Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Just a Quick Little Project

Last month was my girlfriend’s birthday, for which I bought her a dartboard—one of the classic ones made out of wood and sisal fibres. Let me tell you, the electric ones just are no match for them. I had one of them some years ago and was not happy at all. Half of the darts bounced off and often bent their plastic tips doing this. Sometimes they stuck but broke off at the tip. These tips had to be removed from the board with the help of pincers; and sometimes even this would not work and it remained in the board. So that would not do, and the classical board is indeed very much more convenient, in particular for laypeople like us. Not a single dart has bounced off this one so far.

I need not tell you the big disadvantage of the classical board, I guess. It is of course that you have to keep the score yourself. As we do not have a referee at our disposal (“one hundrrrrred and eeeiiiiiiighty”), and (despite the fact we are both are mathematicians, or maybe just because of it) not being inclined to much mental arithmetic, this turned out to be a real nuisance.

Now I have to confess a quirk of mine: Whenever I face I problem like that, I immediately conceive of some piece of software to do the job. It has become somewhat annoying lately, as for example I have trouble using artistic 3D software (like 3Ds, Maya, Blender, POV-Ray), because my inclination is to not construct a scene and render it, but rather to write scripts that build it automatically. You can see how that may be a hampering, at times outwardly idiotic approach.

Be that as it may, the idea of writing a little program to help us keep darts score seemed an enticing one, so, in short, I did.

There is no better language than Java if you want to get results quickly, possibly containing reasonably sophisticated graphics as well. Writing in Java has always felt to me like building things with Lego bricks—quick, reasonably versatile and completely safe.

The downside is that it is basically an interpreter language, which is a thing I dislike on general principles. I won’t go into more details here—if you are familiar with programming you know these things, and if not, it most likely would not be interesting. Anyway, I figured that writing this thing in C++ (without .NET or MFC, as I usually do), for example, would take too much time.

There is this TV series (or sitcom) called Big Bang Theory which I like a lot. In one episode of the second season the character Sheldon made a questionnaire containing a list of his best traits for his friends to grade. (If you think that makes no sense, you do not know the series!) The most whimsical item he cited was his alleged ability to write Java applets very well.

Now I have to confess a thing which might make me look very, very crazy and maybe pathetic as well. It is this: As this Sheldon is a physicist and a genius, it kind of incited my ambition to prove that I at least had that quality as well.

Emulating a fictitious character may seem weird and pathetic, but it is not entirely without honorable precedent—I guess I am stating this in self-defense. Bertrand Russell claimed that people made themselves unhappy by emulating prototypes they had no chance of attaining, and as an example claimed that even Alexander the Great had (probably) striven to emulate another one—Hercules, as Russell guessed. The guess was wrong, but it seems Alexander in fact tried to emulate Achilles, another probably fictitious (at least in the traditional form) figure.

So if Alexander was allowed to give himself to such crazy thoughts, why shouldn’t I as well? Well, quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi and all that, but still I use this notion to console myself.

So anyway, the thought of Sheldon goaded me on not to attack this problem, but try to do it as quickly as possible. Granted, I did not make it an applet but rather an application, but it did seem more fitting to the problem, and it could be easily made into an applet with little work. Anyway, I was really content with the time it took me; one evening to get a workable rough version of the software and another evening to polish it up. Most of the time was spent looking up details of specific Java standard classes I used.

After I was finished with this piece of software I though I might just as well put it into my blog for download. So if you have a non-electric dartboard and face the same difficulty as me feel free to use this program of mine. Just please keep in mind that it is a quick thing cobbled together in a couple of days. It could have a lot more options and gadgets. It is not the best that could be done, not even the best I could do, but I do not feel like devoting more time to it, so that’s all folks. If you find it useful for you, have fun! Below is a screenshot of the interface and a download link.

Darts software

download DartsCounter.jar

Run this pogram just like any other jar archive, most probably by just double clicking it. I found it needs a fairly recent version of Java installed, but that won’t be a problem, I expect.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Irony Between Movies and Writing

This is merely an listing of some things I gathered over the years where the conversion of books into movies or related transitions produced effects that are incredibly ironic, even hilarious.

Forrest Gump

The movie Forrest Gump is based on a novel of the same name, written by one Winston Groom. It is nothing like the movie. In fact it is a bitter, biting satire and not cute in any sense. In the movie the character Forrest Gump is mentally handicapped, but nevertheless is lovable, successfull, charismatic and heroic, and when he messes up a situation it always works out well in the end.

