Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Written Word Wed. - Behold the Turtle of Enormous Girth

As promised last week, here is a not-so-brief discussion of one of my favorite series of books; Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

The basic idea is this: somewhere in the deepness of space roams The Great Turtle A'tun; standing upon the back of his enormous shell are the four Great Elephants; balanced on their ginormous backs is the Discworld, a humongous disc inhabited by creatures of all shapes and sizes.

Sound ludicrous? That's because it is, purposefully so. The series started out as a pretty standard spoof of fantasy novels, particularly those with heavy D&D influences which once ruled the fantasy market. The thing that sets Discworld apart from most of the other fantasy spoofs and parodies I've read (Heck, why qualify it that much; let's just say spoof and parodies, period) is that it's funny. Consistently. Consistently very, very funny. Consistently "make me burst into frequent laughter embarrassingly loudly in public places" funny; I've gotten many an odd look when I'm reading a Discworld novel in public . . . well, odder than usual, anyway.

At the time I'm writing this, Pratchett has released 30 regular novels in the series, not to mention some illustrated novels, comic book adaptations, companion guides, etc. Now, getting started on a series with 30-odd volumes might seem a bit daunting at first, but don't worry, this isn't a Robert Jordanesque sprawling epic of unresolved plotlines and needless annoying misunderstandings and book after book where nothing fricking happens and . . . sorry, got a bit carried away there. So, yeah, the Discworld books, not like that at all; each novel pretty much stands on its own, although some of them are best read in sequence.

There are a couple of things that have helped keep the Discworld books fresh and engaging; the first is that Pratchett doesn't feel obligated to follow the same two or three characters through each book; to be honest, if he was written 30+ volumes just about Rincewind the Wizard, I probably wouldn't have stuck with it this long. Unless, of course, the second factor had come into play: Pratchett’s willingness to allow his characters and world to grow and evolve. I think this second factor is all to rare in on-going comedic work, whether it be in print, film, or TV; too often you see characters devolve over the course of a prolonged series instead, until they become pale shadows of their past glory, pathetic caricatures of their former selves (I'm looking at you, Friends and Joey!)

As mentioned above, Pratchett likes to spread his novels around a rotating cast of characters; many different people have tried to categorize his novel in many different way; the truth is you never know when what looks like a stand-alone novel might turn out to be the launching pad for new series-within-the-series. For a long time I divided the series into 5 sub-categories, but have recently added a sixth.

(1) Rincewind the Wizard: The character who started it all. The first two Discworld books followed the misadventures of the world's most inept wizard, a man so cowardly that he makes Scooby Doo look like Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. I really recommend that anyone wanting to try the overall series out get started with the first two Rincewind books, since they set up the basic rules and geography of the world, as well as an introduction to one of the most frequently used background characters, The Librarian. Probably my favorite Rincewind novel is The Last Continent in which the hapless wizard finds himself transported to a place suspiciously reminiscent of Australia, complete with spoofs of The Road Warrior, Crocodile Dundee, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and just about any other Australian stereotype you could think of.

(2) The Three Witches: First introduced in the third Discworld novel, Equal Rites, the wizened old witch Granny Weatherwax soon became the central character in the Three Witches group of novels, which focus on the typical triune coven structure of maiden, mother and crone. The crotchety, stubborn Granny Weatherwax is the crone; the fecund and bawdy Nanny Ogg serves as the mother; and the naive newbie Magrat. The first few books take on the traditional witch tropes, parodying Macbeth and tales of fairy godmothers and such, but later volumes expand the scope of their adventures, bringing them into conflict with vampires, elves, and the Phantom of the Opera. In the last few installments Pratchett has started to play around with the makeup of the coven, again not allowing his characters to grow stale.

(3)Death: You'd be hard pressed to find a Discworld novel in which the Grim Reaper does not make at least a cursory appearance (even if it is in the form of his lesser avatar The Death of Rats), SPEAKING ALL IN CAPS (or, in SQUEEKING, as the case may be). The Death novels usually focus on Death's adopted family, particularly his son-in-law Mort and granddaughter Susan, both of whom have been forced to fill in for him on occasion. If you want to find out the story behind The Death of Rats, you'll need to pick up Reaper Man.

(4)Tales of Discworld: This was sort of my catch-all category for all of the various stand-alone novels which didn't feature any of the major characters from the other series in anything other than a cameo role. I have recently subdivided this category yet again, because there has been a recent trend in Pratchett's stand-alone novels which I felt deserved its own category.

(5)Tales of Ankh-Morpork: In the Discworld novels, Ankh-Morpork is the city of cities, the metropolis of metropolises, the place to which all roads on the Discworld lead. Ankh-Morpork has become almost a supporting character in and of itself in many of the novels, particularly those of The Watch. I have arbitrarily selected some of these to be moved to the Tales of Ankh-Morpork section, instead of the more generic Tales of Discworld section, even though some of the Tales of Discworld selections do take place primarily in Ankh-Morpork. What makes the big distinction between the two categories for me? Well, if hard pressed, I'd have to say that the larger a role played by the Patrician, the Machiavellian ruler of Ankh-Morpork, the more likely I'd be to move it into this section. Sure, there are only two books that fall into this category right now, but they just happen to be two of my favorite books in the series, so I have hopes for more.

(6)The Watch: I had to save the best for last. By far my favorite of the different sub-groups of novels. I've loved seeing the evolution of the City Watch from a group of drunken, shifty, bumbling fools to a well-oiled machine. Okay, maybe not well-oiled; how about oiled-more-often-than-not-if-they-remember machine? To me, The Watch novels are the heart of the Discworld series and Sam Vimes is the heart of The Watch. I think the character of Sam more than any other shows Pratchett’s ability to have his characters grow and change without losing the core of who they are. In addition, The Watch novels have a great cast of secondary characters, including werewolves, golems, vampires, Captain Carrot the 6-foot tall dwarf, and the one and only Nobby Nobbs, who is technically human, but has to carry around a certificate of humanity to convince most people, and even then they think it’s forged. The last book I read, Thud! was the most recent of The Watch novels, and it was just as excellent as all the rest.

I’m not sure if my descriptions here have done Pratchett’s work justice, but I hope my enthusiasm at least will prompt someone to give them a try. And now, before I go, a list of the major novels in the series in order of publication, with my own personal label out to the side. Enjoy!

The Colour of Magic [Rincewind]
The Light Fantastic [Rincewind]
Equal Rites [Tales of Discworld]
Mort [Death]
Sourcery [Rincewind]
Wyrd Sisters [Three Witches]
Pyramids [Tales of Discworld]
Guards! Guards! [The Watch]
Eric [Rincewind]
Moving Pictures [Tales of Discworld]
Reaper Man [Death]
Witches Abroad [Three Witches]
Small Gods [Tales of Discworld]
Lords and Ladies [Three Witches]
Men at Arms [The Watch]
Soul Music [Death]
Interesting Times [Rincewind]
Maskerade [Three Witches]
Feet of Clay [The Watch]
Hogfather [Death]
Jingo [The Watch]
The Last Continent [Rincewind]
Carpe Jugulum [Three Witches]
The Fifth Elephant [The Watch]
The Truth [Tales of Ankh-Morpork]
Thief of Time [Death]
The Last Hero [Rincewind]
Night Watch [The Watch]
Monstrous Regiment [Tales of Discworld]
Going Postal [Tales of Ankh-Morpork]
Thud! [The Watch]