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Monday, July 28, 2014

Terry Pratchett On A Copper's Instincts

A Police Station in Brighton, England

Author Terry Pratchett has been writing Science Fiction and Fantasy stories since the early 1970s. The bulk of them (forty novels and counting) take place on Discworld, a disk-shaped world that floats through space atop four giant elephants. (These elephants, in turn, ride on the back of an even larger turtle). His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages, and are beloved by readers all over the world. Yet he seems somewhat amused by his fame. As he told fans in Brighton at last year's World Fantasy Convention, "I just make things up." 

When he starts a new novel, he grasps those ideas foremost in his mind. He describes these as "low-hanging fruit," the ones easiest to pick. Once he's selected an idea, he just has to figure out what the story will be about. Anyone who has ever attempted to write a novel knows how challenging it can be to explore an idea in fiction. Terry Pratchett makes his job easier by following up on his inquisitiveness about our rapidly evolving world. He studies subjects that interest him, such as real-world technologies and systems. With time and study, his knowledge grows, and these subjects mature into the low-hanging fruit he mentioned. Then, with the hard work of research already done, he begins his story. 

Readers reap the benefits of Terry Pratchett's natural inquisitiveness. Over the years, we have seen Discworld's largely medieval society evolve with the introduction of the printing press and newspapers, a post office system, banking, and the rapid expansion of clacks towers, which transmit the equivalent of telegrams using a shutter-semaphore system. While these concepts are sketched out more simply in his stories, we nonetheless finish his novels with an enhanced appreciation for the inventions and processes that run contemporary society.

One of Terry Pratchett's most popular Discworld characters is Samuel Vimes, who has risen through police ranks to become the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. A copper's instincts flow through his veins, and he can sense when something in his city is going (or about to go) amiss. He's been such a successful police officer that he's impressed the rich and powerful, eventually even marrying into the aristocracy. He's become part of the landed gentry, and has more money than he could ever figure out how to spend. Still, he's happiest when he's solving problems in his fair city. So what does Sam Vimes do in Terry Pratchett's recent novel Snuff, when his wife insists they take a vacation at one of their country houses? Or perhaps I should ask: What does he do after the city's ruler, Lord Vetinari, assures Vimes that no urgent crisis in Ankh-Morport require his attention? Well, he can't help but poke his nose into what's going on in community life surrounding his country estate, can he?

If Samuel Vimes has won over readers, he seems even closer to his creator's heart. Perhaps it's the character's natural inquisitiveness, the way he knows every street in Ankh-Morpork, and every aspect of city life, that allows him to sense when something is amiss. Perhaps, when he was a boy, the author considered a career as a policeman. Whatever the reason, if he's ever in trouble with a story set on Discworld, Terry Pratchett knows who he can turn to for assistance. "If a story involves Sam Vimes, I know he'll provide me with a lot of dialogue," he told his readers last year in Brighton. 

As all characters relate in some way to their creator, Pratchett must identify with some aspect of Vimes' psyche. As Vimes is forever interested in the forces underlying life in Ankh-Morpork, perhaps the link is Pratchett's constant fascination with the systems and technologies that drive our modern societies. It's also nice to see an author of Terry Pratchett's stature giving himself the freedom to explore his own interests, and to pursue his own hobbies without worrying immediately when they'll pay off in his fiction. Or even if they will. Of course, it's also nice when he finds a way to share his interests with us. I imagine that's one of the reasons we find his Discworld novels such a joy to read, because the ideas behind them spring from his own joy of discovery. 

Given how Sam Vimes seems to hold Terry Pratchett's ear at the moment*, I imagine he'll continue to play a vital role in future Discworld novels. But then, I could be wrong. After all, I don't have a Copper's instincts. 

Dragon Dave

* Yes, I agree with you. Police officers should not grab people by the ear. Especially not nice people like Terry Pratchett.

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