. But it was a really enjoyable read, and one I’ll remember, too. Add the benefit of being more-or-less stand-alone, and I think this is one that cries out for re-reading.

Originality: 2/5. Probably the area where the novel is most lacking. Alongside the reliance on tropes and echoes from existing stories, there’s just too much of a feeling of repetition here. Certainly I wouldn’t advise reading Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Truth in close succession!

 

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. I was on the threshold with this one: very good, or only good? It’s right on the limit, but in the end I rounded up – after all, some of my hesitation is because I know Pratchett can do better. This broadly fits with my expectations for the book, and how I think it is, on average, regarded: probably not a contender for Best In Show, but a really solid, above-par outing nonetheless. And a novel of particular interest for Discworld fans for its place in the series.

Just a thought, on disagreement.

[I am just thinking out loud here; apologies if at times I am non-precise, or fail to use, or even incorrectly use, some element of technical jargon relevent to this subject.]

Sometimes, it is tempting to think, it is possible to disagree with everything a person says, and yet to be completely in agreement with them.

Consider two questions: first, whether it is murder for an individual to kill a person who would themselves otherwise be sure to unknowingly kill them (imagine, for example, someone about to unwittingly engage the machinary that will crush a person to death); second, whether all murderers should be condemned to prison for life.

These appear to be two very different, albeit tangentially connected, questions.

Imagine, however, that Alice answers the first question ‘no’ (that is, she believes that killing in self-defence is not murder, even if the victim did not intend to kill), and the second question ‘yes’ (all murderers should get life-sentences). Bob, meanwhile, answers the first question ‘yes’ (it is still murder even when done in self-defence), and the second question ‘no’ (some murderers should not get life-sentences).

It is possible in this situation, then, that Alice and Bob in fact agree on what should be done in all cases. In non-self-defence killings (without other countervailing factors), both agree on life-sentences for the perpetrators; both agree that there should not be life-sentences where the killing is purely in self-defence. Alice and Bob therefore agree on everything in practical terms, but their agreement is conceiled by the argument between them over the theoretical questions.

Meta-theoretically (so to speak), this situation results from the combination of two dilemmas. The first is an example of what, following W, we may call a ‘conflict doubt': the question “should we call it murder when it is done out of self-defence?” may puzzle us because some of our rules about the word ‘murder’ point one way (murder as killing without legal authority, or as killing the innocent), while other rules point the other way (murder as malicious, murder as chosen (and choice not applying where the alternative option is death)). Some people may feel no doubt for this precise question, but the question could probably be adjusted to find their own point of definitional equipoise (suppose the victim, for instance, intends to harm the soon-to-be-killer, but does not realise the harm would be fatal; or suppose the soon-to-be-killer reasonably believes the soon-to-be-victim is trying to kill them, though in fact they are not). In any case, situations of societal doubt, or conversational doubt, where the protagonists in a disagreement cannot come to an easy consensus on the matter, can arise even when an individual is able to resolve the question for themselves. Such doubts, W says, resolve into indecision: they are debates in which we – individually or collectively – must decide how to use a certain word. The second dilemma of the pair is then a practical dilemma that makes use of the term about which there has been doubt in the first dilemma. The significance of the second dilemma therefore depends on which path has been chosen in the first dilemma.

 

Such issues are conversationally problematic, because it may appear that the two parties are disagreeing over fundamental questions of ethics, when in fact their practical beliefs appear to be the same. [Note that the conflict doubt does not inherently have ethical consequences. Bob and Alice may agree entirely on the morality of the case in question, but simply disagree whether the word ‘murder’ is an appropriate description of it]. In particular, if Alice and Bob do not explicitly raise the first question, the question of the definition of murder, they may not understand that their passionate disagreement over the second question masks concordance in the realm of practical beliefs.

 

And now we can imagine a third person, Clive. Clive agrees with Bob over the first question, the question of murder – they agree that this form of killing in self-defence is murder. But Clive agrees with Alice over the second question – they agree that all murderers should be given life-sentences.

On the face of it, Clive is a moderate, who holds a compromise position somewhere between Alice and Bob – he agrees with part of what Alice says, and with part of what Bob says. And if the two questions are raised independently – if Bob only confronts the first question, and Alice only confronts the second question, each may believe they have found an ally in Clive, and will prefer Clive to Alice/Bob. If Clive is a politician, for instance, who succeeds in focusing Alice’s attention on one part of his platform and Bob’s on another, he may be succesful in gaining their votes.

But of course, in reality Clive’s practical positions are directly opposite to those of Alice and Bob. Regarding this man in the newspapers they have been reading about, who had to kill a man to save himself from death at the hands of an industrial dough-mixer, not realising that his victim was not himself actively trying to kill him… well, Alice and Bob agree that he should not be handed a life-sentence, but Clive believes that he should. So Clive may on the surface, and truthfully, give the same answers to some questions as does Alice, and to some other questions as does Bob, but in practice his positions are exactly the opposite of theirs.

This may be innocuous, where Alice and Bob (and Clive) are able to quickly see that the issue at hand is how these two questions work together – how their beliefs about the punishment for murder depend on how they define murder. But in many cases, they are not able to see this at first. The definitional dispute that gives rise to the apparent practical disagreement between Alice and Bob, and the apparent partial agreement between Clive and Alice and between Clive and Bob, may be, as it were, several stops down the road, hidden behind several layers of intervening beliefs and arguments. Indeed, in many disagreements people likely do not begin with clear and obvious ‘definitional’ questions, but rather the definitions in question lie hidden within the interactions between other beliefs. The ‘conflict doubt’, then, may never in fact be opened up into open conflict, but remain a concealed ambiguity, shaping the significance of all related questions, without anybody ever addressing it explicitly. In these cases, it may be extremely hard to see when a superficial disagreement about one thing in fact masks an underlying agreement on practical terms, warped by an unstated disagreement over the extent and limitations of this or that word. This is particularly the case in real arguments between two independent positions, in which many words may be used in subtly different ways, and as a result the practical ramifications of the positions as complete systems of judgement may be extremely hard to unravel for the external observer. Sometimes, indeed, what appears to one participant to be a dilemma of definition is taken by another person as a practical decision, while what the first person believed was a consequence of a definition is taken by the second person to itself be a definition, and a source of consequences. Or perhaps some people are not entirely clear, even with themselves, which of their beliefs are definitions and which are consequences. Perhaps some are both.

 

And here is another practical consequence of this. When Alice and Bob argue on one question, Alice may apply great pressure to Bob to conform to her point of view, or at least to appear to conform – if we imagine Alice is in a position of power, either personally or through others who share her views. If Bob concedes the point, Alice may feel victorious, and virtuous – she has persuaded someone with noxious views to see the error of their ways and accept her, more admirable, point of view.

This feeling is understandable. But if Alice has indeed converted Bob on one issue alone, then she has not created a fundamental agreement between them. Quite the contrary. By persuading Bob on one superficial point, she has not made him agree with her in practical mattersshe has made him agree with Clive! Where there was an underlying consensus between Bob and Alice, of which they were not aware, her ‘success’ in converting him to her point of view on one question has in fact created a real disagreement between them on practical matters. A disagreement of which they will not be aware unless they continue to engage with one another on other matters, or discuss practical cases.

We may imagine that Bob has not actually been converted, but merely concedes the point in public. But now his public position is that of Clive, and he will be (unintentionally) adding to the pressure that people feel to agree with Clive. Every person of Bob’s persuasion, with whom she has no underlying disagreement but only a difference in arbitrary definitions, whom Alice persuades to publically concede her narrow point, becomes a voice furthering the overall position of Clive, with whom Alice has a real disagreement. Of course, in practice these discussions will not be so straightforward, and easy to analyse. Likely there are some real disagreements between Alice and Bob all along; they are merely less significant than those they have with Clive. The point remains, however, that by attempting to enforce orthodoxy on how one particular question is answered, Alice is not in fact bringing people to agree with her in practical matters, but rather the exact contrary of this. And unless the participants in this discussion freely discuss their answers to a wide range of questions – and are allowed to do so for each question, even when some answers appear ‘unacceptable’ to the consensus, due to fundamental differences in meaning, the counter-productive effect of this process of orthodoxy-imposition will never be uncovered.

