How Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Has Evolved

The Unseen University

Discworld is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating and intricate creations of literature ever. The ingenious series focuses on a flat planet which rests on the shoulders of four great elephants, which in turn stand on the shell of an intergalactic turtle, the great A’Tuin. But readers quickly realise that it’s much, much more than that. It’s not simply a world that has been created, it’s a mixture of societies, complex characters, different tones of plot and the constant, wonderful parallel of humour and seriousness. It is quite unusual amongst series, in that a reader really can pick up almost any book of Discworld and be perfectly happy without knowing all of the other plotlines. You don’t even need to ever read all of the 39 books, although most readers would find it difficult to choose not to after they get hooked. It is, as author Terry Pratchett once said, a series rather than a serial.

Except there is a series arc. From a wider perspective there always has been one, in much the same way that our own world has what could be called a plotline. In recent times, that arc has become much clearer, and with the announcement of Raising Steam – a book which will likely pull this overall plotline together more than ever before – we can really see how far Discworld has come since a wizzard called Rincewind became a tour guide.

Discworld has always been about change. Every single book involves a major change in one way or another. The very first time we step onto the flat planet, it is already experiencing a major change, in the form of the incineration of the greatest city on the Disc (at least according to them), Ankh-Morpork. Even the books about past events, such as Small Gods or Night Watch, involve huge cultural changes. Nevertheless, it is quite easy to not notice the overall arc of Discworld, especially as to the casual eye it can quickly be overlooked as ‘nothing more’ than a comic fantasy – one with a bit of philosophy here and there, of course, but not much to be amazed about. Even for the bigger fans who sport anorankhs and work on L-Space, it can be difficult to quite realise the scale of what’s going on.

The main series of Discworld (not accounting for the Science books and various other spin-offs like Where’s My Cow) can be split into two major parts – three, really, as there’s no single, clear point of change. There’s the ‘high fantasy’ era of Discworld, the ‘social politics’ era, and the intermediate transition period. Tones of the books throughout the series vary widely – within one era you can have stories in moods as different as the brighter, rather cheerful Going Postal sitting right next to the much darker, quite heart-breaking Thud! – but those differences are miniscule compared to how different books are in each of the three periods of the series.

500We begin with the ‘high fantasy’ era, which isn’t exactly high fantasy so much as blatant parody of high fantasy. This period lasts from the beginning, The Colour of Magic, to somewhere around the blurry line between Guards! Guards! and Moving Pictures. It’s characterized by a madcap style of writing, extremely fantastical and complicated magical explanations and situations, frequent soirées into the Dungeon Dimensions and an all-round sense of fun, with Rincewind, of course, being the face of the series at this point. It’s the kind of thing that people would have trouble not calling ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’, whatever they actually mean by that.

Around Guards! Guards! and Moving Pictures, however, things change. In these books we are introduced to two sets of characters that would define the middle ‘transition’ period – Fred, Nobby, Vimes and Carrot, the beginnings of the City Watch (which will effectively become the defining feature of the third era), and the motley staff of the Unseen University, who finally give the world of magic a bit more bureaucratic organisation and stability. Additionally, we are gradually introduced to more people who will become well known minor characters in the second and third era – characters like Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and Reg Shoe.

The second era is simply a transition period, albeit a very long one. We see the growth of Ankh-Morpork in importance as a setting for the series itself, increased significance of characters who represent the city, such as Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician and unrivalled leader of the city, or His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Ankh; Commander Sir Samuel Vimes (also Blackboard Monitor), the cynical copper leading the City Watch. However, the ‘madcap magic’ idea is far from gone in this period, with Rincewind returning a few more times, the Death-and-Susan series playing out from beginning to what appears to be the end, the witches growing, changing and adapting and the wizards pulling their own, rather significant, weight in several books.

So where does the transition period actually end, and the third era of social politics begin? Once again, that’s hard to say, but there are three particular points in the series which could be considered the passing of the baton, for varying reasons. The first of these points is The Fifth Elephant, which sees the old, sinister Uberwald beginning to finally relinquish its need to remain a ‘shadowland’ of sorts and come, not necessarily kicking and screaming (although possibly exploding), into the Century of the Fruitbat. The second is the following book, The Truth, which for once sees a technological development in Ankh-Morpork that does not, to Vetinari’s surprise and minor disappointment, result in the invasion of the city by arcane and occult forces, but remains an entirely canny affair (with the exception of the whole interview-with-a-dog thing). The point is impossible to overlook, as it may be the most official transition point in the series. The Last Hero is a beautiful, massive-scale love letter to the madcap-fantasy era before, and almost certainly a passing-on of the Discworld flame from the magical world of the past (Rincewind and the Silver Horde) to the more political steampunk world of the future (Carrot, the new brand of hero).

