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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Terry Pratchett on the Benefits & the Limitations of Magic

Falmer Station welcomes visitors to the local village,
sports fans to Falmer Stadium,
and students to the University of Brighton
or the University of Sussex.

In Terry Pratchett's new Discworld novel Raising Steam, we meet an ambitious young man named Dick Simnel. When he's twenty years old, he takes his reluctant mother out to the barn, and shows her an engine that whizzes around on a circle of metal rails. He explains his principles, which he learned from a book written by an architect. These involve building small, simple models before going on to building larger, more elaborate versions. He proceeds slowly with each prototype, testing components every way he can, and sometimes purposely exploding his creations to discover their limits. He shows her his blueprints, which detail how all the various parts work together. He shares with her his paradigm for how the steam engine works, which is that of a tea kettle boiling, and how the temperature and pressure of the hot air pushes off the lid. Still, his mother cannot grasp the ideas behind his invention, or its potential. "Eee, lad, but what does it do?" she asks him.

"Everything, Mother," he responds. "Everything."

Dick's invention will take him to the large city of Ankh-Morpork, where he will meet Harry King. Like Commander Samuel Vimes, Harry has used hard work and ingenuity to rise from his humble beginnings. In Dick Simnel, Harry sees another promising individual, and agrees to fund further experiments in steam. Then there's Lord Vetinari, the Patrician (or ruler) of Ankh-Morpork, who guesses at the ultimate potential of steam. He challenges the enterprising Moist von Lipwig--who in previous books has founded the Post Office, the Mint, and the Royal Bank--to develop steam power beyond a mere crowd-pleasing curiosity. 

Just as the Clacks have transported information and communication all over Discworld, Lord Vetinari argues that, in time, steam engines could transport peoples and goods between distant cities and countries. This is the gift science offers, which magic never could. The benefits of magic are limited to the practitioner, and those with whom he shares his spells, potions, and devices. Science brings with it not just technological change, but transforms our cultures, and hence the way we live. It frees us from isolation, and links us with those in distant lands. It changes how we see the world, and elevates our dreams beyond anything our parents could have aspired to achieve or become.

Still, there's room for magic, both in Discworld, and for the people of our own. Magic manifests itself in seemingly innocent ways, such as the connections we forge with some people over others, even those whom, on the surface, we seem to share little in common. Magic leads us to prefer some things over others, even if they seem little different in composition and appearance from their neighbor. (Or less adequate or worthy than their neighbor). Magic lifts or suppresses our spirits, so that some days we're happy or sad, but cannot explain why, no matter how hard we try. Magic exists in all these things and more, and adds the spark of mystery that makes life worth living.

Yet when it comes to one aspect of life, there's no mystery whatsoever. We all know why Terry Pratchett has written so many Discworld novels, and we still hunger for more. The answer is both profound and simple: no one else writes like him. Other authors may try, but no one else can consistently amaze us, can make us laugh or cry, and all the while entertain us as thoroughly as Terry Pratchett. Whether this has to do with how he writes, or the types of characters and ideas he tackles, no one can be sure. This is the profound explanation of this mystery. 

The simple explanation for our enduring love of his novels is this: Terry Pratchett is magic. Thus, we benefit from all the happiness he creates, every time he casts another spell on us, by writing another Discworld novel.

Dragon Dave

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