By Tom Anderson
Before I begin, I should preface this article by saying that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is probably my single favourite book series of all time, one which I grew up with and was a profound influence on my own writing and humour. If you have not yet acquainted yourself with this magnificent work of fiction, then I urge you to do so. Discworld is often shuffled under the fantasy section of the bookshop, but to do so is to misunderstand its core principles. That fantasy section is usually stuffed with overextended trilogies of eleven numbered books, getting more and more brick-thick as you go, and frequently starring characters that rip off Tolkien while missing the message of ”The Lord of the Rings” and thinking Aragorn and Gandalf are the main characters. Terry Pratchett, by contrast, outgrew his “Tolkien-a-like” phase at the age of seventeen, when he published “The Carpet People”, a basic LOTR copy but one which, even at that age, humorously subverts it by setting it among microscopic people living in a carpet. (He would later rewrite the book in more of his signature style, may years later).
By the time “The Colour of Magic”, the first Discworld novel, arrived in 1983, Pratchett was already developing this style, which was so original and indefineable that reviewers memorably came up with bizarre descriptions like “Jerome K. Jerome meets Lord of the Rings with a dash of Peter Pan”. Another reviewer dismissed it as “doesn’t even write in chapters…hasn’t a clue” which Pratchett (or his publishers) hilariously and passive-aggressively used as the first cited reviewer quote on the first page for many subsequent Discworld books, after the series had become a multimillion-selling and world-changing series, just to mock the reviewer’s idiocy. Having said that, it is easy to see how critics who can only think in terms of ‘X, but it’s Y’ would fail to understand Discworld’s appeal, because there is nothing quite like it. The closest comparison at the time of its debut would be Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, but even that is somewhat tenuous.
“The Colour of Magic” was followed by a direct sequel starring the same main characters, “The Light Fantastic”, but from the third book “Equal Rites” onwards, part of the Discworld formula became clear. Again unlike those brick-thick Tolkien-a-like distended fantasy trilogies, Discworld is not a straightforward succession of parts involving the same characters in repetitive adventures. Rather, Discworld is a setting, an entire world’s worth of places and concepts in which to set stories. Over time, various continuing ‘themes’ developed using casts of characters, which might then cross over. Beginning with Rincewind the hapless failed wizard in “The Colour of Magic” and “The Light Fantastic”, others included Death in “Mort”, “Reaper Man”, etc., Granny Weatherwax and the Lancre witches in “Equal Rites”, “Wyrd Sisters”, etc., Sam Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in “Guards! Guards!”, “Men at Arms”, etc., and many more. There are also some one-off novels that never got sequels and whose characters are self-contained, like “Moving Pictures” and “The Truth”.
Importantly, the reading order in Discworld is largely unimportant. While a reading order within a theme is probably sensible as they will naturally hint at the outcomes of previous books, even this is not as important as one might think. As a child and teenager I was largely limited by what my school library had, and ended up reading “Men at Arms” (still my single favourite Discworld novel) before its predecessor “Guards! Guards”, yet never felt I had missed out on anything as a result.
This tendency is the bounty of how Terry Pratchett approached the series, never really treating it as ‘a series’. Stylistically and thematically, the Discworld series evolved considerably over time, and it is often these changes rather than in-universe events which stand out (though the two are related, as we’ll see). “The Colour of Magic” is very different to all the others, written in a fantasy purple prose style which I personally find really compelling and enjoyable on its own, but would probably rapidly get boring if it had continued. It also more specifically and explicitly parodies other fantasy franchises, including Fritz Leiber’s “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser”, Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern”, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulthu mythos, Vancian magic/Dungeons and Dragons, and much more. As I read it before being aware of any of these, it had the side effect that I am now incapable of taking any of them entirely seriously.
