10 Things You Should Know About the Discworld Books
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.