The novel’s Forrest Gump is painfully mentally handicapped and produces absurd catastrophes continuously that make the reader cringe. It is not harmless fun, it is embarrassing most of the time. Despite this he has adventures that far exceed those in the movie, including a stint as a professional wrestler, and being shot into space by NASA. Expect a lot of bawdy humor!

As far as I could see the movie’s purpose was to put the character Forrest Gump into as many historic situations and footage as possible, using the best available technology of editing and special effects. Gump with Lennon, Gump with Kennedy etc. etc.

If you think that is a mighty original idea (as I did when I saw Forrest Gump for the first time), it really is not. Woody Allen’s “mockumentary” movie Zelig (made in 1983, eleven years before Forrest Gump) used the same idea and the same techniques to put Allen’s character, Leonard Zelig, into the 30s. And that is a truly brilliant, multilayer movie, among the best Woody Allen ever did. Highly recommended!

In short, the only thing the novel and the movie have in common is the title. And this fact can be highlighted perfectly with the help of a single sentence, which I find delightfully ironic. In fact, I believe the film’s makers were clearly aware that their project was not, strictly speaking, a film version of the book, and decided to place this hint on purpose.

The movie’s most famous tag line, as you know, is this:

Life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.

Whereas the novel’s very first sentence reads:

Life is not a box of chocoloates.

Leonard Nimoy

The ironic fact here is that renowned actor and TV personality Leonard Nimoy really became typecast as Star Trek’s Mister Spock. In 1977 he wrote an autobiography which he titled I Am Not Spock. If that is not ironic, I don’t know what is.

It seems that Star Trek fans (I am told they are divided into trekkies and trekkers, depending on the level of seriousness of their devotion) took offence of the title of that autobiography, which must have made Nimoy bang his head against the wall a bit.

Anyway, in 1995 he wrote a second part of his autobiography, whose title was—guess what?— I am Spock.

Cowboys and Aliens

This new movie, whose title basically describes its plot, is based on a graphic novel (as most movies seem to be these days). I have not seen the movie yet, and I don’t want to comment much on it, only the fact that it is not a comedy. And that is very ironic because, in the 80s, the idea of cowboys fighting alien beings, for renowned cartoonist Gary Larson (see also this one of my articles) clearly was a joke:

Cowboys and Aliens

(By the way: I did not upload this image, I just link to a version I found via Google. Therefore the copyright infringement is not mine. Just wanted to make that clear.)

In fact the Wikipedia page for the movie claims that the graphic novel was based on the cartoon, but does not back this claim with a quote. I do not believe it. There would have been no point for the novel’s artists to make a serious work from a single, humorous picture. I think it is just coincidence. But how ironic that a sarcastic joke could reappear as serious science-fiction action suspense movie.

Greek Man Looking for Greek Woman

This one might interest you least of all the examples I gave, but I just find it delightful. It is a novel by Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, written in German. Its original title was Grieche sucht Griechin which is less unwieldy than the literal translation I gave above, thanks to the distinction of the sexes in the German language.

It is a strange, ironic novel that is rather light-hearted compared to the other works of Dürrenmatt (especially his theatric plays). It deals with a Greek man, a conservative, shy, lowly accountant called Arnolph Archilochos, who is fed up with remaining a virgin and therefore puts up a newspaper advert looking for a woman to marry. A Greek woman. He finds one and they enter a relationship. What he does not realise is that she works as a prostitute, one of the expensive kind. Soon Archilochos’ affairs begin to prosper, he gets money and promotions and honors, because all the people in positions of authority had been lovers and customers of his fiancée, and they take him under their wings out of gratitude. In the end of the novel he finds out about her past and has a breakdown, gets violent and drives away her and the guests of their wedding.

An unhappy ending, in short, but there is never any other kind with Dürrenmatt. Nevertheless he sarcastically wrote an epilogue to the novel titled “ending for lending libraries”, which added a stupid, shallow and very contrived happy ending. It seems he wanted to lampoon people who only read books for uplifting endings (and rented these books from libraries). Clearly it was only a joke.

The novel was made into a German movie in 1966 (black and white, starring then famous actor Heinz Rühmann). Guess, which ending they picked?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Proving 0.999999… = 1

I always knew there were people who disputed or disbelieved this fact. It did in no way worry me, because for every fact there are people who disbelieve it. There is even a man out there who claims that (–1)·(–1)=–1.

But then I came across conversations on the discussion forums of the popular xkcd webcomic (about which I wrote in this article), and that did worry me. After all, the adherents of this comic are all (assumedly) scientifically educated or at least interested—or they could not appreciate the comic fully. So those educated people were discussing the matter as well, without reaching a concensus. So I concluded that it must be a point worth clearing up once and for all, and hence this article.