Sam VimesWhatever the actual transition point, there’s no denying how different the new era is to the first, and to quite a lot of the second. This era is about development, technology and social change. We have darker books like Night Watch, Monstrous Regiment and Thud! focussing on major social events – revolution, war, the conclusive understanding of an event, namely the Battle of Koom Valley, which had triggered centuries of inter-species clashes. Then we have the introduction of characters like William de Worde, editor of the Times with his bum stuffed with tweed, and the unfortunately-named golden man, Moist Von Lipwig, who helm much brighter books which are no less relevant, such as Going Postal or Making Money. These novels are also about social change, but in much less violent ways – the introduction and development of new technology, with an important concept of what ‘new technology’ is. It’s not just physical technology, like the printing press or the clacks towers, but also the different ways in which different concepts work best in a society like Ankh-Morpork, or like ours – concepts like the way money, or the news, or government service works.

A slightly more depressing view of this third era is that it, in itself, is also a transition period. Ankh-Morpork is becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant. Although, in earlier novels, the death of Vetinari, whose mind carefully crafted and kept Ankh-Morpork working, would have destroyed the city, the series is reaching a point where Ankh-Morpork can keep itself going without him. Even so, it’s quite clear that Vetinari is training Moist to replace him once he is gone (Vimes’ reaction to that would be priceless), and also that Tiffany Aching is rapidly replacing Granny Weatherwax as the unofficial head of the witches. She still has a long way to go to get respect, but consider this – in I Shall Wear Midnight, the Cunning Man is said to go after the most powerful witch around. It went after Tiffany, not Granny. What does this transition mean, though? Well, the fact is that Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s, and may soon have to stop writing Discworld. He has already passed the baton on to his daughter, Rhianna (who is a great writer in her own right, as gamers might tell you), and it’s hard to deny that he’s setting Discworld up for a transfer of its own.

In any case, Raising Steam is coming up, and the question is, what is next in store for Discworld? Raising Steam will see the introduction of trains, solidifying the steampunk concept, and possibly more than just that. In Thud!, we are introduced to Devices, the kind that merit a capital ‘D’, and Vetinari begins plans that will later weigh on everyone’s minds in subsequent books – the Undertaking. A city underground. Perhaps it is because I spent the past few days in London, but I am fairly sure, at least in part, what the Undertaking will be. Raising Steam will, I believe, see the introduction of a subway system in Ankh-Morpork, or at least its beginnings, as well as much easier transport between cities across the entire planet. Discworld has always had it to some extent, but now more than ever it is getting globalised.

Paul Kidby - Disque Monde - The Four HorsemenAnd then what? What’s in store for the world after Raising Steam, assuming all being well with Terry Pratchett? It’s quite impossible to be sure, and we’ll undoubtedly be thrown several curve balls along the way, but we can rest sure in one thing. Discworld is a planet several stages behind ourselves, and it’s going to do what any planet or world would do. It’s going to develop. Technology will advance, likely in points that will be relevant to the world as it is now. Topics that could be considered particularly interesting to tackle would be the justice system (you know, after Vimes has caught the criminals), and personal computer technology (so far all we have is Hex, which is university owned, and a few demon-related jokes).

Of course, I’m probably quite off with my predictions, but that doesn’t really matter – we can be certain that whatever Sir Pratchett comes up with next will be hilarious, insightful and as relevant as always. I look forward to what is to come.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Small confession to make. I have read many of Terry Pratchett books. I have enjoyed them immensely. However, because The Color of Magic was basically hard to find, I had never read the first two novels in the Discworld series. Now, after finally reading The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic I’m embarassed I didn’t try harder to get my hands on these books earlier.

    Really nice article!

    • Joshua Sammy

      Ha, when I finally read the Colour of Magic and the Light Fantastic (extremely late on) I sat down and said “no reader should ever begin with the first two books”. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re bound to turn people off the series if they don’t like that sort of thing, and most readers won’t realise that it’s worth trying more books until it sticks.