 

Of course, it’s not only murder where these issues can arise. Consider one of W’s better-known philosophical connundrums: is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

We can pair this with a second question: should minced beef and garlic and onions ever be served in chopped-up, cooked-down fruit?

Alice, we may suppose, believes that a tomato is a vegetable. She finds the idea of cooking beef and garlic in fruit astonishing, and viscerally revolting – she is thinking here of course of beef mince in boiled apples, or perhaps some slurry of reduced strawberries. She is horrified when Bob suggests cooking such a meal – Bob appears to have no problem at all with cooking beef and garlic and onions in chopped fruit. But this is because Bob believes that tomatoes are a fruit – albeit a rather odd sort of fruit in some ways, taste-wise – and because he likes his rudimentary attempt at spaghetti bolognese. Bob believes he has found a friend in Clive, meanwhile, because Clive agrees that beef in fruit in this way is perfectly delicious. But Clive really is thinking of strawberries – Clive isn’t thinking of tomatoes, because Clive agrees with Alice that tomatoes are not a fruit. Clive agrees with Alice on one question, and with Bob on another, but really it is Clive who is fundamentally at odds with the pair on the practical question of what to eat for dinner. And if Alice persuades Bob that he must never cook meat in fruit, she will never again have that delicious beef ragu that Bob used to make for her.

 

We may distinguish then between what we might call categorical opinions – opinions expressed in terms of, and helping to define, certain terms, certain categories – and particular opinions – opinions regarding what to do in a particular case. Should John be given a life-term? Should we have ragu for dinner? These are particular opinions… and we may agree on these even if many of our categorical opinions – the opinions that, at least in questions of ethics and justice, we often think of as the foundation and justification of our particular opinions – differ wildly. Conversely, of course, two sets of categorical opinions, alike in almost all regards, may yield wildly differing particular opinions, if there is only a small but crucial difference in fundamental definitions.

And then perhaps we might want to note something odd: we cannot explain the connection between our particular opinions without resorting to the use of categorical opinions. This is why I chose the word ‘particular’. Any time we attempt to explain, ‘oh, I always do things like this in situations like that‘, we must always assume certain categorical definitions when we try to find words to specify this and that.

We may want to have a third category – general opinions – to express our belief that our particular opinions are not invented case-by-case but rather form coherent patterns. We would like to say it is not merely that we want to put this murderer in jail and that murderer in jail and so on for every murderer we are told about – we would like to say that we have a general opinion that murderers should go to jail, as a general rule. But we cannot explain or describe these general opinions except in terms of categorical opinions. In many, perhaps most cases, we would like to say that our general opinion is in fact the result of our categorical opinions. Perhaps we might say that this is the difference between something chosen – like the belief that murders should go to jail – and something unchosen, like a desire to eat beetroot. The general opinion about murderers flows from our categorical opinions about murder, justice, punishment, protection of society and so on, whereas our general opinion about beetroot – the summation of our particular opinion that eating that beetroot would be good, every time we see beetroot – does not seem to flow from categorical opinions, but only to be a persistent habit, a continuity not through entailment but through mere inertia of tastes.

And yet it seems strange to make categorical opinions so central, when as we have seen we may share our general opinions even when our categorical opinions differ through-and-through – indeed, perhaps it is easier to share general opinions when our system of categorical opinions is wholly different, rather than when it is almost shared. Perhaps we might want then to cast off categorical opinions as superfluous – neither necessary nor sufficient for our general opinions. We can believe that John, and Mike, and Ted should all go to jail for life without having the categorical opinion ‘murderers should all go to jail’, and we can also believe ‘murderers should all go to jail’ and yet not believe that John and Mike and Ted should all go to jail, even if there is no controversy over the facts of their cases. Or perhaps again we should merely cease to focus on specific categorical opinions – it is then the categorical system that entails the general opinion. To be sure, the same general opinion may be arrived at non-categorically, through some unconscious instinct, but it seems easy enough to distinguish these two cases in a fundamental way (but is it so easy?). The meaning of the definition only takes its full form – and hence only takes on its practical implication – within the context of the entire system of definitions. [In the case of science, we may speak of Duhem-Quine, and of Kuhnian paradigms]

Then, however, we may wish to examine this concept, complete categorical system. It is hard enough to gather what this may be in a practical situation – people do not preface their discussions with a disclosure of their complete categorical systems! But what can it even be in theory? We may imagine, for example, that a person may only infrequently call to their own attention many of their own definitions. This span between re-assertions of such definitions may be years (even if we assume for the sake of argument that it happens at all for all definitions). So if a person expresses an opinion, within that span of years, what does it mean? We must rely for its meaning on the complete categorical system, including those parts that have not recently been re-affirmed, nor will be in the near future. Can we simply take the ‘last known value’ for all parts of the system? Suppose a person’s opinion is later shown to have been ‘wrong’, whatever we can agree on this meaning. Given the complete categorical system they appear to have held at the time, their statement has a practical significance that appears… to disagree with reality, and to disagree with facts that the person does not deny. Fair enough then, they were wrong. But suppose the person says “oh, that’s not what I meant!” – “But it must be what you meant,” we say, “given your complete categorical system”. “Oh,” they explain, “that’s what I would mean by that if I said it today, to be sure, and what I would have meant by it if I had said it the day of my marriage. But right then, when I did in fact say it, in those odd few years immediately after I was born again, I used the words with quite a different meaning.”

What do we say to him then? Now, if we have him on tape discussion his definitions of things the day of the Objectionable Statement, we may put it to him – perhaps not undeniably, but at least persuasively – that he was being inconsistant. That he did indeed mean the words that way, and hence that his statement was inaccurate. But suppose that we do not. Suppose that the definitions in question are definitions that, quite believably, would not require conscious consideration for long periods at a time, and that the man did not in fact think about how he was defining the terms. How can we say then that he was wrong, and not merely using the words a different way? And not only that he was wrong in the sense of his words, as commonly being understood, being misleading, but that he was also wrong internally, that he was mistaken in his reasoning and not merely in his unusual choice of expression? The difference between his having been right and his having been wrong depends then on the exact content of his ‘complete categorical system’ at that time. But this is not merely a practical problem, of how we could know what was in his head at the time. It is a deeper problem: given that we agree that he was not consciously thinking of the relevant elements of his categorical system at that time, what does it mean, and what is the significance of it, to say ‘the categories he was employing were these, and hence his conclusion was incorrect’, rather than ‘his conclusion was correct, hence the categories he was employing were these‘. Given this problem, I am tempted to say that these two responses seem more like different approaches we may choose, rather than theories only one of which can be correct. And it seems to me that this is not a rare problem, but a continual one. Most of use do not consciously define for ourselves our categorical systems on an ongoing and updated basis; none of us do, perhaps none of us can, consciously define for ourselves our complete categorical system, and yet as we have seen it is only the complete categorical system that gives anything we say its practical significance – any element left unspecified may result in widely different implications.

And then again, all this assumes that disagreement over definitions only arises between individuals, and not within an individual. We may like to say that there are times when we ourselves do experience doubt over whether a word is appropriate to use in a certain case – whether, that is, the definition stretches so far. We might wonder whether such doubt could ever be comprehensively eliminated: for any set of rules about how to use a word, whether reasoning by deduction or by induction, it would seem that a borderline case could be proposed regarding which the rules are ambiguous. If such ambiguity and doubt is allowed to persist in even a small part of our categorical system, our categorical system is not complete, and hence our meaning is not determinate. And indeed it would seem that any attempt to address borderline cases through rules (rather than through the obviously futile task of addressing each individual case one-by-one) would require us to make use of other categories – our rules would themselves have a meaning dependent upon the complete categorical system of which the disputed definition formed a part, forming a vicious circle of ambiguity.

I do not mean to suggest that there are no viable solutions to these problems – perhaps we might insist on shared categorical systems and rule much of what we say meaningless (where our system is not perfectly shared), or perhaps we may simply accept our own ambiguity, and seek instead to find a way to limit that ambiguity to a tolerable level – though this would appear difficult. Or perhaps we may do away with general opinions entailed by categorical opinions and attempt to argue in reverse, from general to categorical. There are no doubt other options also. Yet none of them seem entirely attractive, at first glance.