“The Colour of Magic” also devotes considerable time and verbiage to explaining what Discworld is in great detail: a real version of the old ‘world-turtle’ myth (present in many cultures from China to India to Native Americans) of the Earth as a flat circular world on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle. It is only possible, on the very edge of probability, because magic is so strong there and reality is more of an opinion, and ‘the gods are not so much worshipped as blamed’. We hear about concepts such as the number eight being very important (and taboo to speak) to magic, that a Discworld year lasts 800 days for the disc to revolve beneath the tiny orbiting sun, which warms the balmy Rim more than the icebound mountainous Hub, etc. All this worldbuilding, much of it told through footnotes (a Pratchett calling card) near the start of the book, is in stark contrast to the attitude Pratchett rapidly developed in later books. Any of it that didn’t fit was quickly abandoned, such as the 800-day-long-year as it would obviously confuse descriptions of how old characters were. There’s a lot of D&D or Vancian style descriptions of wizards having eight power levels (and in “The Light Fantastic”, eight orders) which would be abandoned only a few books later. There’s a brief mention in the book that elves and trolls are the only magical races to have survived the ‘coming of men’ to the Disc, which would be almost entirely reversed in later books – elves are the only race that aren’t present here and now, whereas trolls, dwarfs, gnomes and so on remain important.
Stylistically the book is also very different to its successors, with Rincewind acting as more of a cynical reader archetype frustrated with the illogical way the world works; when foreign tourist Twoflower has a camera-like device that takes photographs, Rincewind is initially excited by the idea of a new technology, only to find it is powered by an imprisoned minor demon painting pictures really fast. Later books would take this in two different directions. First, for about the first half of the series of forty-one(!!) books, everyone would be fairly resigned to the way the world works; then from around “The Truth” onwards, things change. The Patrician, the city of Ankh-Morpork’s (mostly) benevolent dictator, has a world-weary spiel about an attempt to set up the city’s first printing press, noting that every time there’s been a previous similar breakthrough, it has turned out to be cursed and never comes to anything long-term as the reset button is pushed. (As indeed happened with film in “Moving Pictures”, a shopping mall in “Reaper Man”, firearms in “Men at Arms” and so on). But the Patrician is wrong for once; the printing press survives the end of the book and changes the city forever. It is joined by other breakthroughs, such as a semaphore communications system, ‘the clacks’, based on the real-like Chappe telegraph semaphore (which, before you ask, made me aware of it so I could use it in my “Look to the West” series!) and, in the final two books, the steam engine and the railways. This is the final culmination of Discworld’s slow shift from a classic ‘mediaeval stasis’ fantasy setting (at least in trappings) to something more like steampunk.
This change from stasis to progress is often matched by throwaway jokes from earlier books being re-examined in a more serious context; your mileage may vary on whether this adds depth or spoils the jokes (I would say it depends on the specific cases). For example, early books feature everyone (including Sam Vimes) writing in a poorly spelled or faux-mediaeval style, yet a few books later Vimes is mocking his subordinate Carrot specifically for ‘wanton cruelty to the common comma’. Yet this left a discrepency, because a throwaway joke in “Men at Arms” involved the disused Post Office having a sign reading ‘Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor Glom Of Nit’…years later, the same appears in “Going Postal” and we learn that this is actually because some of the letters were stolen years ago, and this is a semi-important plot point. Similarly, “Men at Arms” also features largely comedically depicted ethnic violence between dwarf and troll communities in Ankh-Morpork based on the anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley, ‘the only recorded battle in history in which both sides ambushed the other’. By the time “Thud!” rolls around, suddenly this is not a joke but a deadly serious background cause to viscerally depicted ancestral ethnic strife. At the same time, some things that used to be rendered seriously in early books (like rules of magic) are joked about as ‘more guidelines’ in later books.
I go into all this to explain that finding a sense of ‘time’ in a Discworld book, knowing where you are in this series, is not really about a strict chronological ‘is this character still alive’ as it might be in a different one, but more often about the style and presentation shifting over time. Indeed, and in contrast to his early worldbuilding infodumps (probably written when he didn’t envisage Discworld becoming a continuing series, or rather a recurring setting) Pratchett rapidly took on an attitude of going against strict chronology and consistency of setting. He did not attempt to keep consistency if it overruled storytelling possibilities, and always tried to ensure there was space left on the map to tell more tales. Indeed, this is not only a metaphor. Superfan and eventual collaborator Stephen Briggs had to fight for years for Pratchett to agree to let him map the city of Ankh-Morpork, and then years more to map the Discworld itself.