On some website of jokes in a section titled “You know you are mathematician if …” I read that you could recognize mathematicians by their interest in the question whether 0.999999… was 1 or not. This made me angry; in fact you can much rather recognize non-mathematicians by it. Mathematicians don’t ponder the question because they know the answer, and it is boringly simple; they certainly do not discuss it with their peers. If they ever talk about it, it is in order to explain it to non-mathematicians who have doubts. And this, by the way, is exactly why I am doing it here.

So I will now make a note of the observation that the argument usually brought forth against 0.999999… being 1 is this:

1 is a normal number, whereas 0.999999… is not a number in the usual sense, but a process.

and I will adress this in detail below.

There is a Wikipedia article on the topic, but I ran over the page and think it does not adress the arguments commonly brought up against 0.999999… being 1. It simply takes the things for granted that are disputed by people. I thought I could do better. If, for all that, you still feel that your objection was not adressed by my article, please leave a comment, and I will try to clarify that point!

Decimal literals

First let’s look at a finite decimal literal. We find what it means is a (finite) sum of fractions, e.g.

0.234 =

Now a nonending literal like 0.999999… is therefore an infinite sum, which in mathematics is called a series. They can be written with the “Σ” symbol:

0.999999… =
+ … =
i = 1

And that is the point where the objection from above comes in. Summing up infinitely many numbers is a thing that simply cannot be done, because, indeed, it is a process that would never end. And all of mathematics only deals with operations that end at one point. So the argument is really to the point.

But notations as the ones above are used all the time in mathematics. How can we mathematicians use them if they are impossible? Simple: We mathematicians are a lazy lot, and we use infinite sums simply as a convenient shorthand notation for a quite different thing. In fact, all of mathematicians is a tower of shorthands of shorthands of shorthands of shorthands. If a mathematician sees that infinite sum he/she knows that it is just a shorthand for

i = 1
N → ∞
i = 1

which is the limit of the sequence of the finite sums, all of which can be easily calculated. This gives us

0.999999… = lim (0.9, 0.99, 0.999, 0.9999, …)

This is the actual, precise meaning of a literal like 0.999999…, which you probably already knew. But what is a limit actually? It is the issue all the question hinges on. You may not have learned this at school. I will show you now.

Limits of sequences

I think we have a fuzzy intuitive notion of a limit. If people are asked to describe it without mathematics they will say thinks like “it is the point where the sequence goes when the indices become infinite.” It is very much like the popular phrase that is fed to school kids about how parallel lines “meet at infinity”. It is a convenient way of visualizing the thing (in a fuzzy way), but if you think about it with any degree of stringency, you get into trouble, because it is simply wrong. You cannot track a sequence up to infinity, because it is a never-ending process. Also infinity is not a place nor a number. Parallel lines do not meet at infinity because there is no such place. They do not meet at all. Likewise the sequence 0.9, 0.99, 0.999, 0.9999, … never reaches 1.

No, limits are a mathematically precisely defined concept. For a sequence a1, a2, a3, a4, … we call a number a the limit of the sequence if and only if

ε > 0:  Nε ∈ ℕ:  n > Nε: |aan| < ε

This is of course mathematical notation, which you might not understand, but I just could not resist putting it here because it is so beautiful. What it means in plain English is this:

A sequence is called converging to a number (which is then called the limit of that sequence), if any arbitrarily small vicinity of the limit is eventually entered by the sequence and never left any more.

With “vicinity” we mean an interval of real numbers containing the limit, but where the limit is not one of the borders. Usually we make these intervals symmetric, namely (if a is the limit) [aε, a+ε], which is the interval of all numbers whose distance from a is at most ε.

So there has to be a sequence index n, where the sequence element an has a distance from a less than ε and all subsequent elements do so too. For example the sequence

1, 0.1, 5, 0.01, 0.001, 5, 0.0001, 0.00001, 5, …

does not converge to zero because every third element is 5, and therefore for every distance smaller than 5 the sequence will break out of the vicinity around 0 at every third element.

So obviously not every sequence has a limit (i.e., is convergent), but if it has a limit, it has only one. There cannot be multiple different limits to one sequence, which is very easy to prove.

Note that this approach (which was invented by Cauchy in the early 19th century) works in a way backwards from the intuitive notion. We can not take a sequence, do the limiting process, and arrive at a limit number. Instead we have to start with a number we think is the limit number (by educated guessing, intuition or one of many tricks that exist for this purpose), and then merely test whether it satisfies the condition for a limit as stated above. This may sound like a frustrating state of affairs, but it cannot be done better.