These ruminations began with a practical problem; I think they have ended in more troubling, theoretical waters, as deep-seated practical problems often do.

 

Ten Authors Who Would Once Have Been In My Top Ten

As I explained earlier today a few days ago, I just can’t, honestly, make a list of my ten favourite authors. I can make it to three, maybe four, and that’s it. All the other contenders are either people I loved long ago but don’t love anymore, or people I might love in the future but haven’t read enough of yet.

But that got me thinking. If I can’t list my current top ten… how about a historical top ten? In a way, that seems more interesting, since that gives a story about myself, an actual arc. The authors can become more meaningful through a biographical context.

Or maybe I just like talking about myself.

Either way, that’s what I’m doing. Ten authors who would, in roughly chronological order, once have been among my favourite authors at a given time in my life. Except that this is me, and I’m terrible with respecting rules, so actually this is sixteen authors who were once among my favourites. I can’t promise that they would necessarily all have ever been my ‘#1’ author, but they would all have been up there. Here we go…

(oh, and this is just fiction, and just prose. No poetry, plays, non-fiction, or writing for TV or film)

GB

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien was the first author I read, and the one who set the foundation for everything else in my literary life, and indeed, at least symbolically, the rest of my life too, for good and ill. ‘Favourite’ doesn’t really do it justice. My first book – the first adult book I read for myself – was The Lord of the Rings, and I went on to re-read it at least once a year into my middle teens. I loved The Hobbit too, and later on The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales. I have two collections of his poetry. A book I found in Switzerland about his elven languages started me on my hobby of language-creation. (illustration: John Howe’s ‘The Fall of Gondolin’)

  1. Enid Blyton

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I didn’t only ever read Fantasy. And just because I started with Tolkien, that doesn’t mean I skipped childhood entirely. I read, or listened to, or was read, a whole bunch of kid’s books too. Lots of Roald Dahl. And I loved both the E. Nesbitt novels I read. But the one that stands out for me from my earliest years was Enid Blyton. I never read the Famous Five books (although I once had a book/game version of one of them – like a super-CYOA book, with dice and cards and stuff); I resisted attempts to ween me onto the Secret Seven. No, I was, as in all ways, a child who preferred the more recondite alternatives. So I adored her eight ‘Adventure’ novels, about two girls and two boys stranded, having to fend for themselves, in a series of exciting and intimidating locations, generally defeating the sinister plots of some evil adult criminals. My favourite of all was The Valley of Adventure, which seemed like a paradise (despite the whole ‘orHorsephans stranded in war zone hunted by psychotic thieves’ angle). (illustration: no idea)

  1. C. S. Lewis

Narnia. It never seemed as important and deep as Tolkien, but it was still captivating. My favourite was The Horse and His Boy, which is set almost entirely in Exotic Foreign Parts, and doesn’t mess about with any of this ‘real people from England’ business!  (illustration: Stephen Lavis’ cover for ‘The Horse and His Boy’)

  1. David Eddings

eddings_magicians_gambit_2009The backbone of my early Fantasy reading, in larger part because of his productivity. I read all five Belgariad novels (so often my parents added extra plastic binding to protect them), and then all five Mallorean novels, and then the Elenium trilogy (which took me about three days), and then the Tamuli, which took longer only because it was the first series I was actually reading while the books were still coming out one by one, an exhilerating thing. I got the last two in that strange hardback-size-but-paper-backs-and-prone-to-fall-apart format they had back then. Finally, I got his Belgareth and Polgara as hardbacks. (illustration: Geoff Taylor’s painting for the cover of ‘Magician’s Gambit’)

winter-holiday-cover

  1. Arthur Ransome

When I was young, I wasn’t just a geek – I was also a nerd. I spent more time reading the Ravenloft fansites or intently studying the complete unified timeline of Abeir-Toril than I did actually reading the books. But in the days before the internet, nerdery was difficult. Perhaps one of the earliest demonstrations of mine was the case of Arthur Ransome. I liked Ransome’s books – they were like a more grown-up Blyton – and I read three or four of them. But for some reason I decided I was going to collect him. He’s the only author I’ve ever collected, though I probably will collect others in my life. But Ransome was the first – and every week I’d check the second-hand bookshops (there were multiple ones nearby in those queer old pre-internet days) (NB the internet did exist, it just didn’t feature much… at this point, its main use was for downloading updates to Encarta. I can still remember the sound-effects for opening pages in Encarta, you know. And Encarta World Atlas! Dear gods, that astonished us. Truly astonished) for any new copies to buy. (illustration: no idea)hop_fs6_surf

  1. Oscar Wilde

Inherited from my sister. As you may have noticed, my early favourites weren’t exactly famous for their prose style, with the arguable exception of Tolkien. Or, indeed, for their humour. Wilde was suave, polished, and savagely witty. His plays tore apart adult society, while The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis and the fairy tales had an acheing melancholy about them that appealed to my budding emo side. [I wasn’t emo, because it didn’t exist then, and because I wasn’t into pop culture. But I did listen to Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead on an endless loop in a darkened room and write terrible, melancholy gothic poetry heavily influenced by Wilde] If you ever find me prone to self-pitying martyrdom, blame (amongst other bad influences) Oscar Wilde. (illustration: Jessie King’s “White as the surf it was and like a flower it tossed on the waves”, from her illustrations for ‘House of Pomegranates’)

  1. David Gemmell

BKTG04137I got Legend from the school library in the last few years of primary school. Well, from the bookshelf of my classroom, anyway. I think the teacher may be to blame – he was a fantasy fan. I used to lend him books to read. Anyway, I qas quickly hooked by Gemmell, whose proto-grimdark violent brutality and thinly-veiled sexuality was exciting for a pre-teen boy. I read at least eight of his Drenai novels (there are diminishing returns!), as well as his post-apocalyptic semi-magical Jerusalem Man Western trilogy, and his The Knights of Dark Reknown. I might not love him the same way now, but I am surprised by how often he seems to be passed over in discussions of the genre – apparently, though, he was much less popular in America than here. (illustration: Mark Harrison’s cover for ‘Wolf in Shadow’)

 

  1. Isaac AsimovIsaac_Asimov_on_Throne

Asimov may seem like an adult writer – glasses, sideburns, sociological ramifications of technological advances, etc – but he’s actually an ideal writer for kids. Asimov is an ideas man, and kids are all about ideas. Execution, that’s something that adults care about, once they’ve seen all the ideas, but kids want something enthralling, stimulating, challenging. And Asimov was those things. Asimov talks a lot about the nature of humanity, about justice and fairness and good governance, about power in all its forms. And he also talks about aliens and robots and spaceships and hive minds and robots disguised as hive minds disguised as sexy alien women, and civilisations who collapse because they’ve never before seen the night. And Asimov doesn’t speak down to you. Many of his stories have a strong ‘puzzle’ element, the reader invited to work things out for themselves. Asimov expected his audience to have the souls of children and the minds of adults, and that’s a powerful premise for a child. (illustration: Rowena Morrill’s portrait of the great man himself)

  1. Terry Pratchett

the-colour-of-magic-1Well, I guess I’ve written a fair amount before about Pratchett. He was one of my first writers, but I guess he wasn’t really central until near the end of primary school, by which time he was probably my number 1 favourite. From Feet of Clay on, I got all his Discworld books (minus those marketed for younger readers, because I was a snob) in hardback as they came out – all the way up to Making Money. The increasing time between installments, combined with their diminishing quality, made me question him later on, until my re-read project rekindled my love for this great author.reaperman-1

Another biographical point: Terry Pratchett made me give up writing. Not for ever, of course. But at some point I “realised” that I couldn’t write the books I wanted to write because Terry Pratchett had already written them. Now you might find this arrogant – assuming that I could have written these books! – and it is, but it’s also symptomatic of Pratchett. I remember Queen Victoria’s comparison of her two great Prime Ministers (I paraphrase): “After talking with Mr Gladstone, I became convinced that he was the most intelligent man in England. But when I talked with Mr Disraeli, I soon became convinced that I was the most intelligent woman in England.” Pratchett at his best is a literary Disraeli (no offence to the real literary Disraeli, who was of course Disraeli himself…) – he makes his readers feel so smart that they could sure have written these books themselves. After all, it all seems so easy! (illustrations: Josh Kirby’s iconic cover for ‘The Colour of Magic’ , and Joe McClaren’s cover for ‘Reaper Man’)

