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Alternate History and Terry Pratchett. Part 7: Johnny and the Bomb

By Tom Anderson

Johnny and the Bomb. Featuring a Time Trolley. From the BBC production.

Picture courtesy BBC Press Office.

In this final article in my series looking at how the author Terry Pratchett used Alternate History (AH) concepts and tropes in non-AH works. I’ll be looking at one of his children’s fiction works, the third of the so-called Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, Johnny and the Bomb, from 1996.

Like many ‘trilogies’, this one is anything but (see my previous article: The Fake Trilogy). Pratchett wrote a story in 1992 titled Only You Can Save Mankind which, as one can tell from the title, was not especially meant to be part of a series; however, he then did two more independent stories, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb utilising (mostly) the same characters. I’ll give a little background on those characters and the first two books, but my main focus is going to be on the third.

Our protagonist is Johnny Maxwell, a boy (twelve in the first book) who lives in Blackbury, a typical late 20th century English town (which, in the later books at least, is also the location of the department store Arnold Bros (est 1905) in Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy). Johnny “sees things others can’t see”. Other than this, he is almost ridiculously normal, and frustrates his more imaginative friends at how down-to-earth he is and how he accepts these peculiar happenings. Especially in the first book, there is some ambiguity over whether these things are really happening to him or if his imagination plays a part, with hints at him being influenced by trauma over his parents’ marriage breaking down and seeing the 1991 Gulf War, ‘the first videogame war’ reported on the news. Pratchett, naturally, was rather frustrated at people interpreting this as Johnny ‘projecting fantasy onto reality’, and retorted (on the fansite in 1997) that conversely he was ‘projecting reality onto fantasy… So: is what happens in the books real? Yes. Does it all happen in Johnny’s head? Yes.’ Personally, I’m not sure where the ambiguity lies after (already before the end of the first book) others are drawn into the same setting and experience it for themselves.

Johnny has an eclectic group of friends whom, as is common in British schools both public and comprehensive, are mostly known only by their nicknames. Stephen ‘Wobbler’ Johnson wants to be a computer nerd “but they wouldn’t let him in” and kickstarts the action in the first book by providing Johnny with a pirate copy of a new computer game, the titular Only You Can Save Mankind. Simon ‘Bigmac’ Wrigley is a wannabe skinhead and twocker who “tries really hard to be a big thicko” but is actually a maths prodigy against his will. Nobody has quite explained to him the significance of the swastikas and Nazi slogans on his black leather jacket, as evidenced by his friendship with Yo-less (real name not given), a West Indian boy with “uncool” hobbies like Star Trek, Morris dancing, and trainspotting. Along with Duane Dibbley from Red Dwarf, Yo-less was one of the first times anyone (certainly in UK fiction) had written a black nerd. In addition to these three friends, in the course of the first book, Johnny meets Kirsty (surname not given), a very organised and intelligent girl with poor people skills who dislikes her name and goes by varying aliases such as Sigourney and Kasandra. She does not appear in Johnny and the Dead, but does in the first and third books. She is also responsible for one of my favourite lines in the third book, when a bewildered Johnny is dragged along with her rapid-fire organising of a plan over the phone – “You’ll need money. That’s the round stuff you find in your pockets. Ciao.”

Standing: Bigmac, Yo-less, Wobbler, Kirsty.

Front row: Johnny and some guy in a hat.

Picture courtesy BBC Press Office.

Only You Can Save Mankind is about Johnny starting to play the aforementioned pirated space shooter game, only to discover that the enemy alien ScreeWee’s leader wants to surrender to him and retreat to their home space. The scenario is an interesting one – as is common in these games, the player’s spacecraft is well armed and armoured compared to the alien hordes he’s fighting, and we get to see things from the alien perspective, where they’re facing a vast number of powerful human-piloted fighters (none of whose pilots can perceive the others’ existence). Johnny meets Kirsty in a dream game-world before he does in real life and has to try and prevent her attacking the ScreenWee (a scene which influenced the beginning of my own novel The Surly Bonds of Earth). At one point, an older relative mentions Space Invaders to Johnny, and later in the dream game-world his ship encounters a wreck of a gigantic, blocky, and angular spacecraft, implying all alien invasion games take place in the same shared universe and the ScreeWee are heading for destruction as well. I won’t go into more detail here, but it’s a very interesting concept.

