Sir Terry Pratchett, one of the world’s best fantasy satire authors, has passed away. In memory, I want to take a look back at the only two of his 40 odd DiscWorld novels that focused on time travel: Thief of Time and Night Watch. These two also happen to be my favorites. Is that a coincidence?If you’re unfamiliar with DiscWorld, let me bring you up to speed on the basic premise. It can be a bit confusing, so please hold your questions and applause until the end.
Somewhere in space, there’s a giant turtle just swimming around–who knows where to or from. On the turtle’s shell are four giant elephants and on the elephants’ backs rests the Disc: A flat world that contains every single fantasy creature you can imagine. In all of DiscWorld books, several fantasy and storytelling tropes are satirized and subverted to the extreme.
And that’s where the charm of Pratchett’s writing comes from. It’s not the fantasy setting or even the time travel that makes his books alluring, it’s his tongue-in-cheek style and incapability of writing a single page without including a creative joke. In addition to that, laced between the humor are hidden nuggets of profundity and philosophy.
It was that stark contrast between sobering truths and dry humor that caused his works to affect and inspire so many. In fact, his compilation book containing some best excerpts is practically named after that dualism: The Wit and Wisdom of DiscWorld. It’s almost like an oxymoron or paradox–But not a time paradox. That comes later.
If you’ve seriously never read any of his books, I’ve included links to purchase these two so you can get started. I won’t spoil too much in my rundown, but even so, the main joy in reading Pratchett is experiencing the style, not the plot.
Even though these are the 26th and 29th novels in the series, you absolutely do not need to read the previous 25 first. Each novel is episodic in that every main plot point is tied up by the end. Imagine Pulp Fiction or The Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield.” It’s like that, where several different stories are happening across the Disc and each book focuses on one. There are plenty of recurring characters throughout the series and some continuity, making it fun to read in order, but you certainly don’t have to. You can start with these two. I did.
This one is just ridiculous. But go with it, follow my lead.
Imagine there’s an amorphous gas-like species that catalogs everything in the universe. Wherever the smallest chemical reaction occurs, the Auditors are there to file the necessary paperwork. These guys would be happy with their dull work if humanity and the rest of life weren’t there to make everything unpredictable and chaotic.
They commission the Disc’s most talented clockmaker, Jeremy Clockson, to build a clock so perfect and precise that once it’s complete, Time will stop. With everything frozen, the Auditors will be free to catch up on their paperwork without unexpected interruptions.
Sensing the end is near, Death, a nice guy once you get to know him, tries to get the band back together and tracks down the reluctant other horsemen of the apocalypse, including a fifth horseman who left before they became famous. He also sends his granddaughter Susan to find the son of Time and stop the apocalypse from happening. Death, unlike the Auditors, has grown somewhat fond of humanity and their unpredictability. Also, if there were no more life, he’d be out of the job.
Now meet Lu-Tze, a little but legendary History Monk trained in the arts of deja fu–a fighting style that makes the recipient feel as if they’ve been kicked in the face that way before. He’s so often underestimated that the History Monks’ first rule seems to reference this:
Do not act incautiously when confronting a little, bald, wrinkly, smiling man.
He plays this story’s Obi Wan and trains Lobsang Ludd, this story’s Chosen One, an unusually skilled but lazy student who frustrated his previous teachers at how much he knew already. They placed him under the irreverent Lu-Tze in the hope that they would break each other. Instead, they become best friends.
In the end, a thematic storm brews, lightning strikes the clock when it’s built, time freezes, and there’s a final showdown between the Auditors vs. The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Son of Time, the Granddaughter of Death, an Auditor turned human, and a little bald wrinkly smiling man.
I told you it was ridiculous. From a distance, the story is a mere comic book action plot, but up close it is anything but. The book explores what it means to be human, utilizing time properly, humility, and chocolate.
A more linear story, despite the nonlinear time travel. When I picked up the book to refresh my knowledge for this article, the next thing I knew I was halfway through it again. It’s one of Pratchett’s most gripping novels and the one I’ve read the most.
Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, is established as a clever badass when he starts the day casually finding an assassin in a Home Alone style trap of his. This is reinforced a few pages later when he’s basically Batman in the middle of a stormy rooftop chase, hunting a cop-killer named Carcer.
This storm happens to be the one that occurred when time stopped in Thief of Time. The chase also brought them to the Unseen University, a training ground for arrogant wizards, and the combination of Time and Magic energy means bad news for our hero. In the exact instant lightning strikes Clockson’s clock, Vimes and Carcer are sent back in time 30 years.
Carcer escapes in the confusion, then mugs and murders someone named Sergeant John Keel. Keel was about to be a young Sam Vimes’ mentor, the one who taught him everything about being a copper.
Conveniently, Lu-Tze appears, stops time, and patiently explains the book’s conflict to Vimes. He can’t go Back to the Future because now that his mentor is dead, he won’t go back to being Your Grace Lord Commander Sir Samuel Vimes. He’ll go to a completely unknown future. An Uncertain Doom. Instead, he’ll have to assume the role of John Keel and train his younger self.
Vimes accepts his fate, goes full charisma mode and bluffs his way from being arrested intothe position of Sergeant-at-arms John Keel. Any little opposition to thisis trumped by commanding persona and future knowledge. He knows a citywide revolution is coming, but this time the opposition is led by the only other one with future knowledge: Carcer. Despite this, Vimes’ biggest challenge is teaching life lessons to a young, naïve Sam Vimes.
Now I want to act like an Auditor and properly catalog the interesting rules of time travel used here. At a cursory glance, Sam Vimes as John Keel was part of a stable time loop (an ontological paradox) meaning that Keel was always Vimes, even in the original timeline our Vimes remembers. But this is not the case. Vimes sees a young Sam experience things that he does not remember at all. That means things are happening differently this time.
That also means Time is not Immutable in the DiscWorld universe. Instead, it’s a Multiverse. Lu-Tze goes on for pages explaining to Vimes that every tiny decision you make creates a new timeline where you made the opposite decision. Vimes was in one of those other timelines.
Even Death himself mentions in other books that the Disc is in a Multiverse and if there’s anyone in the series that would know for sure, it’s him.
He and Sir Terry Pratchett have a lot to talk about.
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