 

  1. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman

dl-charactersSometime late in primary school, someone gave me a box of D&D novels. By early in secondary school, I was making some sense of them. Dragonlance was my ‘home’ setting, as it were, and Dragonlance, in its sprawling, slapdash-continuity way, was built around a series of seven novels by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman. I don’t imagine they were great novels, but boy were they great stories, perhaps the apotheosis of the epic fantasy story, and they displayed their world to the full. Later, I found their (mostly) unrelated (or is it?) Deathgate Cycle, a fine and memorable fantasy in its own right. (illustration: Larry Elmore’s cover for the Collector’s Edition of the Dragonlance Chronicles)

 

  1. Anne McCaffrey

The ubiquity of its foundational rape fantasies and the disturbing attitudes toward gay men aside, there’s something comfortable and asiandragonsdawnrelaxing about the Pern novels. Yes, true, threads of an inimical space fungus fall from the sky and occasionally digests people whole within seconds in an excruciating rain of death, or sometimes merely leave people horribly mutilated and traumatised for life, but apart from that it’s a very safe sort of place, very cosy. People laugh a lot, have unexciting teenage romances (which sometimes even do not necessarily involve fetishised non-consent, except in relatively minor ways… well, using ‘relatively minor’ in a relatively and perhaps unpleasantly charitable DRGNDRMSVN1982way, at least), and have deep and meaningful relationships with their pets (who then essentially compel them into proxy rape via mind control). Lots of loners and marginalised people show the crowds their worth, sometimes by raping them, but it’s all OK because everyone likes each other in the end (except for the people who have to be murdered for the good of the many). It’s a great fantasy world for kids. Sure, it always felt like something written primarily for an audience of teenage girls – the dragons are essentially big glittery mind-rapey ponies – but for a generally insecure boy I was surprisingly unconcerned about that, perhaps because nobody else I knew actually knew what the books were about. Anyway, dragons and romance aside, I loved the way McCaffrey made music central to her culture, and actually wrote about it in a way that only seemed half nonsensical. Masterharper of Pern is the closest thing I know to a biography of a classical composer that also has dragons (and political skullduggery) in it (i.e. the perfect book). (illustrations: Steve Weston’s wonderful dragons for ‘Dragonsdawn’ and ‘Dragondrums’)

  1. Raymond E. Feist

000224148X.02.LZZZZZZZI was introduced by a friend in early secondary school; for some reason, I began with the Serpentwar books, which are indeed the best and most interesting (with the exception of the co-written Empire trilogy). I guess this felt like a more grownup, down-to-earth, graphically violent realistic version of Eddings or of D&D. It was perhaps more believable, less silly, than a lot of those books, and yet fundamentally it was all structured as a jolly good yarn, easy to read and enjoy. I read forward and back from Serpentwar, and sideways into Empire, although I never read on beyond the dreadful computer game adaptations. (illustration: Geoff Taylor again, his cover for ‘Rise of a Merchant Prince’)

 

  1. Elaine Cunningham

0786915617.01.LZZZZZZZA slightly odd one here, because at the time I probably would never have named Cunningham as a favourite author. And yet she’s one of the authors I’ve read the most by. Her Arilyn/Danilo semi-romantic fantasy adventure series was my favourite part of the Forgotten Realms setting, and I followed her over as well to her d365024128a095b511837010.Ldrow novels (an unsuccesful attempt to combine the flavours of her Harper novels with Salvatore’s drow novels), and the beginning of her Halrua series (I should finish that some day!). The books were very light, but they had violence and romance and a kickass tomboy elf princess, so I read them avidly. Despite my apparent grouchiness and my low level of patience with terrible YA romance plots, I actually have a secret soft spot for a good romance, and Arilyn/Danilo clearly worked for me as a kid – serious and deadly girl, flippant and somewhat girly boy, interracial romance with a hint of the forbidden and various Terrible Obstacles Imposed By A Cruel Fate, etc etc. (illustrations: John Foster’s cover for ‘The Magehound'; Kelly Freas’ cover for ‘The Radiant Dragon’. I’ve never actually read ‘The Radiant Dragon’ , but there’s no way I’m passing up a chance to put some Spelljammer on this page. Spelljammer: the fantasy setting for people who are having a puzzling drug trip. Look, a glowing translucent rainbow dragon! In space! And a mediaeval man with a cape full of pixie dust on the bridge of a sailing ship. And the dragon might be about to eat a planet and also I think its head is on fire. Spelljammer, people!)

  1. Robert Jordan

0312850093Yeah, I’ll admit: I seriously liked Jordan at one point (midway through my teens, I guess). And I think I was quite justified. Sure, the first book wasn’t great. In fact it was obviously bad, and obviously a rip-off. And the second was confusingly similar to the first, and the third was promising but went nowhere. But somewhere between the third and the fifth, I got really hooked.

Part of it, of course, was the shear scale. I’d never read anything this big, this sprawling. Stupid as it may be, I liked the polyamorous (and intercultural) relationship, which I’d never seen before in literature – all these damn love triangles all over the place, it was great to see some people just sit down and say ‘you know what, let’s just make this work’. On a similar note, it was originally both titillating and somewhat liberating to see the hints at lesbian sex, which previously I think I’d only read about as a defining trait of decadent villainnesses (of course, the increasingly ubiquitous casual lesbian dalliances and the author’s growing obsession with theoretically-non-lesbian all-female spanking orgies did before too long turn this mildly sexy freshness into stale, repetitive, rather awkward-feeling fanservice and authorial fantasising… but that was later). And I liked the way Jordan wove in elements of hidden SF into the background of his world – it wasn’t new to me, but it was new enough to be intriguing. And perhaps most of all I liked his willingness to take his villains seriously – the Forsaken seemed at times much more interesting than his protagonists. And yes, they may be shallow, but I appreciated the nods to history and mythology, particularly the heavy Arthurian echoes in the background.

But the really striking thing, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for, was Jordan’s use of FRSOHCN1994Amystery. The more you read, the less you seemed to know. I had to keep turning the pages to uncover the secrets. Who killed [spoiler redacted]? Who is Black Ajah and how can you tell? Who is [redacted] hiding as? Is [redacted] secretly Forsaken and what are the subtle clues? There are all these little mysteries to solve, and perhaps Jordan was never all that great at solving them but he was good at setting them up, in a way I hadn’t really encountered in any other work. And that let the length of the series work for it: it gave us time to work ourselves up into fever pitch waiting for the next book when all would(n’t) be revealed. The Wheel of Time was my first sortie into real book fandom, not the nerdy setting fandom I’d looked at before, and it was a vast and captivating world of forums and tributes and parodies and endless speculation. (illustrations: Darrell K. Sweet’s covers for ‘The Eye of the World’ and ‘The Fires of Heaven’)

  1. Gabriel García Márquez

I said above that Pratchett stopped me writing, or at least discouraged me. Gabriel García Márquez had another go at it – convinced me for a good while that I had to write something totally new and radical and ‘literary’ – but more than that he was the author who killed my love of reading. Which… well, that doesn’t sound too great, does it? But it’s a compliment.

9780060114183_p0_v1_s260x420I should be fair. What’s really killed my love of reading – or at least, killed my obsessive infatuation with reading – has been the internet. And discovering films and TV, and maybe, just maybe occasionally, vestiges of a real life perhaps, didn’t help either. But GGM was a big hammer blow.

The thing is, One Hundred Years of Solitude – I was about 16 at the time I think – just destroyed me. It was beautiful, so beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent, and mysterious, and totally new to me, and it made me cry. The ending devastated me… but then for some reason I found myself walking around with my back held straight for a week (I tend to slouch normally, and did so even more as a teenager). It was sublime, and made the world seem different for a while, in an inexpressable way. It made me look at all other books and go “what’s the point?”. I couldn’t write like that, and nor could the other authors I knew of, who suddenly I realised – with perhaps too much enthusiasm, were nothing but pale shadows next to García Márquez.