Let’s consider a stupid illustrative example. Imagine a turtle that crawls towards a goal line. After one minute it arrives at a position one meter before the line. But the run has made it tired, so now it is getting slower and in the next minute it only manages half of the distance remaining, ending up at half a meter from the line. It’s getting more tired still, so after the third minute it is still a quarter of a meter from the line. After the fourth minute one eighth of a meter remains and so on.

Now the intuitive approach would be to ride the turtle, so to speak, and see where it will arrive. As we know by now, it won’t work, because it will never arrive anywhere but will crawl on without end.

The Cauchy method means that we guess where the turtle is going (the goal line), so we just position ourselves on that line and consider: For any small distance from the line, will the turtle eventually arrive there and not go back? The answer is of course yes; we can easily give a formula when it will pass any point with distance ε>0 from the goal line (it involves a logarithm). Also we know it will never overshoot the goal, so the limit is not somewhere beyond the line. So we have proven that the goal line is precisely the limit of the turtle’s movement.

I think I have said enough now about limits, and you understand the concept. But there is another thing I want to mention because it is fun (for me, at least).

Famous Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote an essay titled The Eternal Footrace, which deals with the famous ancient greek logical paradox of the race between Achilles and a turtle. (Invented by Zeno of Elea, for us it is not a paradox anymore. We have solved it, precisely by the application of Cauchy’s definition of a limit.) To quote from that essay:

One only needs to numeralize the speed of Achilles as one meter per second to give the time he needs as follows:

10 + 1 +
+ …

The final value of the sum of this infinte geometric progression is twelve (more exactly, eleven and a fifth; more exactly eleven and three twenty-fifths), but it will never be reached.

The funny thing is that Borges correctly identified the series as a geometric one, but totally failed to give the correct limit. He gave several values, as you saw, but admitted they were only approximations. I have no idea why he could not do it. The correct formula to derive the limit is taught in schools, and has been known for thousands of years. In this case the result is eleven and a ninth. Also you might have noticed how turtles seem to be important mathematical animals.

Wrapping things up

Now we can apply this definition to our sequence 0.9, 0.99, 0.999, 0.9999, …. I claim the limit is exactly one; let’s test if the Cauchy criterion holds.

As with the turtle example, the sequence will never overshoot 1; therefore the limit is certainly not larger than 1. Take for example a distance of 0.0001 from 1: it will be reached by the sequence with the fouth element and the following ones will not drop back down again. A distance of 0.0000000001 will be reached with the 10th element and so on. Generally a distance of ε>0 will be reached with the first element whose index is at least log(1/ε), where “log” is the common logarithm.

So that’s the proof and therefore

0.999999… = lim (0.9, 0.99, 0.999, 0.9999, …) = 1

What’s there to say more on the issue? I don’t know. You might be saying, “you claim a limit is that thing you described, but I say it is something else.” Well, that is exactly as if you said that “” is not a quarter note, but something else. I am sorry, but it is. It just is defined that way.

Mathematical expressions like “0.999999…” are just strokes on the paper (or screen) that were ascribed certain meanings to by mathematicians. And if you use these strictly defined meanings you arrive at 0.999999…=1 as shown. There’s no hidden notion there that transcends the definition. It’s just black strokes, and we define what they mean.

Now please note this: You may very well assign a different meaning to these penstrokes and symbols, which does not give you the value of 1. It is allowed , and mathematicians play with things all the time. There is no conspiracy or establishment or mainstream at work to keep you from it. The usual definition is in no way more true than any other (provided it is logically consistent!), just like baseball is not more true than softball. Just be aware that your results do not tell you anything about the results of people who are using a different definition. In addition, always clearly state your definitions, if they deviate from the usual, so others can see what you were doing. For example, the word “also” means “too” or “as well”, whereas in German “also” means “therefore”. Would you say the English word proves that German is wrong?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Discworld Critique, part III

This is the third and last part of my series of reviews of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. The first two parts can be found here and here.

If you read the previous two parts of this work, you might have noticed that I never gave a book full marks (=5 stars). That was because Terry Pratchett is an author who, unlike most, constantly improved with time. He is just the opposite of a “one hit wonder”, or, as Thomas Aquinas put it more elegantly (in Latin), a homo unius libri. And therefore the best of the Discworld novels appeared late into the series, and therefore in the last part of the reviews. Here you will find several books having 5, 4.5 and 4 stars.

