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Alternate History and Terry Pratchett: Mort

By Thomas Anderson.

A fan favourite.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In my previous article, we looked at how Terry Pratchett uses Alternate History (AH) idea in (the revised form of) his first book, The Carpet People. Today, we’re going to move on to his best known work, the epic Discworld series. Consisting of forty-one novels (and a lot of other material) produced over a 32-year period from 1983 to 2015, Discworld is difficult to describe just because of how little basis for comparison there is to anything else ever written. The Discworld books are comic fantasy works that started out as parodies of the fantasy genre, then – without ever losing their trademark humour and warmth – eventually became studies of what it means to be human, cloaked in the guise of a fantastic setting.

The titular Discworld is a flat world carried on four elephants standing on a turtle’s back, as in some versions of Hindu cosmography, but this fact is almost always irrelevant to the story taking place. What matters is the people who live there. Discworld is a world and mirror of worlds, a place that exists right on the edge of the possible, where magic is real, commonplace, but somehow rather embarrassingly disorganised. Pratchett’s writing is heavily enriched by his awareness of historical trivia and the absurdity of the real world we live in – ‘Roundworld’, as it was eventually dubbed. For example, I used to laugh at Pratchett’s Unseen University (named for the real-life ‘Invisible College’, a predecessor to the Royal Society) for being an obvious comically exaggerated parody of traditional British Oxbridge academia with magic thrown in. After actually attending Cambridge, I found that the exaggeration was rather smaller than I had imagined.

It's done time as Unseen University and Barad-Dur. Cambridge University Library is, however, scarier than either of these.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I could spend a long time talking about Discworld as a setting, and will do in another context, but these articles are about how AH is used in Pratchett’s writing. In this case, we are going to look at the fourth Discworld novel, Mort. Like most long-running series, Discworld took a few books to settle down to a recognisable form. I actually really like the debut novel, The Colour of Magic, but for reasons completely separate to the reasons I like most Discworld books (this one, unlike most, is intimately concerned with examining and showing off the setting and conceit). Most critics would probably fix Guards! Guards!, the eighth novel, as the point at which the series settles down into a familiar state. Mort, however, is an important step in that direction. Death, the Grim Reaper, is the only character who appears in every single Discworld novel. In his earlier appearances, he is portrayed as a straightforward antagonist, nigh-sociopathic, constantly frustrated at the ability of early protagonist Rincewind, the cowardly failed ‘wizzard’, to escape death in the adventures he finds himself thrust into. But Death would later become a fan favourite character for, conversely, being portrayed as a sympathetic figure who is secretly on the side of humanity (while failing to understand them). After all, without us he’d be out of a job. Mort is the point at which this change to the character really takes shape.

The titular Mort is a young lad on a farm in the Octarine Grass Country (octarine is the titular Colour of Magic from the earlier book, the eighth colour of the rainbow on Discworld). He seems inept at everything he does and his father worries he won’t be able to have him apprenticed. Indeed, Mort is ignored by all the usual employers, of for Death to show up at the last minute and hire him instead. We are introduced (or reintroduced, as they briefly appear in The Light Fantastic) to Death’s house in another realm, his adopted daughter Ysabell (who has been sixteen for 35 years, as time does not pass in his realm) and his manservant Albert, who turns out to be the founder of Unseen University two millennia ago, Alberto Malich. In a typically Pratchettian touch, it turns out Albert tried to become immortal by performing the Rite of AshkEnte (which summons Death) in reverse. However, instead of sending Death away from him, it instead sent him to Death’s country, an arrangement which worked out well for him in the end.

The first death Mort assists his new master with is that of King Olerve the Bastard of Sto Lat, murdered as part of a multi-part takeover attempt by the cunning Duke of Sto Helit. Of course, Death’s role is not to actually kill anyone but merely to sever the soul from the body when a crossbow bolt hits it. Mort is naturally troubled by the lack of moral judgement in who lives and who dies, a recurring story element. Death warns him, however, that TO TINKER WITH THE FATE OF ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Death also TALKS IN BLOCK CAPITALS.