I never quite recaptured that feeling with any of his other books. Of Love and Other Demons was nice but felt familiar; Chronicle of a Death Foretold was great, but too small. His Collected Stories varied from brilliant to mediocre. And then I tailed off reading him, saving him up for later. But at that point in time, I would certainly have called him one of my favourites. (illustration: not a clue)

  1. Robin Hobb

GGM helped do me a service. He pushed me to grow up, in reading terms. I was 16, 17, and I was still reading more or less the same stuff as when I was 10. Well, I stopped reading it, because it seemed rubbish by comparison – not stopped as in overnight, but I just lost my enthusiasm. Authors ended series and I never bothered to find others to replace them. I felt I wanted to read more of these wonderful, grown-up, real books… but I couldn’t love them, couldn’t be excited by them. And fantasy was just a genre (I didn’t realise at the time that One Hundred Years of Solitude was also Fantasy).2956929d310d14af49572bda75eda315

I’m overstating it; I’m making it more dramatic, more narrative. But there it is. At some point, I borrowed, on holiday, a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice. Now in truth, I started reading that probably before I’d ‘given up on’ Fantasy. So it’s more that as my interest in Fantasy declined, my interest in Hobb remained, and grew as her style grew and deepened. It sparked a brief passion (and a longer-lasting interest) for A Song of Ice and Fire along the way, but it was Hobb who has lasted as my favourite, and who has gradually helped me come back to appreciating the genre. (illustrations: above, Jackie Morris’ painting for the cover of ‘Blood of Dragons'; below, John Howe again with his painting for the cover of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’)

Assassins-Apprentice-port

And you know what I conclude from writing all the above? Fantasy novels used to have really great covers. Sometimes. In the UK, at least. These days, it seems like everything’s “male underwear model glowers at the camera while holding a weapon and having a big cloak”, or even the more direct “AXE!” or “SWORD!” or the like. But paintings like some of the above, even if they often didn’t seem to have anything to do with the events of the book itself, were enchanting. Captivating, even. They promised something – somewhere – wonderful inside the pages of the book. They may have been odd, strange, weird sometimes… but wasn’t that the point? That this wasn’t just the latest Tom Clancey only with swords instead of guns, that this wasn’t a write-up of this or that computer game? That it was going to show you somewhere totally different, totally new? The books may not always have lived up to that, but the covers promised it. I wonder whether I would ever have been as passionate about fantasy – or reading in general – if I’d only had the covers we seem to get today.

 

Anyway, that’s me. What about you?

My Top Ten Authors…

…oh dear.

I was tempted to jump temporarily onto that ‘Top Ten Tuesday’ meme, because today’s meme asks for our Top Ten Authors, and that seemed like a big enough question to be interesting.

 

Unfortunately… it turns out I don’t have ten top authors.

 

The problem is, most of my high-volume reading was done as a teenager, when my taste in books was… generous. So if I look at my GR ‘most read authors’ list, it’s dominated by people like Weiss, Eddings, McCaffrey, Feist, Salvatore, Gemmell, Cunningham, Jordan, Niles, Kirchoff, Charrette…

Now, I’m past my post-teenage “ugh, all that stuff was shit!” phase. I’d like to think I’ve come to realise (again) that a fun story can make for a good book even when its writing is not Nobel-level and its plot is not entirely original. But that just means that some of these writers might be “not bad”, or even “good”. It doesn’t mean any of them deserve ‘favourite’ status – and if they do, I just haven’t re-read them recently enough to know that.

On the other hand, the writers who impress me now – well, I don’t know too many of them, and I just haven’t read enough of their books. I can’t call Christopher Priest one of my top ten favourite authors, because good gods I’ve only read two of his books! Sure, they were both seriously good books, but… well, not only have I not read his other works, I’m not sure I’ve developed the emotional attachment to him yet to call him a favourite. My favourite authors when I was young – I bought their books in hardback the moment they came out because I loved those writers. I don’t buy anyone’s books in hardback now.

Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb both deserve to go on my top ten list. Maybe Martin, because although I have reservations about his work I am going to buy his next book in hardback when it comes out (ditto Hobb and Pratchett). And I guess Tolkien needs to be there, because… well, that’s a part of me that mere time can’t wrest out of me. But beyond that? I’ve pretty much just got lists of people I used to like and I ought to go back and see how much I still like them but it probably will be ‘not much’, and lists of people I ought to read more of to see whether I’m going to like them or not.

This feels a bit sad to me, come to think of it. I miss having favourite authors.

So anyway, is this just me being weird, or does anybody else not have ten favourites they can name?

Where to start Discworld: suggestions and explanations

So you want to read the Discworld* novels. Congratulations on making an excellent decision!**

But there’s one big problem. There are 41 Discworld novels***. Where do you begin? ‘At the beginning’ is not necessarily the best answer in this case.

I don’t have a best answer for you – that would probably be against the spirit of Pratchett, having just one best answer for everybody, on something as subjective as reading orders. But hopefully I can outline a few very good answers, some not bad answers, and maybe if I have the time some really awful answers just to warn you off.

Before we get there, however, I should probably say a few words about why ‘begin at the beginning’ isn’t as obviously correct an answer as it might at first seem, and a few words about reading order for the series in general. So:

Part One: The Paragraphs of Going Forth Without Realising You May Need a Map

It is conventional, when coming to a story, to begin at the beginning and then read continuously through to the end. This enables you to know what is going on, and lets you understand easily the decisions of the characters, who in the case of most stories will, like the disciplined reader, know most of what has happened in the past but nothing of what will happen in the future. This also allows both reader and character to share the position of the author, who, likewise, will usually remember what they have already written, but have only a hazy view of what they might write in the future. So, always start at the beginning. Right?

Not necessarily! There are four, perhaps five, big reasons why that approach isn’t necessarily best with Discworld:

  1. Discworld is a single ‘world’, and theoretically anybody in that world could bump into anybody else… but in practice they mostly don’t. There is no overarching narrative linking all these novels. The closest we really get are sequences of novels sharing some or all of the same characters: traditionally, we talk about there being five or six ‘Witches’ novels, four (to become five) more ‘Tiffany’ novels (which have some shared characters with the ‘Witches’) novels, three ‘Moist’ novels, seven (perhaps eight) ‘Rincewind’ novels, five ‘Death’ novels (although that’s a bit more arguable), eight ‘Watch’ novels, and a bunch of other books that don’t really form any series but that overzealous fans like to group together in various ways. These ‘subseries’ aren’t unconnected – sometimes there are characters who pop up across several subseries, or other links established. Indeed, the big subseries nobody ever talks about is the ‘Faculty’ series of at least nine novels and maybe more – not ‘traditionally’ considered a series because most of these books can more easily be ascribed to the ‘Rincewind’, ‘Death’ or ‘Witches’ series. However, generally the subseries progress with their own internal continuity and only tangential or cameo interference from other subseries. Even these subseries, though, aren’t anything like a conventional epic fantasy series – while character development may progress through these series, there are very few actual plot threads linking books, which instead stand as (mostly) independent and self-contained stories. This is common in other genres (detective novels, for instance, may have character development across books with shared protagonists, but are typically self-contained stories in their own right).
    Because of the high degree of independence and variety among the Discworld books, reading order is much less important than normal.
  1. Discworld changed considerably in worldbuilding and in authorial style over its 32-year publishing history. Early books are much more anarchic in worldbuilding, and more prone to silliness in tone. They are more influenced by parodies of classic fantasy (particularly Sword and Sorcery), and they depict a much more high-magic world, and a world that is socially more primitive. As the series develops, Pratchett gradually becomes more serious, more heartfelt (and less prone to showing off his literary knowledge and intellect), and his world becomes more mundane, more lifelike, and more modern. It is generally agreed that his best work occurs somewhere in the middle of this process, when the mundane and the magical can mix productively together. The Colour of Magic not only represents Early Pratchett, but is chronologically closer to his pre-Discworld novel Strata than it is to its own sequel. The Light Fantastic is in many ways an attempt to replicate the success of The Colour of Magic, but as early as the third novel, Equal Rites, there is a sharp break away in style and interests. Therefore, beginning with The Colour of Magic is likely to give a misleading impression of what the rest of the series will be like, both in the nature of the world and in the nature of the writing. To a lesser extent, the same is true of many of the early novels.
  1. The Colour of Magic is not essential. It is the beginning of the ‘Rincewind’ series, but while many people have affection for Rincewind as a character, often with a nostalgic element, it is generally considered that the novels featuring him are among the worst of the cycle, at least in terms of the Early and Middle works (though they do often have some of the best comedic passages). In addition, the Rincewind novels are relatively free of significant character development – indeed, for his later books it is probably more useful to read other Faculty books than to read all the previous Rincewind books. So skipping The Colour of Magic causes no problems.
  1. Pratchett’s continuity eventually becomes very solid. Ankh-Morpork became a city so detailed that there’s an entire A-to-Z of its streets available. But earlier on, the worldbuilding was more… ad libbed. There are several continuity issues provoked by the early novels, particularly The Colour of Magic. Continuity fans can work around them (and this may be fun), but it helps to reiterate the skippability of these books – reading them isn’t just unnecessary, it may even, in minor ways, provoke confusion.
  1. Many fans feel that the early books are not very good, by Pratchett’s standards. Personally, I think this is overstated, and is more a matter of readers retrospectively disliking books that were very different from what the series later became in its heyday. The Light Fantastic really isn’t all that good… but I do believe that The Colour of Magic is a good book in its own right. However, it’s certainly true that it isn’t as good in the ways that on average will matter most to people – it’s more of an acquired taste.