Finally I also wanted to place a little unimportant complaint about a point in which I am somewhat of a stickler. In some places where Pratchett cited written materials that were meant to sound quaint, like old laws, royal proclamations or letters, he sometimes underlined this by the use of an old typographic variant, called the “long s”. Now there exiſt very preciſe rules about the uſage of this letter variant, where it will ſtand, and where there will appear the uſual “s”. It ſeems Pratchett did not know thoſe rules; his uſage of “ſ” is very arbitrary, including miſsing every alternate one completely.

Furthermore his typeſetters apparently did not have the glyph in the typefaces they were uſing, ſo they replaced it by an italic “f”, which looks kind of fimilar but, as you can fee, is flanted unlike the other letters and looks juft plain wrong.

The Last Continent

After a long time Pratchett once again wrote a novel with Rincewind in its center. In consequence this book is limited plotwise, because there’s only one thing Rincewind is capable of doing in a book, which is running away and trying to survive. This time he does it on the continent XXXX (or Fourecks) which is one huge spoof of Australia, and so is the book. You name any sterotype about Down Under—it’s there. If that is your idea of a perfect Discworld novel, have fun!

In addition there is a subplot involving the wizards of the faculty being stranded on an island run by the god of evolution. If you think that makes no sense, well, it doesn’t. I’m not even sure what the author wished to say with it or who (if any) he wanted to lampoon with it.

The faculty wizards are very good characters, but the repeated scenes of them being uncomfortable in the presence of women, and particularly their head housekeeper, Mrs. Whitlow, make me cringe or yawn, depending on my mood.

On the whole, compared to what Pratchett is capable of, the Last Continent is a stupid book, but most of the blame goes to Rincewind, who Pratchett freely admitted to not liking as a character for reasons apparent. It seems though that a portion of his fans demanded another Rincewind book so much he finally gave in and wrote it, and this is it.

Carpe Jugulum

This book is more or less a retake of Lords and Ladies. The kingdom of Lancre is took over by monsters who enchant people and the witches fight them. Only this times it’s vampires instead of elves. I am under the impression that Pratchett wanted to write a very dark book, but somehow it did not work completely. He tried too hard, by giving us conversations between a spiritually troubled priest and Granny Weatherwax, with insights in the latter’s inner life (it’s a dark abyss). Sometimes it strongly feels like the author himself ranting (less subtle than in Small Gods too).

All in all it is the combination: Terrifying villains who are still silly caricatures in a country of silly caricatures, a regurgiated plot and as much darkness as the pen would yield. In short, a failed book.

The Fifth Elephant

It is almost miraculous how Pratchett managed, after the lousy Carpe Jugulum, to write one of the best books of the entire Discworld series. Indeed it is. The Fifth Elephant has Samuel Vimes in the dark vampire-and-werewolf country of Überwald for the occasion of the new dwarven “Low King”. And, as Pratchett likes to say, where there’s policemen, there’s crime. In this case it is political intrigue and conspiracy which threatens to throw dwarf society into a civil war. But that’s not the important point of the book. The important point is that it manages to paint a fascinating in-depth portrait of Discworld dwarf cultures, after so many books of them having been the usual beard-and-pickaxe cardboard cutout characters. It is a thing which Tolkien never quite managed to do (with the Dwarves, that is). And it has Sam Vimes, who is a gift of a character, and always fun to read. The ending throws a bit of a damning light on the hero, but we’re not in Hollywood after all and it’s no different from the things John McClane does.

Another thing worth noting is that this book is the first one to mention an invention called the “clacks”, which is a semaphore tower network that is the Discworld equivalent of the telegraph. I consider it a remarkable thing by Pratchett to not only be aware of this historical concept but also bring it to the books. In fact they popped up fully-developed in The Fifth Elephant so that for a moment I wondered if I had maybe missed a book where they were introduced as part of the story, but there is no such thing. However, the clacks line plays a significant part in a later book, Going Postal.

The Truth

This is about the invention of the printing press and the Discworld’s first newspaper, the Ankh-Morpork Times. Its hero is William de Worde, a disinherited son of a noble and ruthless family, who is clearly not Pratchett’s best character, but still a good one.

Compared to the novels that came directly before it and later, The Truth is a light and humorous book, but as far as those go, it’s one of the very best. It also has a second plot which connects to main one, concerning yet another cabal to depose Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruler. This time the task is in the hands of two hitmen called Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, who are modeled after any pair of whimsical movie thugs wearing dark suits and calling each other “Mister …”. There are lots of them around, though these days it probably is Tarantino’s characters who come to the mind quickest. Anyway these too are silly, sometimes way too silly, but for all that they are still fun to read. I think that remarkable, because usually things like that put me off. It seems to prove it was done skillfully.