Initially, Olerve’s death leaves his daughter Kelirehenna (Keli) as ruler of Sto Lat, still a princess but eventually to be crowned queen. However, she is next on the Duke’s list to clear his own path to the throne. As it happens, when she’s due to be murdered some time later, Death has enough confidence in Mort to take the day off and leave him to carry out THE DUTY. This time, though, Mort makes the fateful decision to go against fate and ensures that Keli lives while her attempted assassin dies. This is where the AH elements come in, and they are fascinatingly executed.

Discworld runs on narrative imperative, the power of story, the power of belief. I mean that this is actually understood and recognised in-universe. For example, in Guards! Guards! our heroes try to ensure that their attempt to slay a dragon is a million-to-one chance (to the point of making it harder on purpose), because in a story, million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten. In Mort, this manifests itself as history itself having momentum. “Bluntly, the universe knew Keli was dead and was therefore rather surprised to find that she hadn’t stopped walking and breathing yet.” Keli’s palace servants ignore her by default, become upset and anxious when she forces them to acknowledge her in a conversation, and keep automatically flying the flag at half-mast and ordering mourning drapes. Frustrated, she finds one person who can see her immediately – a young wizard named Igneous Cutwell. Wizards have already been established to be capable of seeing things others cannot, such as Death and the colour octarine.

Cutwell is appointed ‘Royal Recogniser’ and enacts a plan to try and force history to go along with the change, erecting pictures of Keli everywhere and having the town-criers remind people of her existence. “I thought that if people could come to believe in her, then this new reality could become the real one,” he explains, with the analogy that, on Discworld, the gods exist because people believe in them (mostly – or, as later clarified, at least their power stems from that). However, it doesn’t work. “People were beginning to get upset and they didn’t know why, and that made it worse. Their minds were in one reality and their bodies were in another. Very unpleasant.”

I hope I may be forgiven for quoting more because I really cannot improve on the poetry of the original narrative. “[History] has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back to its old familiar shape.” It goes on to explain how the discontinuity is manifesting. “In the city of Sto Lat, Princess Keli still ruled, with a certain amount of difficulty and with the full-time aid of the Royal Recogniser... In the lands outside, though... the traditional reality still held sway and she was quite definitely dead, the duke was king and the world was proceeding sedately according to plan, whatever that was.”

So, what about where the realities meet? “The sort of historical event horizon was currently about twenty miles away from the city, and wasn’t yet very noticeable. That’s because the – well, call it the difference in historical pressures – wasn’t yet very great. But it was growing. Out in the damp cabbage fields, there was a shimmer in the air and a faint sizzle, like frying grasshoppers. People didn’t alter history any more than birds alter the sky; they just make brief patterns in it. Inch by inch, implacable as a glacier and far colder, the real reality was grinding back towards Sto Lat.”

This concept, the historical ‘interface’ – which is invisible to most people, but Mort sees as a shrinking dome centred on the palace (or actually on Keli herself) – is a great example of the kind of original thinking one sees in Discworld even from the early books. The pressure of the original timeline is forcing the changed on backwards to Sto Lat. Mort is able to see both realities as he had taken on some of the nature of Death, including being able to walk through walls; not because he is insubstantial, but because he has become so real that ordinary reality pales into insignificance beside him.

Mort’s description of the interface is also evidence that Terry Pratchett understood the butterfly effect and chaos theory better than even many dedicated AH authors. One of the first things he sees is a bird fly into it and disappear, then re-emerge from it a few seconds later. In one timeline, the bird is flying through the sky at the time; in the other it is not. Later, he sees the interface as a silvery upturned saucer while the Hub Lights (the equivalent of the Northern Lights) flicker in the wintry sky. “Clouds were drifting through it. No. He watched carefully. Clouds were certainly drifting into it, and there were clouds in it, but the clouds inside were wispier and moving in a slightly different direction and, in fact, didn’t seem to have much to do with the clouds outside.” Under the dome there is also no sign of the green Hub Lights. “It was like looking into a piece of another world, almost identical, that had been grafted on to the Disc. The weather was slightly different in there, and the Lights weren’t on display tonight. And the Disc was resenting it, and surrounding it, and pushing it back into non-existence... Reality was healing itself.” The butterfly effect is often described in terms that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings alone, a few weeks or months later, can result in totally different weather. There are still many AH books which might feature a different WW2, and then Hurricane Katrina still happens on cue in 2005, even though any meteorologist will tell you that’s simply not possible. Terry Pratchett in 1987, writing a book that isn’t even primarily about AH, understands that the change Mort has wrought to the timeline, seemingly unconnected, has reset the chaotic system of the weather so that the changed timeline will have different weather conditions.

