Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

10 Things You Should Know About the Discworld Books

Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2003, the BBC asked 140,000 Britons to come up with the nation’s top 100 novels. Just two writers had five works that cracked the top 100: Charles Dickens and the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett, who was born in Buckinghamshire on April 28, 1948, wrote or co-wrote more than 70 books during his lifetime. His debut novel, The Carpet People—a slightly-altered version of a fantasy serial Pratchett wrote while working at his local paper, the Bucks Free Press—was published in 1971, followed by the bestselling Discworld series. Set on a magical, disc-shaped world supported by four elephants who in turn ride atop a gigantic turtle, these masterworks of comic fantasy have collectively sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Here are 10 things they won’t teach you at Unseen University.

1. PRATCHETT WROTE THE FIRST FOUR INSTALLMENTS WHILE WORKING AS A SPOKESMAN FOR NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS.

In 1980, Pratchett left the Bucks Free Press to take a job as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), where his responsibilities mainly involved reassuring the public about the safety of this organization’s nuclear power plants. (It was no easy task; the CEGB hired him just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.) On the side, Pratchett wrote and published the first four Discworld novels: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, and Mort. Following their success, he resigned from his CEGB post to write full-time.

2. RINCEWIND’S NAME WAS LIFTED FROM A NEWSPAPER COLUMN.

Many Discworld inhabitants go by peculiar names (just ask Moist von Lipwig or Carrot Ironfoundersson), but many of them don't come from thin air. “A lot of what people think of as weird names in my books are real names,” he told an interviewer in 2011. Granny Weatherwax, for example, shares her last name with Rudd Weatherwax, who trained several of the Lassie dogs that appeared in various films and television shows.

But not all of Pratchett’s characters were named after real people. Take the bumbling wizard Rincewind, whose name comes from “By the Way,” a humorous newspaper column that ran in The Daily Express from 1919 to 1975. Written for most of that time by J.B. Morgan under the pseudonym “Beachcomber,” this series featured a number of recurring fictional characters, including a red-bearded dwarf named Churm Rincewind.

As a boy, Pratchett was an avid reader of “By the Way,” and while penning The Colour of Magic, he used the name Rincewind without realizing that he’d borrowed it from Morgan’s columns. A Discworld fan later pointed this out to the novelist, at which point Pratchett “went back through all the [published ‘Beachcomber’ anthologies] and found the name and thought, oh, blast, that’s where it came from. And then I thought, what the hell, anyway.” (His argument is slightly weakened by Rincewind saying in the Colour of Magic, “I suppose we’ll take the coast road to Chirm.”)

3. THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY A POPULAR STAR TREK BOOK.

The Science of Discworld novels combine fantasy and hard science. In the first of these books, a mishap at Unseen University creates “Roundworld,” a bizarro universe laden with strange, spherical planets governed not by magic but by the laws of physics. The school’s faculty experiments with and explores their creation over the course of the four-book series and the action is interrupted periodically by non-fiction chapters that break down real scientific topics. Written by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart, these asides tie into the narrative while educating the reader about everything from evolution to quantum mechanics.

The series had its origins in a meeting between Pratchett and Cohen at a science fiction convention in the Netherlands. At the time, Cohen was co-authoring a book about the evolution of the human intellect with Stewart. Cohen recalled in an interview that the two were having trouble getting “the chapters to gel” and asked Pratchett to advise them; later on, the trio got together at a Mongolian restaurant in Berlin, where Pratchett offered up some tips that made their way into the book’s final draft.

Since all three men were big sci-fi fans, the conversation soon turned to Star Trek. Specifically, they expressed a profound disappointment with Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek, a 1995 bestseller that offered insights on the TV show’s scientific underpinnings. The book did not impress Pratchett, Stewart, or Cohen, the latter of whom called it “bloody awful.” Still, Krauss’s project got Stewart thinking. “I raised the possibility of something similar related to Discworld,” he remembers. At first, the idea was shot down because, in his words, “there is no science in Discworld.”