Thief of Time

I read this book twice some years ago and can’t remember it too well, which is always a bad sign. One of its main characters is Lu-Tze, sweeper and operative of the secretive Time Monks (much like time travel police and historians in one) and, in my mind one of the main weaknesses of the book as well. It is clear that Pratchett wanted to take the common notion of a wise Dalai-Lama type Buddhist monk and put as many twists on him as possible. Too many, in fact. The result is a character that I feel makes little sense. At least I can’t understand him at all. This character had appeared before and has since, but always in a minor role, which made him alright, but here he is on too many pages altogether.

The plot is a muddle of clocks, time travel, doppelgängers, and the five riders of the Apocalypse (Death, war, famine, pestilence and Ronnie). I did not think it was very gripping. The villains are (as in Reaper Man and Hogfather) the so-called “Auditors of Reality” who are, by intention, incredibly boring creatures. The downside is that the are also incredibly boring to read about.

Night Watch

Believe it or not, this book is actually a Discworld time travel story, and it is excellent.

Now I am sure we have all seen Back to the Future and its sequels and some of the many Star Trek treatments of the theme, in the movies and the series. It boils down to similar things all the time. For some reason almost all time travel stories (except the famous early example, the seminal Time Machine by H.G. Wells) deal with travels into the past. I am sure there are narrative reasons for that, which I won’t go into in this place. However, the defining element of travels into the past is the problem of causality, or, to put it more clearly, the so-called grandfather paradox. I don’t think I have to explain to you what that is. You have seen the movies.

And as this seems to happen in almost every time travel movie, it has become stale and boring, even annoying by now. So I was surprised and relieved to see that Pratchett let us off the hook in this respect.

The book’s plot is about how Sam Vimes, while in pursuit of a psychopathic serial killer, is magically flung back into the past—into the time of his own youth. And despite that fact I am happy to tell you that there is never a question of somebody killing his grandfather or dating his mother etc. etc., except for one very brief uncomfortable allusion (which is a red herring, in fact).

Despite the fact that Vimes’ appearance in the past changes history, and he also tries hard to do just that (in his characteristic way he just has to do the job that’s in front of him), it is made clear quite early that it won’t matter in due course. Though Vimes manages to change some little bits, on the whole history just runs over him like a steamroller. It’s what I term the Asimov model of history, and there’s much to be said in favor of it, which I will reserve for a seperate article. In fact, Vimes’s only objective is to make sure his own younger self (a night watch rookie) gets a few valuable lessons, which he got in the unaltered timeline.

So if Night Watch is not really about time travel paradoxes, what is it about?

It is about a popular revolution that ultimately came to nothing. It is about decent and not-so-decent cops under a tyrannical régime. It is about secret police and torture. It is about politics and betrayal and intrigue and people who just try to make it through all of it alive. It is dark. It is to Discword what Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was to Batman. It was the old stuff, but grittier and grimier and just so much more vital and real. It was entrancing.

In fact, it could have easily been written as a “prequel” like Small Gods, but the time travel stunt enabled Pratchett to use his best character, Sam Vimes, with the added twist of Vimes teaching himself and I think it paid off.

For a change I will complain about some German translation goofs that are not in the book’s title. The first occured in a scene where young Vetinari says about the head assassin, Doctor Follett, “They say he can play a mean lute.” This is a play on the phrase “to play a mean guitar”, which means playing it very well. In addition I believe “mean lute” is an obscure term for a baroque tenor lute as well. Now I admit I had to look up the phrase before I understood it (not being an English native speaker), but then I’m not calling myself a professional translator. This man, however, does, and he still was clueless, so he ignored “lute” completely and translated the sentence as meaning “They say he can be very mean.”

Another one is the phrase “cutting toast into soldiers”, which appears in several Pratchett novels. Once again I looked it up and found it meant cutting toast into strips. The Pratchett translator put it just literally, which makes me think he assumed it meant something like that:

Toast Soldier

Monstrous Regiment

Beginning with The Fifth Elephant Pratchett slowly began to change his writing into a new style which I term his late period. He phased out the spoofs and light comedy in favour of a more laid-back witty tone. Footnotes became fewer. But the books became so much better in terms of atmosphere, approaching the level of real literature at times. This enabled him to succesfully take up more serious topics more regularly. Many ideas and characters were revisited in this light to the point of nearly contradicting earlier books. The mechanical Harry-Potter-like magic of the wizards made way to unexplained semi-mystical happenings, that were treated much more serious than in earlier novels. I think it was a very good transition.