Ankh-Morpork itself changed in character considerably from the first book (a process made more plausible by the fact that it burned down in said book); for example, that book features a more brutal and less refined version of the Assassins’ Guild, the idea of a Merchants’ Guild as a new thing, and the Patrician presented as a venal and cruel ruler who enjoys rare delicacies, in contrast to the austere and disinterestedly amoral Patrician of later books. As the first book’s Patrician is not actually mentioned by name as Lord Vetinari, and it was briefly mentioned at one point that Vetinari’s predecessor had been the cruel Mad Lord Snapcase, fans suggested this was the identity of the first Patrician to appear – but Pratchett always resisted this, saying simply that the Patrician of the first book was Vetinari as written by a younger and less experienced author. (And indeed Vetinari’s first named appearance, in “Sourcery”, has more in common with this venal depiction than his later character that crystallised in “Guards! Guards!”) Similarly, Death in “The Colour of Magic” is presented as a hostile and vindictive force, in stark contrast to the Discworld’s series iconically sympathetic portrayal of the Grim Reaper that began around the fourth book, “Mort”. The Unseen University of wizards is an amoral, Vancian Gormenghast, in contrast to its later portrayal as a sort of magical Oxbridge in terms of academic oddities and traditions (which, before attending the real University of Cambridge, I mistakenly assumed was some kind of comedic exaggeration). However, there is at least an in-universe reason for a change here, involving the events of “Sourcery” and the appointment of Ridcully as a tough Archchancellor whose ‘unkillability’ brings an end to the practice of internal assassination and ‘dead men’s pointy shoes’.
To return to chronology, this in particular was always deliberately vague and formless. “Interesting Times” features a return to Rincewind and Twoflower from the first two books, and there are attempts to show Rincewind reacting to how Ankh-Morpork has changed when he returns there, but it’s never quite clear how much time has passed. In “Equal Rites” Granny Weatherwax visits Ankh-Morpork, meets various people there and is hinted to have had a childhood connection with Archchancellor Cutangle of Unseen University (which is never followed up on, as this was still the period when it was a new Archchancellor with each book). Then in “Wyrd Sisters” Granny and the other witches of Lancre pull a trick to move the kingdom forward 15 years in time, giving time for an exiled heir to grow up, come back and free the kingdom from a usurper without giving the latter that time to ruin it. However, later books basically ignore this time discontinuity; Granny had a childhood romance with Ridcully (a copy-paste of the plot point with Cutangle from the earlier book!) and, when she returns to Ankh-Morpork in “Maskerade”, meets some of the same people again with no hint that they’ve aged fifteen years in a time she didn’t. Again, all of this goes to the root of the Discworld series – rule of fun and storytelling overrules consistency every time.
As a young reader I found this attitude quite irritating, and it is only as an author myself that I now grasp its utility. This is not simply about chronology or worldbuilding, it is also about general consistency of setting and continuity nods. Though Discworld does include some nods to earlier books, there are also often a lot of moments where one would expect them and they don’t happen, or we get something contradictory instead. Over time, and with the growth of the internet (for which Pratchett was an enthusiastic early adopter) fans helped reduce this tendency. For example, in earlier drafts of “The Truth”, Unseen University’s mad Bursar would give his name as ‘Worblehat with an o’; fans pointed out that Pratchett had previously given his name as Dinwiddie in “Hogfather” and Worblehat had been the hinted former name of the Librarian (one of Pratchett’s most iconic characters, a wizard transformed into an orangutang in “The Light Fantastic”). Pratchett changed the line to ‘Dinwiddie with an o’, an amusing piece of find and replace that makes no sense but fits perfectly with the Bursar’s lightly deranged character.
Again when I was younger, I found it hard to understand how an author could possibly not remember this themselves when I could – it’s only now as an author myself that I realise that a reader only sees the finished product, but an author remembers all the considered paths not taken and finds it hard to separate what they have put in print from what they haven’t. There is something a little bit subtly heartwrenching about the final Discworld novels, especially the wonderful penultimate work “Raising Steam”, because it is clear to the experienced reader that Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s was leading him to rely on fan help more than before – because the book features way more nice continuity nods than Pratchett would ever have put in organically.