Still, the concept seemed too good to throw away altogether—and after a while, the three men made a narrative breakthrough. “It took only a few months to find the obvious answer: since there was no science in Discworld, we had to put some there,” Stewart explains. “Instead of producing a scientific commentary on existing events in the Discworld canon, we had to write a fantasy/fact fusion in which an unfolding story of some wizardly brand of science was interlaced with a popular science book. Terry would have to tailor a genuine Discworld short story.”

Tailor one he did. Pratchett put together a 30,000-word short story that was seamlessly punctuated with essays that Stewart and Cohen authored. Once they finished the manuscript, Ebury Publishing agreed to put out The Science of Discworld in 1999. Apparently, some company higher-ups didn’t like the book’s chances. “The editor there was made to understand that if it sold less than 10,000 copies, he’d lose his job. If it sold more than 25,000 it would be a miracle. It sold more than 200,000 copies in the first year,” Cohen recently told The Guardian. Three sequels were released between 2002 and 2013.

4. PRATCHETT WITHDREW GOING POSTAL FROM HUGO AWARD CONSIDERATION.

Discworld books have received plenty of accolades: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents took home the Carnegie Medal in 2001; Night Watch won a Prometheus Award two years later; and Pyramids earned the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for best novel. In 2005, Pratchett’s bestseller Going Postal was nominated for a prestigious Hugo Award. The awards, handed out by the World Science Fiction Society, are seen as some of the highest honors that a sci-fi or fantasy writer can hope to attain. Multiple Hugo categories exist, with “best novel” being the one that usually attracts the most fanfare. (Past winners have included Frank Herbert’s Dune and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.)

Naturally, when an author receives a “best novel” nod, he or she generally doesn’t even consider withdrawing the book in question from Hugo consideration. But that’s exactly what Pratchett did in ’05. The WSFS selects its Hugo winners at Worldcon, the society’s annual convention. Pratchett was in attendance at the 2005 gathering and, as he later explained to his bewildered readers, he chose to pass on a potential best novel award for Going Postal because he felt the selection process would keep him from enjoying the Worldcon. Pratchett thus became only the third writer in history to take his book out of the running in this particular Hugo category. (In the past, authors Robert Silverberg and James Tiptree Jr., had done likewise.)

5. IN 2011, TWO BELOVED DISCWORLD CHARACTERS APPEARED ON SOME NEW POSTAGE STAMPS.

Great Britain is—for all intents and purposes—the birthplace of the modern fantasy genre. To celebrate this contribution to popular culture, the Royal Mail postage service company issued a set of eight commemorative stamps featuring some of the most popular fantastical characters to ever emerge from the UK, including Merlin and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, Voldemort and Dumbledore from Harry Potter, and Aslan and the White Witch from Chronicles of Narnia. The Royal Mail didn’t forget about Discworld’s inhabitants: Rincewind rounded out the set along with the wise old witch Gytha “Nanny” Ogg.

6. THE LAST FEW NOVELS WERE WRITTEN VIA VOICE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE.

In 2007, Pratchett announced that he’d been diagnosed with a kind of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The disorder severely weakened Pratchett's memory, rendered certain fonts unreadable, and took away his ability to type. But despite all those major setbacks, Pratchett kept on writing. Once he lost the capacity to operate a keyboard, the author started using voice recognition computer programs in their place. Pratchett dictated manuscripts for entire novels—including the Discworld books Snuff and Raising Steam—through this kind of software. “It really isn’t a problem,” he declared in a 2013 NPR interview. “I’m a bit of a techie anyway, so talking to the computer is no big deal. Sooner or later, everybody talks to their computers—they say, ‘You bastard!’”