While, despite all the changes, Night Watch was still written in a style much similar to the previous novels, Monstrous Regiment is the first Discworld novel that has all the hallmarks of the new period. It is set in a desolate, ruined little country named Borogravia which has been brought low by endless self-inflicted wars with mightier neighbours until basically only the women are left. So now women start joining the army in secret in the last desperate draft. Led by a hapless, famished officer who has been taken from his desk job to fight on the front, they manage to … on second thoughts, I won’t tell you. Read the book for yourself!

Pratchett paints an appropriately dreary picture of a war-torn, famished country additionally tortured by an insane and gloomy religion. Some Ankh-Morpork regulars make guest appearances. I hope you like Jeanne d’Arc. With a twist, of course. As for the other twists of the book (which I won’t divulge): Pratchett has a good idea there, but there is such a thing as using a good idea too often. After seeing that particular thing happen again and again in the book (especially towards the end) I could not help but groan inwardly a bit. One star deduced from full marks for this.

Going Postal

The switch to a different style did Pratchett a lot of good and he produced a series of very strong novels, of which Going Postal is one of the best. It introduces a new set of characters which recur in later books, centered around Moist von Lipwig, a brilliant con man who at the beginning of the book is sitting in a cell waiting to be hanged. He is the hero, mind you. His love interest will be Adora Belle Dearheart, who is angry, severely dressed, and chain-smokes cigarettes (and not from a cigarette holder, as suggested by the cover illustration). I don’t know why, but it seems to work.

In addition there’s a load of brilliant ideas and characters, including one elderly Mr. Groat, who pratices “natural medicine” including sulphur and acids until his socks blow up and who has a very distinct way of speaking (“Well, Mr Mutable, he was the first, decent chap, he fell down into the big hall from the fifth floor, smack, sir, smack on to the marble.”), and the community of pin collecting nerds (they have special shops and magazines about pins, but not nails, because those are obscene). And Pratchett has managed to revitalize the wizards by introducing several new ones not belonging to the old faculty, busy with all kinds of weird research. (“You may experience a taste of eggs and the sensation of being slapped in the face with some sort of fish.”)

Also, which is characteristic for the late period Pratchett, there’s a bit of paranormal mysticism, and scenes that manage to conjure up a truly eerie atmosphere. And there’s a charismatic, modern villain. Another innovation is (finally) the use of chapters, which each do start with a two lines long description of its content in keywords (which make no sense at all before you read the chapter). It is an idea that works out nicely and he stuck to it in later books. Half a point is deduced from full score for the main villain’s henchman, who is a stupid character, and the somewhat confused ending.


— soon to come —

Making Money

This one picks up where Going Postal ended. After Moist von Lipwig was forced to bring Ankh-Morporks stunned post office back to life, he is now ordered to do the same to the Royal Mint. I am getting the impression that Pratchett is in the habit of writing some books twice, as with Moving Pictures and Soul Music, or with Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum. Despite the fact that Making Money is not nearly as fresh as Going Postal, and the new characters aren’t as good, it is still a decent book. Lipwig and Adora Belle “Spike” Dearheart are still very enjoyable characters, and the villain is so crazy you can hardly view him as a real threat. Conculsion: A good, average book of the late Pratchett period.

Unseen Academicals

— soon to come —

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Discworld Critique, part II

This is the second part of my reviews of the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. The first part can be found here. Please note that the length of the seperate reviews does give no clue as to the quality of the books (as judged by me), but that this is the job of the stars next to the titles (varying between one and five).

In part one of this work I took the opportunity to rant a bit about the abominable cover illustration of the Discworld books by Josh Kirby. This time I will pick a different target for my wrath, to wit, the German translations of the books, which are all done by the same hapless guy. As a rule I don’t read translations unless I have to, but I had the chance to leaf through some of the Discworld translations at bookstores and it was not a pretty sight. I have written before on the deplorable results of German translations of humorous material (movies in that case). Pratchett’s translator exhibits all the usual faults and bad habits: Changing the titles, for example, in a desperate bid to make it more funny. (He achieves just the converse.) But in addition to that he introduces a lot (and I mean a lot) of mistranslations which force me to conclude that this person simply does not understand a lot of the books. In some cases he even managed to translate a sentence to mean exactly the opposite from what it means in the original. If you have read a couple of Discworld novels you will know what I mean when I say that here is a true B.S. Johnson at work here. I always imagine the man as a drooling hunchback character who goes “hurrrrrrrhhhhhh” joyfully while he works.