I explain all of this to show that it would be rather challenging, and would miss the point in many ways, to write a Discworld prequel. And, indeed, no such thing exists, so what is the point of this article? Well, although no prequel strictly exists, Pratchett did write a time-travel story, “Night Watch”, which is similar in principle in many ways. In doing so he was going against his usual take that the shifting tone and concepts of Discworld should be taken only as a reflection of an author growing more experienced, and not reflective of changes in the world itself. In order to depict an earlier period, he would have to think about how much of his earlier writing style (or rather conceptual ideas) he wanted to reflect, and what he wanted to do differently.
Oddly enough, “Night Watch” follows straight on from “Thief of Time”, a book whose core point is actually to address and explain Discworld’s past chronological consistencies. In this, told largely from the perspective of the History Monks (who had previously appeared in “Small Gods”), we learn that time got fractured by a mad science experiment years earlier, the time-manipulating monks managed to stitch it back together, but leaving a lot of inconsistencies. The text amusingly highlights a number of inconsistencies previously noted by fans: “Small Gods” took place a century earlier but featured the same Ephebean philosophers as “Pyramids” set in the present day (caused by Pratchett only deciding later to make “Small Gods” a retrospective so the reformed Omnians could appear in the present day); Ankh-Morpork got a Shakespearean theatre as a ground-breaking new idea in “Wyrd Sisters” yet also has an ancient-looking opera house, and so on.
I enjoyed this take on explaining the oddities in a way that made sense in-universe, so it seemed a bit strange to me to immediately follow it up with a time-travel story that explicitly attempts to depict a previous era. Indeed it is the events of “Thief of Time” that trigger the time travel in question. Sam Vimes, originally conceived as a stand-in character in “Guards! Guards!” but who rapidly became a beloved protagonist, is hunting a serial killer named Carcer, who has just killed a dwarf Watch officer named Stronginthearm who had previously appeared in other books. Both are caught up in a time travel event and wake up decades earlier, in the days of Vimes’ youth. Vimes has to take on the identity of an older police officer while encountering his own younger self. (Before you ask, this story predates “Life on Mars” by four years!) It turns out that Vimes’ mentor, Sergeant John Keel, was killed by Carcer before arriving in the city, and Vimes has to take on his own identity to ensure his younger self is inspired to continue in the Watch (there are hints that Carcer plans to get revenge on Vimes by warping his younger self if he gets the chance). Vimes is visited by one of the History Monks who explains what he has to do to keep history on track.
So, let’s discuss how “Night Watch” presents the setting of the older Ankh-Morpork. As I hinted, there are problems caused by just how different in presentation it was in “The Colour of Magic”, which Pratchett chooses to largely ignore (with some exceptions). There is some of the sense of the dog-eat-dog hostility that felt more prevalent in the city in the earlier books, but fundamentally this is manifested differently because Pratchett mainly wants to write a pastiche of “Les Misérables”, and 1830s Paris is rather different from the low-fantasy Ankh-Morpork of “The Colour of Magic”. I feel that this discrepency led Pratchett to shy away from too many continuity nods lest they highlight it, which in my view hurts the book. For example, there is one mention of the bar called the Broken Drum (you can’t beat it) which appeared in “The Colour of Magic” before being replaced with the Mended Drum after the fire – but one gets the distinct impression that it’s only in there because some fan or editor insisted. The Assassins’ Guild is important to the story, but there isn’t an attempt to depict it as the more rough-and-ready group led by Zlord Flannelfoot in “The Colour of Magic” – it’s the same gentleman’s school with knives first depicted in “Pyramids”, featuring a young Lord Vetinari and the present-day head Lord Downey as his then-bully (attempted). It is then led by Lord Follett, a cameo for fellow British novelist Ken Follett.