These five factors together mean that most fans of the cycle do not recommend The Colour of Magic as the ideal place for newcomers to get into the cycle.

And that raises the question: so where should you start?

But before we get to that, there’s a little business to sort out first…

Part Two: The Paragraphs of Controversy

Where you should begin depends to some extent, as philosophers are wont to remark, on where you hope to be going.

And if fans have come to consensus on not necessarily beginning at the beginning, we have also often been tempted to assert (sometimes quite forcefully) that ‘reading books one by one in order’ isn’t the best way to continue once you’ve started.

There are three commonly-proposed methods of reading Discworld… and one that isn’t commonly proposed.

Briefly, these options are:

  1. Publication Order. This approach has you read every book in the order it was published. Of course, if you don’t begin with the first book, you’ll have to either skip it entirely or come back and read it out of order… but it’s perfectly possible to pick a starting point and at least read from that point on in publication order. This approach lets you fully appreciate in-jokes and allusions, lets you experience the progression of style and content in a slower and more natural way, and gives you experience of as many characters as possible as quickly as possible.
  2. Chronological Order. The normal second approach to a big series is to read in the order of the chronological order of events described in the books. In the case of Discworld, the exact order is in many cases not fully specified, but it does seem as though each book is more or less meant to follow on from the preceding one (ignoring flashbacks, flashforwards, occasional time travel and so on). This order is therefore almost identical to Publication Order, except that Small Gods probably comes first, and Night Watch comes either after Small Gods or directly after Thief of Time. There may be one or two other slight alterations too. This reading order is pedantic and has no clear advantages of any kind, so it is never proposed. However, it’s not entirely insane, since Small Gods is both a standalone and generally recognised as the stand-out classic of the cycle, the book most likely to impress new readers.
  3. Series by Series. This is probably the most popular approach among fans: read the books of one ‘series’ and then move on to another (publication vs chronology doesn’t matter here, since I don’t think the individual series are ever non-chronological, with the arguable exception of Night Watch). Most often people start with the Watch books, then move on to the Witches. This approach has the advantage of helping readers keep the main characters clear in their heads, and have as much of a sense of overarching arcs as possible. However, it has the disadvantage of ripping things out of their original context, making cross-series connexions more obscure, emphasising the degree to which there is sometimes a degree of repetition within the individual series, and confronting the reader with some fairly abrupt changes in style and worldbuilding.
  4. Random Chance. A better option than you might think, and the one that many fans originally followed themselves. There is relatively little vital continuity information needed to appreciate most of the books, and even those books that are terrible places to start can lure in readers through their quality, encouraging them to read more of the cycle. This approach has the advantage of surprise and freshness, and easiness in places where availability is poor, but obviously plays hell with what elements of continuity and character development there are.

What do I recommend? Personally, I think Publication Order is best: it lets you read the books as the author intended. That said, skipping the odd book or reading a few in the wrong order is rarely a problem. An awareness of the different ‘series’ can be helpful in letting readers know what to skip – a reader who hates the Witches can know they can safely skip any of the Witches novels – and giving a little guidance to those who are coming by their books semi-randomly. However, I don’t see any real advantage to reading by series… unless you are someone who is only reading slowly or occasionally. Then it might be helpful to read series one by one, to remember the characters and settings better. Series-by-series may also shine a new light on some books for veteran readers coming to the series a second time. Random order is also appealing for veterans – once the reader has a full grasp of the cycle, it’s perfectly reasonable to just pick a random book off the shelf and read it. However, I think that the first-time reader will miss out by doing this.

In any case, please, don’t go around believing that the cycle has to be read in publication order, or that it ought to be read series-by-series. Both sides of the online dispute seem prone to assuming that theirs is the only permissable, or even sane, way of enjoying Discworld, and both sides are wrong. You may see, for example, illustrated diagrams proclaiming to show you the “Proper Reading Order”; don’t let those people intimidate you. That ‘proper’ reading order, aside from being arguable on its merits, is only the invention of internet fans, not something ‘official’ or something that Pratchett himself endorsed (I believe Pratchett once expressed a preference for publication order, but I can’t cite that right now). Even the classification by ‘series’ at all is an invention of fans – the books do not come labelled in this way.

So, we’ve covered why we might not want to start at the beginning, and why we may or may not want to read on from there in order. Leaving us with nothing more to address except:

Part Three: The Paragraphs of Recommendation

I’m going to break this into two groups: the first group are in my opinion the best places to start, in order of preference; the second group are some alternative sensible starting points, in publication order. After that, a third group will suggest some starting places that would make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Tier One – the best places to start:

  • Guards! Guards!
    ‘GG’ is the eighth novel in the cycle. It has several things going for it as a starting point. First, it’s fun. It has a fun plot, and a ton of jokes. Second, it’s approachable – the plot and the jokes have a heavy parodic element, but the references are mostly to modern tropes of cops and private eyes, not just to obscure fantasy novels of former decades (although there are some fantasy jokes too). In terms of tropes, Pratchett here sets up somewhere fairly comfortable and familiar, and then has fun with it. It’s certainly not the best of his books – it could be accused of being a little shallow, for instance – but most people like it. It is the first book in the ‘Watch’ series, as it introduces the four men who currently comprise the night shift of the City Watch of the great (stinking, mercenary) city of Ankh-Morpork (a city highly redolent of the myth of London, but with elements of Italian city-states and fantasy entrepots): alcoholic veteran Captain Vimes, lazy timeserver Sergeant Colon, barely-human siddling Corporal Nobbs, and fresh-faced iron-muscled naïve newcomer Carrot, who may or may not be destined for greater things. The Watch novels are one of the longest series in the cycle, and because Ankh-Morpork is the most important location on the Disc many other novels also feature cameos from these characters. In fact, about half of the novels feature at least a cameo from one of these four men (or in one case from Sergeant Doppelpunkt, who technically is not Sergeant Colon, but might as well be). It therefore makes sense to get acquainted with these guys early on. What’s more, GG is positioned right at the beginning of Pratchett’s classic period – while it may arguably be slightly before his prime, it’s close enough that style and worldbuilding are recognisable (albeit not identical) making GG a good intro into that following era.
    There are two downsides to GG as your first Pratchett. First, because this is just before ‘prime’ Pratchett, it’s a little to the silly side, and not wonderfully deep by his standards, although it’s certainly not a mindless farce either. That’s not a huge problem with the book (although I did find the shear frequency of jokes got a bit tiring by the end), but some readers might not like it, and it doesn’t reflect the solidity of something like Small Gods – or even of later entries in the Watch series. Second, this is a book about the Watch, and you may not like that. You may be completely uninterested in cops/soldiers/detectives. You may want something bigger or more magical. Guards! Guards! is a book a lot of people love as a fun read, but it’s probably not a book that’s changed many people’s lives.
    Those issues notwithstanding, I think Guards! Guards! is probably the most sensible place to begin the series.
  • Mort
    Mort
    is Pratchett’s most commercially succesful book precisely because it’s an easy one to start off with. It’s written in a very approachable way, with a slant toward younger readers (although it’s also (decorously and non-explicitly) sex-obsessed), it’s funny, it’s a great concept, and it’s got some great dramatic scenes. It’s a good book that a very broad cross-section of people can enjoy.
    The downside is that it’s a bit peripheral – you don’t really need to read Mort to read the later ‘Death’ books, and I’m not sure it’s totally smooth in terms of continuity with later works. It’s also still a bit wobbly around the edges, and doesn’t show what Pratchett is truly capable of (nor does Guards! Guards! but it comes closer).
    On the other hand, because it’s a bit peripheral any oddness of tone or slight disagreements in continuity aren’t too big a problem. The changes between Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms actually feel more troublesome, because those books are so closely linked, whereas even Reaper Man is really only at a tangent to Mort.
    On a third hand, it’s all very well reading Mort, but the next book up is Sourcery, which isn’t great at all, and then there’s Wyrd Sisters and then there’s Pyramids and only then do you get to Guards! Guards! – starting earlier means adding more books before you get to the great stuff, so more chance of giving up too early.
    All that said, Mort does seem like a very appealing first introduction, particularly for slightly younger readers. It’s also very short!
  • Small Gods
    There’s a very good reason to start with Small Gods: it’s the book that is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most inarguably great. Very few Pratchett fans dislike Small Gods, and it’s probably the book most often listed as the best or as someone’s favourite. If you read Small Gods and can’t find anything to like about it, Pratchett probably isn’t for you. You don’t necessarily have to love it, particularly if you’re easily offended on religious or moral issues, because it is a bit opinionated. But it’s also a well-constructed and well-written book, funny and moving and meaningful, so if you’re going to like Pratchett you probably need to be able to see something here that you can get behind. If you love Small Gods you’ll want to read all the other books; if you hate it completely, you can probably just not waste your time. And, conveniently, it’s completely standalone. So isn’t this the obvious book to start off with?
    Not necessarily. For one thing, that may be a recipe for disappointment: do you really want to read a masterpiece and then go back and read the dozen novels where the author was still a journeyman? There’s a pleasure to be had in watching Pratchett get better and better, or at least develop as an author. And Small Gods may also benefit from being read in the context of the preceding run of books that share a very similar mindset.
    For that reason, I don’t normally recommend that people start with Small Gods – it’s like opening a book at the last chapter, or fastforwarding through the final gunfight before deciding whether to watch the film. On the other hand, if someone really is in an unforgiving “prove I ought to read Discworld, you’ve got one shot!” frame of mind, that might be exactly what you should recommend they do!
  • The Colour of Magic
    I know, I know, the whole first section of this essay was about how The Colour of Magic is not necessarily the best place to start. And I completely stand by all of it. But still… that doesn’t mean it necessarily isn’t the place to start. Because there is a very clear and obvious reason to start here: it’s the beginning. Starting here lets you appreciate the whole development of the series, in order. It completely does away with the tricky questions of “at what point do I go back and read such-and-such?”. If you start with Guards! Guards!, for instance, do you read the first three Rincewind books before Eric? Or skip Eric? [recommendation: skip Eric. Read the first four Rincewind books at some point before Interesting Times, but don’t let them get in the way of reading the other, better books. Or just skip Rincewind entirely!] And do you read Mort before Reaper Man? [yes, probably, but don’t worry too much if you don’t] And do you read the earlier Witches novels before you read Witches Abroad, and if so does that include Equal Rites? [yes to the first, and probably to the second]. If you start from The Colour of Magic and just read them all, the problems all go away.
    I’ve already given reasons why this might be a bad idea. And for some people, many people, it is. But on the other hand, all the novels before Pyramids are short. So if you are someone who isn’t saying “prove I should read Discworld”, but rather “OK, I’m going to read Discworld, where should I start?”, then starting at the beginning may be the best option. I’d suggest starting at the beginning and reading through until at least the end of Reaper Man before giving up. If you can commit to reading all those books before making your mind up, then sure, start at the beginning. But if you’re only going to read a couple, the first couple aren’t the couple we’d like to have the fate of the universe your future Discworld fandom riding on.

Tier Two – other sensible places to start:

  • Equal Rites
    The third book is where Pratchett begins to turn in the direction of later Discworld, though he’s not there yet. It’s an approachable book for younger readers, but still fun for older ones. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but not terrible. And it introduces one of his most important characters, Granny Weatherwax, and therefore arguable starts the ‘Witches’ series.
    On the other hand, it is a bit rough around the edges, and it isn’t essential either for its quality or for its continuity. That said, I’d probably rate this the best option other than the ones mentioned above.
  • Wyrd Sisters
    The second Witches novel, or maybe the first – other than Granny, everything else is new. Equal Rites isn’t in any way necessary for understanding Wyrd Sisters… although it’s lately been pointed out to me that Granny is perhaps more quickly understood and liked if you’re introduced through Equal Rites instead, as she’s a bit prickly in Wyrd Sisters.
  • Pyramids
    In my opinion, Pyramids is Pratchett’s masterpiece. Not in the modern colloquial sense – it isn’t his magnum opus. But I think that his good books before this can be dismissed as the thoroughly entertaining work of a talented but middling author. Pyramids, in my opinion, is clearly the work of a master of his craft. It’s much longer, deeper and more complex than any of the preceding novels, and more important in its themes. In fact, I think it’s a more nuanced and insightful book than Small Gods, which in many ways is its clear thematic heir. It’s also riotously fun, and just for good measure it gives us our first sustained look at the ‘real’ Ankh-Morpork of the later novels, while itself standing completely without the need of any prior reading. So in many respects this is the perfect starting point.
    Unfortunately, Pyramids is a divisive book. Perhaps its fun is a bit too varied and chaotic, and perhaps its intellectual heft is too nuanced and interesting… either way, a lot of people seem to come away from it a bit nonplussed.
    I think that if you love Pyramids, you’ll do well with the rest of Pratchett, but not loving Pyramids doesn’t mean you won’t find something else to love in his oeuvre. That said, given its divisive reputation, and given that it’s longer than any of the other sensible places to start, I can’t quite nudge this up into Tier One.
  • Moving Pictures
    Moving Pictures
    feels to me like the beginning of the classic Discworld – the subsequent novels feel of one piece with this setting, even if they don’t fit completely with the setting of the earlier novels. In particular, it introduces the characters of Ridcully and the Faculty, who will play an important background role in many of the best Discworld novels, and several other major background characters get their first or second appearance here. It has an effective adventure plot that also invests in character, and it has some really funny scenes. It may particularly appeal to those with an interest in film and TV.
    Unfortunately, it may particularly irritate those with a low tolerance for puns and pop culture jokes, since there are a lot of film-based jokes. And the plot arguably doesn’t completely bear the full length of the longer-than-usual novel, and although there are some interesting themes here they’re kept in the background, so this could easily come across as something light and disposable. And although it’s a sensible place to start, it’s not an essential one. I think it’s a good place to start… but some people strongly dislike it as a book. So… it depends.
  • Reaper Man
    You don’t actually need to have read Mort in order to get this one, and this one is better than Mort. It helps to have read Moving Pictures, but it isn’t necessary, and this is better than Moving Pictures. This is Pratchett near his funniest, in my opinion. It’s also Pratchett at his most emotional and moving, and if you read between the lines there’s a lot of intellectual content too.
    The problem is, the intellectual content, the emotion and the comedy all feel like they’re in different books. It’s a short book but it’s a complete mess. It has three almost entirely unrelated plots, and one of them is utterly insane.
    Personally, I think this is probably my favourite Discworld novel, and one of my favourite novels by any author. You may think this too. Or, you might read this and think that Pratchett is a lunatic, that the book is unreadable, and that the whole Discworld thing is clearly a waste of time. Or you might just go ‘meh’. It’s the ultimate in divisive Pratchett novels, so it’s probably not the best place to start… unless you’re someone who is going to love it, in which case it would be great!
  • Men at Arms
    By the time of Men at Arms, we’ve passed the probable high point of the cycle, in my opinion. But that might be a good thing. From here on, Pratchett’s world becomes more concrete, more relatable, less magical… which you might like. Men at Arms is the second Watch novel, but it would be quite feasible, I think, to begin here – the characters are adequately introduced, I think, and the setting makes sense on its own, more or less. NB. you can’t join the Watch series later than this, not sensibly. I’d suggest starting with Guards! Guards! instead, but this is still a sensible starting point, particularly if you might find GG too silly (MAA is itself sillier than following books, but more sensible than GG).
  • Soul Music
    This isn’t entirely sensible, for two reasons. On the one hand, this is a book many people hate, and that has a lot of bad rock-music-related puns. On the other hand, it’s the third novel in the Death series.
    And yet there are also two reasons to start here. On the one hand, this is a fun, silly book with a lot of bad rock-music-related puns – Pratchett was a great music fan, and there’s a real sense of love and enthusiasm here. I think it’s one of his most personal books. And on the other hand, this is effectively the first novel in a ‘Susan’ trilogy. Susan is a precocious teenage girl with some surprising powers and family connexions, and I can totally imagine this as a starter novel for someone who is, or who has to look after, a teenager. It’s shallow, yes, but it’s good fun.
    I think. Every other serious reader of the cycle seems to disagree for some reason. On the other hand, a bunch of ‘non-serious’ readers of the cycle seem to have this as their favourite, which I can understand.
  • Hogfather
    There is no good reason to start here. It’s the fourth ‘Death’ book and the second ‘Susan’ book, and the there-have-been-a-lot-by-now-th ‘Faculty’ book. And it’s sort of a mess, plot-wise. This is a silly place to start. Except… it’s (sort of) about Christmas, and it does combine Pratchett’s ability with the morbid and the menacing with his humour, and it’s one of his most overtly meaningful books. As a result, it’s frequently recommended to newcomers at Christmas time, and it’s frequently enjoyed. So although it, logically, makes no sense that this should be anyone’s starting point, in terms of its place in the series, I can’t argue that for many people it is an effective one, in terms of how it appeals to people.
  • Wee Free Men
    I haven’t read it (yet). However, it’s aimed at younger readers, allegedly, and it begins a series of five novels with the same lead character, which call back to but do not require the earlier Witches novels. And these books have the best reputation of his later works. So this has to be considered a sensible place to begin – if nothing else, it’s the only book in the cycle that was actually designed as an introduction for new readers!
  • Going Postal
    The first of Pratchett’s ‘Moist’ trilogy. Personally, I think these later works are far inferior to Pratchett’s best. However, many people do love them. In particular, these are the books ‘closest’ to reality, and therefore may be a gentler introduction for casual readers, particularly those who are uneasy with Fantasy as a genre.