Johnny and the Dead (1993) is, I feel, probably the weakest of the three books. An evil property developer (omnipresent in all 1990s children’s fiction, hence why Britain now has a housing shortage because nobody will let them build anywhere) wants to build a new development on top of an old graveyard. The basic message is that even though the people buried in that graveyard were not world-changing celebrities, their lives were still important, and Johnny encounters several of them. Not their ghosts, of course; as Brian Blessed says in the TV adaptation: “I’m not a GHOST! I’m just DEAD, that’s all!” There’s plenty of Pratchett fun here and a bit poignancy, when we see the last survivor of the ‘Blackbury Pals’ WW1 battalion pass away and finally join his mates who died at the Somme, but overall I don’t find the story as interesting as that of the other two.

Johnny and the Bomb, from 1996, is the main subject of this article. This also got a TV adaptation, but it didn’t come out for another decade so I’ve never seen it. The book opens with the boys (after having seen a film) discussing the idea of time-travelling to kill Hitler, and getting it amusingly wrong in the typical Terry Pratchett way. “Yes, but supposing you accidentally shot your own grandfather,” Yo-less points out.

“I wouldn’t. He doesn’t look a bit like Adolf Hitler,” Bigmac retorts.

Yo-less tries to explain further, and when asked why he’s such an expert, points out that he has three shelves of Star Trek videos. Later, when Kirsty is also speculating about this, Yo-less asks suspiciously if she has a shelf of Star Trek videos, and receives an embarrassedly noncommittal answer. As someone who still has a shelf of Star Trek videos, I approve.

Old Mrs Tachyon, a bag lady who has been an occasional background presence in the other books, ends up in a car accident and in hospital, with her shopping trolley (cart, to American readers) in the boys’ hands. When the typically logical Kirsty takes a look, she realises that things aren’t making sense. The trolley contains sooty jars of pickles with labels from the 1930s and fish and chips wrapped in a newspaper from 1941 that looks brand new. Furthermore, Johnny’s grandfather can remember Mrs Tachyon always being there in the background as an old woman – but apparently nobody thought to question this until Kirsty, much to her frustration. Meanwhile, fitting Kirsty’s imaginative theorising about Men in Black, a mysterious captain of industry named Sir John is making his way towards Blackbury in a sleek black limousine accompanied by guards. He, too, is discussing time travel, with his chauffer.

Johnny refuses to believe Mrs Tachyon’s trolley can possibly be a time machine. After all: “A time machine’d have flashing lights.” When Kirsty asks: “What for?” he retorts: “To flash.” (Another of my favourite lines from the book). While arguing, Johnny accidentally uses the trolley to briefly travel back in time to when the concrete beneath his feet was being laid, leaving him standing in his own footprints when he returns. Kirsty, warming up to enthusiasm (and comparing herself favourably to Enid Blyton characters) wants to use it to bet on horse races.

Meanwhile, Johnny has recognised the significance of the date on the newspaper: May 21st 1941, the night of the Blackbury Blitz. He had to do a project on it in school. It’s little known, as the Luftwaffe weren’t even aiming for Blackbury, but killed nineteen people in Paradise Street. The only survivors were two goldfish in a bowl blown into a tree.

So far, so good. This is clearly shaping up to be a time travel story in which our protagonists go back to WW2, and indeed it is. But there is more to it than that. While trying to flee from Sir John’s mysterious black car, Johnny and Kirsty are nearly in a car accident, but there’s a flicker of light and then suddenly the traffic is in different positions and the traffic lights have changed. The black car has vanished and Kirsty is wearing a different coat. They are confused by Sir John explains to his chauffeur that they have travelled sideways, from one 1996 to another 1996. The chauffeur brings up Stephen Hawking, but Sir John says that for you and me, it’s best to stick to the Pratchett idea of the Trousers of Time.

Wobbler, Bigmac, and Yo-less are in the burger place at the Neil Armstrong Shopping Mall (heavily implied to be a McDonald’s) and Wobbler is trying to do a joke, but gets the punchline wrong: “Make me one with everything, because I’m going to become a Muslim!” (When, as Yo-less patiently points out, it should be ‘Buddhist’). After Kirsty and Johnny meet them, they escape a renewed pursuit by time-travelling to a time before the mall existed – as Johnny suspected, 1941. A panicking Wobbler flees across the fields. Bigmac and Yo-less point out that this could be a problem if they travel back to a place where there’s an object already occupying the space where they are. Yo-less goes into detail and explains that this might cause some sort of nuclear explosion: “Good night, Europe.” Typically for Terry Pratchett, this leads to a fun digression where they argue about whether it’s accurate to say: “Fridge atoms, the smallest possible particle of fridge”, or whether they’d be ‘fridge molecules’ and so on.

The rest of the group rapidly encounter some of the disadvantages of time travel when a shopkeeper addresses Yo-less as ‘Sambo’, and they have to claim he’s: “Prince Sega, all the way from Nintendo”.