But Terry Pratchett was always keen to say that Discworld is about people rather than the setting, and the point of “Night Watch” is more about the character of Sam Vimes. So let’s look at how Vimes’ own history, and that of the Watch, is depicted. First and foremost, the Night Watch are based at their old headquarters in Treacle Mine Road, which was burned down by the dragon in “Guards! Guards!”, Vimes’ first appearance in publishing order. This gives him a stark sense of déjà vu and is also plot-important, as his knowledge of its ins and outs helps him defend it from enemies in the book. At the end of the story, when Vimes returns to the present day and talks with Vetinari, the old Watch House is finally rebuilt. This is easily the best internal chronological link in the book in my view.
The record with the rest of the Watch is more mixed. “Guards! Guards!” opens with the funeral of a guardsman named ‘Leggy’ Gaskin, whose name is noted here but, again, essentially appears once in favour of focusing on original characters not previously mentioned. ‘Mayonnaise’ Quirke, the unpleasant and racist Day Watch captain from “Men at Arms”, is depicted here along with his mentor in nastiness and mediocrity, Sergeant Knock – but again, one gets the distinct impression Pratchett is trying to rush through and dispose of these characters so he doesn’t have to keep writing about them. In “Men at Arms” there is a memorable flashback sequence where Vimes thinks about Sergeant Kepple, who was the head of the Watch when he joined as a recruit, and supposedly retired but kept coming in for years later, and when he died no-one knew if he had a family. Kepple isn’t mentioned at all in this book, and given John Keel wasn’t mentioned before now and the similarity of names, I have a distinct suspicion that Pratchett may have envisaged using Kepple as the character, but then realised he couldn’t make it fit with the idea of him coming back into work for years later. (Or of course he may just have forgot). One exception is the recurring character of Fred Colon, who appears as a constable here, and is temporarily breveted to sergeant by ‘Keel’ (as is foreshadowed when he and others visit Keel’s grave at the start of the story). This fits neatly with a line in “The Fifth Elephant” where a temporarily power-mad Colon reflects he was a sergeant when Vimes himself was only a rookie.
Easily one of the weirdest choices with the Watch in “Night Watch”, however, involves the Cable Street Particulars. This body was first mentioned in one of the Discworld Companion’s classic cameo sneak peaks at Pratchett’s notes (for example, William de Worde and the opening sequence of “The Truth” appeared in the Companion almost a decade before the book debuted). The name is a spoof of the Baker Street Irregulars, the group of boys that Sherlock Holmes calls upon in a few of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories to run errands and keep lookout for him. However, the Particulars have nothing else to do with this – the Companion describes them as an elite undercover force that existed in the past. In “Maskerade”, an important reveal is that a character is an undercover policeman, one of a few new Particulars that have been recruited since Vimes revived the old body. All fine and good, except “Night Watch” uses the name Cable Street Particulars to refer to a vile group of secret police led by the phrenology and torture enthusiast Captain Findthee Swing. They were clearly a group that Vimes absolutely despised when he encountered them as a young man. Why the hell then would the older Vimes have revived the name for his undercover police officers? One gets the impression that Pratchett just forgot he had already used the name for something else, and thought he was using it for the first time in “Night Watch”.
It is this sense of ‘but why’ that undermines a lot of “Night Watch” to my mind. There are certainly plenty of nice moments that are thematically fitting, and the story itself is solid, as one would expect with Pratchett. On first waking up in the past, he goes to ‘his’ house, the Ramkin estate, only to find his aristocratic wife Sybil is just a young girl who doesn’t know him, while ‘back in the present’ she is giving birth to their first child, adding to the trauma and tension of the affair. (He ends up meeting a skilled doctor in the past who is still alive in the present and then recruits him to help with the delivery, a nice plot touch). There’s an uncharacteristic but funny nod to a line from “Guards! Guards!” – in which stereotypical dragon slayers dismiss Lord Vetinari’s bounty for a dragon because he should offer his daughter’s hand in marriage, only for Vimes to explain he only has an aunt – in that that aunt actually appears in this book as the major political mover and shaker behind the ongoing intrigue in the city. Lady Roberta Meserole, as she is called, also recruits the young Nobby Nobbs (then a street urchin and pickpocket) as an asset, setting him on the path to eventually join the Watch. There’s also an amusing bit of continuity where the young Vetinari is less than impressed by her fondness for bedraggled cats, when the reader knows Vetinari will go on to have a similar weakness for his elderly terrier Wuffles in later books. I suspect this whole plotline may have had fan input, as it involves Meserole having the then-Patrician, Homicidal Lord Winder, assassinated by Vetinari and replaced with Snapcase (who goes on to disappoint her) as I suspect Pratchett would have forgotten he’d already established this order of Patricians in “Feet of Clay” otherwise.
