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Monday, August 4, 2014

Terry Pratchett on the Rise of Science

The train station in Falmer, England,
built in 1846 to service trains propelled by steam.

In the beginning, there was magic. Or at least magic seemed to dominate in Terry Pratchett's early Discworld novels. Those adventures often featured wizards like Ponder Stibbons, the Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic at Unseen University. Or we met witches like Granny Weatherwax, with her temperamental magic broom, who fashions spells or potions in her little cottage in the woods. Whenever such character traveled anywhere, they might pack their belongings in an enchanted chest. Fashioned from sapient wood, these pieces of luggage walked or raced along on little wooden legs, and fiercely defended their owners.

But as time went on, and book followed book, science crept into Discworld. This evolution of technology was not an easy process, as magic proved reluctant to cede its territory to a new master. This battle for control of Discworld revealed itself in small ways, such as when a character opened a device to find tiny imps working switches and gears. But at least there were switches and gears, not simply a device performing fantastical functions via a magical spell.

Perhaps the invention of a steam engine on Discworld initially fell into "The Pit" Terry Pratchett described last year at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. The Pit was not the hotel where the convention took place, but a folder stored in his office. The Pit holds any ideas he toyed with while writing, but then extracted before completing those stories. As an avid lover of trains, he wanted to see trains chugging across Discworld earlier in his career. Ultimately, he realized that Discworld needed to discover other inventions first, so that the various peoples, cities, and societies would be ready to capitalize on steam power when it arrived.

In his latest novel, Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett introduces us to a determined young man named Dick Simnel, who was ten years old when "his father simply disappeared in a cloud of furnace parts and flying metal, all enveloped in a pink steam. On that very day young Dick Simnel vowed to whatever was left of his father in that boiling steam that he would make steam his servant." His mother has other ideas: she doesn't want to see him follow in his father's footsteps and become the village blacksmith. Nor does she want him to conduct dangerous experiments in the family barn. So she moved back to where she had grown up, and gave her son a good education.

Ironically, her desire to give her son a better life via education backfires, so to speak, when Dick discovers the riches of the library. There he reads the "weird stuff dreamed up by the philosophers" and grounds himself so well in arithmetic that at the age of twenty, he decides he's ready to pursue his father's dream. He assures his frightened mother that one device in particular will prevent him from suffering his father's fate. He pulls it out of his jacket; for all she knows it could be a magic wand. "This will keep me safe, Mother! I've the knowing of the Sliding Rule! I can tell the sine what to do, and the cosine likewise, and work out the tangent of t'quaderatics! Come on, Mother, stop fretting and come with me now to t'barn."

If his mother was a witch like Granny Weatherwax, she could have cast a spell to make her son forget all about steam power. But science is on the rise, and so she finds herself powerless to protect her son, or anyone else on Discworld, from all that Dick's discovery will unleash. 

To be continued...

Dragon Dave

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