Meanwhile, the panicked Wobbler is trying to find his house, only for Seeley Crescent, where it’s located, not to exist yet. He does, however, find the Councillor Seeley after whom it will be named, along with a boy who turns out to be his own grandfather. Meanwhile, Bigmac is arrested by the police after trying to steal a car, and assumed to be a spy after he doesn’t know the answers to basic questions like who’s the captain of the England cricket team. The swastikas on his jacket don’t help, either. His tiny modern radio, which can pick up the Home Service “clear as a bell” is also suspicious.

Our heroes (other than Wobbler) manage to escape back to the present day, where they run into Sir John. He takes them to the burger bar, whose colour scheme has now changed to blue and white. It turns out he owns the company. Johnny starts to suspect something, and this is confirmed when Sir John asks the waitress: “Make me one with everything, because I’m going to become a Muslim.” This is time-displaced Wobbler, left behind in 1941 to grow up with Councillor Seeley’s family. Though he didn’t know how to invent future technology (a trope discussed here), he did know that 1952 was a good time to invent the burger fast food restaurant, right down to the clown mascot called Willie Wobbler. (“It was a more innocent time.”) Then: “I started to listen to people. People with bright ideas. Like: “I think I could make a tape recorder really small so people could carry it around,” and I’d say: “That might just catch on, you know. Here’s some money to get started.” He was given a knighthood in 1968 for services to making lots of money, as he puts it.

Sir John is now dying, but he tracked them down to explain, passing on a letter to his other self. Though Kirsty protests they are going back to rescue his younger self, he notes that the possibility that they didn’t will always exist, somewhere, as another timeline. Johnny understands.

Indeed, they are able to go back and rescue Wobbler, and even bring them the One With Everything BigWob that Sir John isn’t allowed to eat on his diet, which our Wobbler devours despite suspicion about the ‘old fart’ on the packaging. There’s also a fun sequence where Kirsty has decided to dress in period clothes to blend in, but has forgotten that 1941 doesn’t so much have a concept of teenagers, so the people think she’s dressing up in her mum’s clothes.

The story isn’t over, however, as we might have been able to guess. We’ve been having visceral paragraphs of Johnny feeling the time period. All the chimneys and factories in 1941. “No-one made anything in Blackbury in 1996. There was a factory that put together some computers, and some big warehouses, and the Department of Road Signs regional headquarters. People just moved things around, or added up numbers.” That is a summary of late 20th Century British declinist sentiment that is still very relevant today. Meanwhile, Yo-less and Kirsty, in between accusing each other of Star Trek fandom, point out that they need to retrieve Bigmac’s items from the police to avoid contaminating the future. In addition, the boy whom Wobbler encountered – whom he belatedly realised is his own grandfather – ended up going to Paradise Street due to his actions, and could die in the Blitz tonight and erase him from history.

Johnny’s perceptions are continuing to bend – it’s hinted that the previous blinking into different timelines was due to him, not the time travel trolley. In the end, in part because he is able to warp time in a way similar to that seen in the later Discworld book Thief of Time, they are able to save not only Wobbler’s grandfather but everyone on Paradise Street, changing history. The blitz does still blow up a pickle factory, though, leaving pickles raining everywhere. I’m pretty certain this was based on a real event, as one of the Blitz eyewitnesses in the documentary Thirteen Hours That Saved Britain had an identical story.

They return to 1996 – but a subtly different 1996. Kirsty is concerned that someone who survived Paradise Street might have invented the ‘Z-bomb’, despite Johnny’s point that the likelihood of someone who was bombed out inventing a bomb seems slim. Soon afterwards, everyone except Johnny starts to forget the events of their time travel adventures, as though history is healing itself. However, Kirsty remembers when she finds a pickled onion in her pocket. It turns out that the aircraft spotter they helped alert Paradise Street to the coming blitz was Johnny’s grandfather, and the Olympics had been interested after the war as, thanks to Johnny warping time, he seemed to run impossibly fast to report it.

We end the story with Mrs Tachyon, out of hospital, who takes her trolley back. In 1941, a sergeant gives her a sixpence for her tea, but having checked the date of 1903 and knowing inflation, she goes back to that year and has fish and chips with change to spare instead. Nobody ever thought of the time travellers when they decimalised the pound.

So that is Johnny and the Bomb – not only an interesting time travel story for a younger audience, but also one that may introduce them to the concept of alternate timelines and the butterfly effect. That is the end of my articles looking at AH in the works of Terry Pratchett, but next I’ll be doing the same in a different fictional franchise – Stargate.

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

The Look To The West series

The Surly Bonds of Earth

Not An English Word

among others.

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