Yet even if we look at the story purely from the view of a character study of Vimes, there are still issues with it. Easily the biggest of these is that Vimes has an arc in which he despairs, fears he will never get back to the present (or the present may cease to exist altogether thanks to Carcer’s actions) and needs something, a connection back there, to inspire him to carry on. He is constantly at war with ‘the beast’ inside himself (a working title for the book was “The Nature of the Beast”) and an important moment at the end is when he doesn’t kill Carcer but sends him to the hangman, the law overruling the beast. To return to this moment of despair, the History Monks give him that solid connection with the past, and it’s…a silver cigar case Sybil gave him, which was stolen before he woke up in the past. Now this sequence could have been very powerful, and I know some readers do find it so, so this is subjective. But I cannot get over the fact that this is an item that was never mentioned before this book, and by the time the sequence rolls around, I’d forgotten it was even mentioned at the beginning of this one. I realise that it would be a tall order to have established an item many books in advance for a purpose that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen, and it is possible to make the argument that it was established that Sybil had gotten Vimes on cigars as a substitute for his past alcoholism so it is a link to the present in that way – but it smacked too much of ‘remember this important McGuffin we totally just didn’t make up on the spur of the moment’ to me. I feel this could have been handled a lot better.
I am aware that this article probably comes across as quite critical in tone, and I want to emphasise that I still enjoyed “Night Watch” a lot; of the entire Discworld series of 41 books, there are only maybe two I would actually describe as disappointing, and even those still have their moments – a hit/miss ratio other authors could scarcely dream of. And “Night Watch” indeed easily justifies itself by its collection of great moments and character analysis, and isn’t entirely devoid of the continuity links longtime fans were looking for. But what I hope to get across here is that the way in which Terry Pratchett conceived Discworld, in all its glory as a world and mirror of worlds, was really never going to be that compatible with the idea of a prequel (or time travel, or flashback) story. There is a distinct feel of him going to look at the distant background vistas (as Tolkien called them) in a way that did not serve storytelling.
I’ll give a specific example that gave me pause when I first read the book. A recurring character in the Discworld books is Reg Shoe, a zombie and undead-rights activist who functions as a parody of many such earnest reform groups from the 1980s in our world. A point made in the Discworld Companion is that it is quite hard to imagine what Reg did when he was alive, as so much of his identity is bound up with his undead rights activism. This works well as a throwaway comedic observation, and one can imagine the same sort of rhetorical question applying to people in the real world who become iconic activists for people suffering from a particular physical disability, after only acquiring it themselves part way through their adult life. Well, in “Night Watch” we meet Reg Shoe when he was alive, and he’s a general political reform activist seeking to overthrow the despotic regime of Lord Winder, whose idealism is crushed by Snapcase being no better, and who eventually dies on the barricades (with Vimes knowing it is not the end for him). This whole arc feels so out of character for Terry Pratchett’s writing – as I said, it smacks of ‘answering a rhetorical question’ – and tinted the whole character of the book in my eyes.
“Night Watch”, though an excellent story in its own right, therefore represents a considerable aberration from Terry Pratchett’s usual approach to storytelling and developing his iconic Discworld setting and its characters. It is not surprising to my mind that he did not return to such a concept in future. Indeed, I felt it was at this point that Pratchett had more or less exhausted the possibilities of Vimes as a protagonist and his character arc had found his end; while Vimes would appear in a number of other books, there would only be two others with him as a protagonist, and one of those was one of the two I mentioned as disappointing.
I think I just depressed myself and now everyone will think I don’t like Discworld which is even more depressing! Come on to the forum and comment if you want an article series titled something like “Thande Gushes About Discworld for 5000 words” instead…
More Prequel Problems articles on the way!
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.