We also see this understanding of indirect change manifesting in a related scene, where Mort goes to a pub called the Queen’s Head (or the Quene’s Hed, as bad mediaeval spelling is a running joke in early Discworld books before being largely abandoned). The locals try a hazing ritual by giving him the deadly moonshine cider ‘scumble’, initially without success as Mort is now too ‘real’ to become intoxicated. However, we then get the scene from the landlord’s perspective as Mort seemingly succumbs to the side-effects of scumble, seeing something coming through the wall that isn’t there. Not a scaly monster like the usual scumble hallucination though, but a sizzling mist...

From our narrative from the landlord’s point of view, nothing has changed, of course, confusing him when Mort demands to know why he’s not wearing his green shirt now (and how Mort knows he has one). And why all the punters are sitting in different places. And why the sign now reads The Duke’s Head. Just like it always has, since the King died, right? Telling the scene from the perspective of someone who can’t perceive the interface and therefore only remembers the original reality as though that’s always been the case is a much more interesting storytelling technique than if we’d just seen it from Mort’s perspective and seen the change. We get to perceive just how crazy Mort sounds, from the perspective of everyone else, when he talks about seeing the change. And again, this is a good example of showing how a point of divergence has indirect effects. Directly, we see the change to the name of the pub to reflect the politics of the world as it ‘should’ be according to the original history; indirectly, the punters happened to choose different seats and the landlord chose a different shirt today, reflecting the fact that all decisions will be affected by the ripple effect from a seemingly unrelated change.

Mort, by this point. Has already learned another important concept often discussed in AH – the idea that a seemingly morally positive change (such as killing Hitler) can actually lead to a worse outcome (see Command & Conquer: Red Alert). In this case, he looks at Death’s future history books from his library and learns that: “although [the Duke]’s absolutely rotten to the core, he’d unite the cities and eventually they’ll be a federation and the books say there’ll be a hundred years of peace and plenty.’ It seems as though everything is going wrong.

Keli coronation is moved up so that it can happen before the interface closes on the palace, initially with the hope that it might increase people’s belief in her, but eventually just out of her own pride and stubbornness. This leads to a comedy of errors such as trying to persuade the officiating high priest to hurry up his lengthy service in which he mentions all the Discworld’s nine hundred known gods. The Duke, somewhat redundantly, tries and fails to have Keli murdered mere moments before the interface will come through the wall and reset history so she was already murdered, but is knocked out by Cutwell with a candlestick. In the end, Mort (who is becoming more and more Death-like while Death has gone ‘on holiday’) brings Keli and Cutwell into Death’s country, disappearing into the other realm while the interface shrinks and vanishes, reality now completely reset.

I won’t get into the final climax of the book because it involves a lot of other factors beyond the AH subplot I have discussed, but suffice to say that things work out. Death, initially furious, is able to get history changed after all: I HAD A WORD WITH THE GODS... THE GODS ARE JUST. THEY ARE ALSO SENTAMENTALISTS. I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO MASTER IT, MYSELF. The price is that Mort, now married to Ysabell, has to take the Duke’s place in history and unite the kingdoms so that the broad tide of history can get back on track. (It’s never actually discussed how the original Duke died...) Keli can remain as Queen. We’ll see more of this idea in some later books which introduce the History Monks; after talking a lot about how the rules can’t be changed and history must proceed, in practice they may end up quietly amending the books with tipp-ex.

Mort is a great book for many reasons other than the intelligent way it writes about AH, and only as a secondary plot at that. It is a good illustration in how reading Terry Pratchett at a young age will spoil many other authors for one, for all the things one takes for granted as a result.

The book that started this article.

Available here.

Next time, we’ll look at related AH discussions in the later Discworld book Small Gods.

Comment on this article here.

Thomas Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

among others.


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