  2. Margaret

    I am not normally a fan of science fiction, but Pratchett’s books are an exception. He is clever, funny, and smart. I bought the first book in the series as a gift for a friend as I have trouble talking my friends – older women – into giving Pratchett a try. That’s a shame. They are missing a lot of chuckles. (I can’t read his books in bed, because I wake my husband up when I laugh out loud.)

    • Joshua Sammy

      Hah, I got one of my friends a Discworld book about a year ago. They haven’t mentioned it to me even once since then, so I’m afraid I must have judged them wrong and gotten them the wrong book, so they didn’t like it :/

  3. chester

    A lot of your enjoyment of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld series comes down to your awareness of the object of Pratchett’s satire. Glad that we are celebrating it.

  4. Fantastic post!
    The Truth IS his best book. I have read all the Discworld books, and am now im the glorious process of re-reading them. (Which is actually even better, because you see things you never saw the first time, including the things you did.)


    • Joshua Sammy

      I loved the Truth! I think Night Watch is my favourite, but the Truth is still up there. Yep, re-reading is the best bit.

  5. Great article – I have been reading Pratchett from the first, in fact I read The Carpet People when I was a kid, only a few years after it was first published. His book Strata, which I found in a remaindered bookstore in the mdi 80s, introduced the idea of the Discworld (albeit with a scientific angle) but it was enough for me to read The Colour of Magic, and … the rest is history. Can’t wait for Raising Steam … it’s such a long wait…

  6. Jessica Koroll

    This was a great read. I’ve seen nothing but praise given for Pratchett’s Discworld series over the years and, yet, I’ve never been able to convince myself to pick one up. I was always intimidated by the sheer number of entries in the series and I could never find a very clear explanation on what the series actually is. Having read this, however, I fully understand why this series gets so much love and I’m going to make an effort to pick one up in the near future. It sounds like an amazing read that would be right up my alley.

    • Joshua Sammy

      😀 Brilliant! I’ll have you know that I wrote this article more to encourage other readers than as a simple study, so I’m glad I’ve succeeded. Don’t worry about the amount of books; many readers I know have only actually read 5 or so.

  7. I used to pick up one or two of the Discworld books every time I was getting into too much serious reading and just needed a laugh. I didn’t really like the high-fantasy books: maybe because I just don’t like Rincewind, and stuck to the witches (because Granny Weatherwax is AWESOME) and Death (because he’s awesome too, for an anthropomorphic personification). I read my first Night Watch book about a week ago: It made me fall in love with Ankh-Morpork in that whole ‘being dragged kicking and screaming into the century of the Fruitbat’ era, and I went slightly crazy reading all twelve books on Vimes and Vetinari.
    This article is exactly what I was expounding to my friends when I finished my reading spree: about how things have changed in Discworld over the years, and how Sir Pratchett is a genius. It is fantastic, like fantasy is supposed to be, and yet it could be the history of a real place somewhere, out in the cosmos where worlds are flat and balanced on the back of a giant turtle. Or so I like to think.
    Excuse me for the rant. I tried to keep it short, I really did.

  8. Jonathan

    Having read much of the Discworld series out of order (my first book was Thief of Time and I didn’t get to Color of Magic/Light Fantastic until much later), I found this article quite enlightening. I’d definitely been noticing a shift towards more modern-seeming social issues since Monstrous Regiment and it’s great to see that placed in the context of Pratchett’s entire timeline. Personally, I’ve always felt that “The Last Continent” was an important transition as kind of the last of the wizarding/questing books.

    I’m really looking forward to the next few years of Discworld – I agree that we’ll see some kind of computer technology and I personally really hope Pratchett writes a bit about “modern” science and medicine.

  9. I encountered Pratchett’s books a few years ago when a friend of mine, who spoke German and was learning English, told me that he picked up a wonderful series of British novels. He then referred me to them, and–yes, to my surprise–I had been missing out on a wonderful world.

    The first book I read was Color of Magic After reading it I became fascinated with the idea of the world resting on the intergalactic turtle. I only came to the realization that the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, describes the world as resting on a giant turtle too. This was a very neat discovery.

    I went on to read more Pratchett books, but have discovered that they are not as known as they should be (at least not where I am from).

  10. Dale Barham

    I’ve wanted to read Pratchett for quite some time now, you paint a wonderful picture of his work here. Should I start with Discworld? Or are there any other books you recommend?