7. PRATCHETT RECEIVED THE OCCASIONAL LETTER FROM A TERMINALLY-ILL FAN WHO LOVED DISCWORLD’S VERSION OF DEATH.

Though He’s clad in dark robes and wields a scythe, the Death who appears in all but two Discworld novels isn’t your standard-order Grim Reaper. For one thing, He rides a white horse named Binky. He also likes physics, adores cats, and has a sort of benign fascination with the human experience. Unlike most literary embodiments of death, the figure who graces Discworld comes off as mild-mannered and somewhat compassionate. In 2004’s The Art of Discworld, Pratchett wrote about the fondness that many fans have expressed for the character. “Sometimes,” Pratchett wrote, “I get nice letters from people who know they’re due to meet [Death] soon, and hope I’ve got him right. Those are the kind of letters that cause me to stare at the wall for some time…”

On March 12, 2015, Pratchett died peacefully in his Broad Chalke home. In a way, Discworld’s Death helped announce the sad news to the world. The author had written a short story in the form of four planned tweets; when Pratchett died, his assistant Rob Wilkins logged onto the author’s Twitter account and posted them:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The end.”

8. THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN WAS SUPPOSED TO END ON A DIFFERENT NOTE.

Five months after Pratchett’s death, the 41st entry in the Discworld series was published. The Shepherd’s Crown features the apparent demise of Granny Weatherwax, whose mentee, Tiffany Aching, is left to unite her fellow witches against a grave threat. According to Gaiman, Pratchett’s good friend and occasional collaborator, the novel was supposed to end with a poignant epilogue. “[It] would have made the book,” Gaiman told The Times, “but he never got to write it.”

The author of American Gods explained that, before Pratchett died, he’d had a conversation with the novelist about how The Shepherd’s Crown was going to wrap up. “When I talked to Terry about it, there was one little beautiful twist that would have made people cry,” Gaiman said. The big surprise involved Weatherwax and a cat named You. Apparently, Pratchett’s unwritten chapter would have revealed that the former didn’t actually die, she’d merely channeled her consciousness into the feline. “And there was going to be the final scene when she said, ‘I am leaving on my own terms now,’ and then Death turns up to take Granny Weatherwax for good,” Gaiman revealed.

9. SONY TRIED TO MAKE A WEE FREE MEN MOVIE.

“I’m allergic to Hollywood,” Pratchett once joked. So far, no Discworld novel has ever been adapted into a theatrically-released film. Still, this isn’t to say that nobody’s ever tried to make one. In 2006, Sony obtained the movie rights to The Wee Free Men, a Discworld story aimed at young adult readers. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was set to direct, but the movie never passed the development phase because Pratchett wasn't a fan of the script. “It contained everything that The Wee Free Men actually campaigns against,” he said. “Everything about [the book] was the opposite of Disney. But the studio had kind of Disneyfied it, to make it understandable to American filmmakers.”

Speaking of Disney, rumor has it that the directors of Aladdin were working on a movie version of Mort—the fourth Discworld book—as recently as 2011. Allegedly, the idea was shelved for some reason, which opened the door for another project called Moana.

10. A NEW DISCWORLD TV SERIES HAS BEEN IN DEVELOPMENT SINCE 2011.

Discworld may never have graced the silver screen, but a few novels have been adapted for other mediums. In 1990, playwright Stephen Briggs became the first person to ever dramatize one of Terry Pratchett’s novels when he wrote a stage adaptation of the Discworld book Wyrd Sisters for the Studio Theatre Club in Abingdon, Oxon. The show premiered in 1991, and it had no trouble finding an audience: Wyrd Sisters sold out almost instantly, as did Briggs’s subsequent adaptations of Men at Arms, Making Money, The Fifth Elephant, and many other Discworld classics. There have also been radio dramatizations of Discworld: Beginning in 1992, BBC Radio 4 aired six serials based on Guards! Guards!, Wyrd Sisters, Mort, Small Gods, Night Watch, and Eric.

Television has seen its fair share of Discworld stories, too. Sky Productions, for example, has released made-for-TV films based on Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, and Going Postal. And we may soon be in for a CSI-style Ankh-Morpork drama. Although Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, has declared that she’ll never give anyone—including herself—permission to write a new Discworld novel, she’s been working on an original “crime of the week” TV series that will follow Sam Vimes and his fellow city watchmen on some original adventures. Titled The Watch, the show’s development began in 2011 with Terry Pratchett’s enthusiastic blessing.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
iStock
iStock

At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has a used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]

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