 

 

 

And finally! Here, just so you know, are the worst places to start Discworld:

  • Night Watch
    This, along with Small Gods, is often considered Pratchett’s magnum opus. But don’t start here. This is the sixth ‘Watch’ novel, and more dependant than any of the previous novels on the reader’s connexion to the protagonist. It may still be an interesting read for a newcomer, but you won’t get as much out of it as a seasoned reader. The same is true of Snuff, Thud! and probably The Fifth Elephant, but Night Watch must take the prize as most-dependent-on-what-has-gone-before.
  • Thief of Time
    The third ‘Susan’ novel and the fifth ‘Death’ novel, and it’s a weird one in its own right – the story itself may be standalone, in terms of the plot, but in terms of the context of things you will have no clue what the hell is going on or why. It’s hard enough to make sense of it when you know who all these people are…
  • Unseen Academicals
    First, this is a very late novel and far from the highest quality. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, and it lacks the zest of earlier Pratchett. But it’s also a novel that (it came out around the time of Pratchett’s diagnosis) spends a lot of time capping things off and saying goodbye to people – Rincewind and the Faculty both return after a long, long absence, but if you don’t know who these people are you really won’t care. I’d also suggest not starting with Making Money, another later book, while Raising Steam is widely considered the worst of the cycle (I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t really comment).
  • Maskerade
    Most of the Witches novels could actually be approached in isolation – you’d miss things, but the characters feel like they make enough sense in their context that you could cope. Maskerade, though, takes those characters out of their context completely, and then has them be talked about a lot in unflattering terms by a much more appealing protagonist. I think to really approach this from the right emotional direction you probably need a run-up.
  • Interesting Times
    Benefits from returning to Rincewind and Cohen after long, long absences, and finally meets some expectations from the very first book. But it’s not a great book as it is, but I don’t think it works at all without all that… luggage.
  • The Light Fantastic
    The absolute worst place to start. It’s possibly the worst book of the cycle, it’s not representative of the later novels, and it’s a direct sequel to the first book so you won’t understand what’s going on. Seriously, don’t start here!

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Well, there you have it. Hopefully, you are now More Informed than you were before. Unfortunately, you may also be More Confused, but then those two do tend to go together…

In any case, the important think to take away from this is: don’t panic. There isn’t one way to do this, and it doesn’t matter if you do it ‘wrong’. The whole reason why there are these debates is precisely that the Discworld novels are extraordinarily forgiving to those who read them out of order. So the best answer may just be “read whichever book you find first”. And then read all the others too. Because the other thing is: Discworld isn’t just one thing. Different places, different characters, different times in the author’s life, all mean very different books. Think of Discworld not so much as a series, more as a one-author genre. Within the genre, there are books that are more like this, others more like that; there are books that fit very comfortably in the genre, and some that try to push its boundaries, and some that were written before the rules of the genre were really established. So disliking one book doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll dislike all the others. It’s not the end of the world.

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* You may perhaps also be interested in my ongoing project to reread and review all the Discworld novels in (more or less) publication order.

** Why is this an excellent decision? Perhaps you might like to read my list of ten reasons why Pratchett fans are so upset by his death.

***This is surprisingly debatable. Most listings give 41 novels, or 40 on the grounds that the final novel hasn’t been published yet. However, two of these ‘novels’ (Eric and The Last Hero) are short tales originally published in illustrated formats, and these ‘novels’ have not always been listed in the ‘main sequence’; when they have been, they’ve sometimes been listed with an additional ‘illustrated by’ credit, or even an implied co-authorship. Meanwhile, the ‘Tiffany’ novels and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents were originally marketed separately, for children (or, euphemistically, ‘younger readers’), even though early Discworld novels like Equal Rites and Mort also feel like they are aimed at younger readers. My copy of Snuff lists these books, with a ‘for younger readers’ warning; however, my copy of Night Watch has a list that omits both Maurice and The Last Hero, though it includes Eric.

On the other hand, there may be more Discworld novels than just the cannonical 40/41. Pratchett also co-wrote, for example, a four-volume ‘Science of Discworld’ series. These are primarily popular science books by a pair of academics… but they are structured around Discworld content by Pratchett (one of them is described in a blurb as a Discworld novella with very large footnotes, the footnotes being the actual chapters of the book…), and the real world described in the science sections is, within the book, considered a pocket universe existing within the Discworld setting; so are these Discworld novels too?

Pratchett also wrote a number of ‘books’ about Discworld that may not be ‘novels’, or in some cases may not even be ‘books’, even though they do contain original content and in many cases narrative elements. These include maps (with associated booklets), companions (most content comes from the novels, but some is original), diaries, a book containing a scale model of a Discworld building that you can cut out and assemble, and a number of novelty tie-in books that supposedly exist within the setting itself.

Oh, and there are some short stories too. And Good Omens takes place in the ‘real’ world, but contains a Discworld character – and if we take it from the Science of Discworld books that our real world is only a place within the Discworld, and take the presence of a Discworld character as confirming this (cf. also a passage from The Colour of Magic), then…

So if we’re being pedantic, it might be wiser just to say “there are definitely more than 30 Discworld books, and probably not many more than 50 or so”.