  11. I used to read these books a lot, and I own quite a few of them. But, as happened to ALL of my reading, it lessened as school and life got busy, and I have yet to read some of the more recent ones. But this has greatly inspired me to pick them back up.

  12. No personal computer technology? I’d argue that the Dis-organisers, captured music devices in Soul Music, iconograph, and personal-sized clacks signalling batons and private clacks towers are all, in their own way, leaning towards that description. I imagine with the possibilities realised in Raising Steam, and, as you mentioned, hints of the Undertaking, they’ll all develop and be combined in various ways to more closely resemble personal computer devices in our own reality pretty soon in the series. Can’t wait to see Ponder Stibbons’ version of the iPad!

  13. Graham Jordan

    Great synopsis. Each to his own of course but to me (imo)if I were to introduce someone to D/W I would suggest Soul Music. Wonderful word plays and puns galore.
    Btw, when TP was knighted he became Sir Terry, if he were to become a lord he would be known as Lord Pratchett…….just sayin’ 🙂

  14. This is a marvelous summary of the Discworld’s evolution. I devoured all of the books up to Thud! and then school got in the way, so I’ve fallen behind, but your point about Moist and Tiffany Aching involuntarily becoming successors to Vetinari and Granny Weatherwax makes a lot of sense, and ties in well to the (very sad but quite realistic) idea that Terry Pratchett is passing his own torch to his daughter.

    I have several friends that now read Discworld because of me, and I agree that it’s very important to find the right book to start them on. There is something for everyone in Discworld, and I’ve had a lot of success with Wyrd Sisters (for the theatre professionals and Shakespeare enthusiasts) and Guards! Guards! (as an introduction to Ankh-Morpork and its associated denizens). I also like Small Gods for an introduction, because as a stand-alone book (as much as any Discworld book can be considered such) it’s a bit less intimidating than being expected to read a whole series. I leave it up to the reader to discover that they do, in fact, want to read the whole series. (I was started on Hogfather, for some reason I still can’t quite piece together.)

  15. Terry Prachett is Too Good at what he does. Watching his writing evolve has been fantastic to watch; I love how you broke that down and explained it. Discworld has been very well thought out so far, and I, like you, cannot wait to see where it all goes next.

  16. My husband bought me my first Pratchett book, The Wee Free Men. I laughed out loud through most of the book and fell head over heels for Mr. Pratchett’s writing. I admit I have most of them and I love the witches, I absolutely love the Night Watch, I love Moist and the Death of Rats is definitely a favorite character. But, I will miss Lord Vetinari and Granny Weatherwax terribly. A great article, thank you for getting me even more excited about Raising Steam. I do so wish we could see more movies made from his books, I loved Going Postal!!!

  17. Jesse Munoz

    Thanks for the great article, Joshua! I’m a bit green when it comes to sci-fi series and I’m still catching my bearings. I was intrigued by what I’d heard about Pratchett’s series but was intimidated by the sheer number of volumes. Your article makes me want to take the plunge. Thanks again!

    Jesse Muñoz

  18. Helen Parshall

    Pratchett has long been an author on my list of things to read when I have the time. Thanks for this! I might just have to start with Discworld – I’m so curious about it all now, having read your piece!

  19. I know this is an old article but I had to read it, being as it’s the only piece of Discworld analysis I’ve found so far!
    Definitely worth a read, too. The changing atmosphere of Discworld is one of the things that make it so distinctive, and this was an excellent look at that. I concur that The Last Hero is truly unmissable as a transition point; things started shifting before that, but it’s so big and grand and obviously symbolic that it’s very hard not to see that as the “official” transition between the second and third phase.

  20. Liz Havens

    This was amazing. I grew up hearing more Discworld stories than “regular” fairy tales. This article did a great job of exploring a collection so close to my heart. Thank you!

  21. It’s heartbreaking to read this now and see everyone’s hopes for future books. I always thought that when he left, the Disc would keep on spinning without him. But I still have so many unanswered questions. We should have had so many more books.

  22. Thank you for this article. One thing I loved about Discworld is that the changes are significant. The characters and the world show the effect of transformations made in previous books, and it made me wait for the future books to see how much the world would change. Just compare the Ankh Morpork from The Colour Of Magic to the same city in Going Postal, and you can see how far this world has changed from a parody of fantasy literature to something bigger.

  23. Whenever they start an article with “In my opinion,” I just stop reading and move on.

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