To give you an example, the book Wyrd Sisters contains quite a bit of references to Mcbeth. Granted. But this translator obviously thought it didn’t jump out at the reader enough, so he translated the title as McBest. Literally like that. A completely failed pointless English (!) pun as a German title, which makes the book look like a commercial for McDonald’s. Never before in my life have I so strongly felt the need to use an expression that is currently all the rage with younger people. So wtf? WTF? W–T–F?

Now that I have gotten that out of my system let’s begin!

Reaper Man

The main plot of this novel sounds weird enough. It seems there is a group of beings called the Auditors of Reality, who one day decide that Death (the guy with the scythe) has development too much of a personality and exile him. Which means he he is turned into a mortal being (though he retains some of his properties, like being made of nothing but bones, and nobody noticing this), and sent to a rural area of the Discworld.

Most of the book is about Death trying to adapt to the life of a peasant while working for a widow. This includes mastering the arts of drinking alcohol, white lies, old-fashioned inhibited morals, rustic self-deprecation and stinginess. I think it was meant to be a lesson about the human condition, and accordingly the whole book was written in a rather sentimental, even sad way. Deliberately so. I have to admit this put me off a bit, and I haven’t reread the book for quite some time.

Despite the fact that it is one of the shortest Discworld novels, the plot described above was able to only fill half of the book, so a secondary plot was thrown in. It is the classical A-plot/B-plot structure that occurs so often in TV series like Star Trek TNG in similar situations. Usually one of the plots is serious while the other one is comic relief. It is just like that here.

The comic relief plot is about how, as Death is absent, nothing and nobody can really die on the Discworld any more. Therefore when the wizard Windle Poons (who appeared in Moving Pictures, old as stone, deaf and in a cast-iron wheelchair) dies, he is turned into a zombie. Together with a band of other undead misfits, they battle the strangest enemy the Discworld has ever seen. It is a predatory lifeform (we have to assume) which spawns as snow globes and later morph into shopping carts which try to cart people to their hive, which is a living shopping mall. They are stopped before we find out what would happen to people in there.

The strangest thing about this strange B-plot is that it appeared from absolutely nowhere and had nothing at all to do with the main plot. While the main plot sang the blues, this one was pure slapstick.

Witches Abroad ( = ?)

Just as with Mort, I only read this book a single time and cannot really remember it too well, so once again I will not warrant a judgement about it. In fact, whereas I read Mort a long time ago, so it’s not surprising that I have forgotten most of it, it cannot have been more than a single year since I had Witches Abroad in my hands, and yet it managed to vanish from my recollection to such an extent that not even plot summaries from the internet managed to refresh my memory enough to write this review. While that is no proof of anything, I still suspect that it bodes ill for the quality of the book.

All I want to say is that the book is, as the title suggests, a Lancre witches novel featuring the usual cast of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, and that its plot is a mix of several classical fairy tales with Pratchettian twists to them. As I only read this book after most of the following ones I can tell you that it is not essential for the witches’ character development.

Small Gods

This novel is very much different from the other middle period Pratchetts. It is in fact a rather serious book. The little comedy it has is there just because it was expected of a Discworld novel, but it might just as well have been written straight. It tells the tale of Brutha, novice in the monastery-nation of Omnia who, despite appearances, is the last person left who really believes in the great god Om (who is actually what on the Discworld is termed a small god). As might be expected the book is filled with philosophical ideas and musings which (unlike some of the other books) never sounds like Pratchett himself preaching to the audience. It has some things to say which are deeply critical of religion but ends on a conciliatory note, which prompted readers to alternately describe it as a “whacking god good and proper” book or as a very Christian novel. I think it’s just a Pratchett book and basically stands where he does.

It is exceptional in that it is set 100 years before the other Discworld books, making its content being sometimes mentioned as historic events in later novels. One thing that annoyed me about the book though was that in a bid to portrait Hellenistic culture as well-nigh perfect in contrast to the repressive monastery-like Omnia Pratchett had a slave of said Greece-like country lament that he only got three meals a day, only one free day per week and only two weeks’ holidays per year. Talking about blunt instrument rhetorics, huh?

Despite the fact that this book’s title would have been a perfect candidate for a literal translation, the translator chose to call it Einfach göttlich, which is Simply Divine. Sounds sleazy, but I will reserve my anger. There’s worse to come on that score.

Below is my very own rendition of Brutha, made some years ago. In the drawing he looks older than he was in the novel, but it was the best I could do. I’m sorry.


Lords and Ladies

This is the third witches novel (or the fourth, if you count Equal Rites) and the first one that has a darker tone. This fits Granny Weatherwax very well, who is a dark, dangerous character (though not an evil one). She became (I think) one of Pratchett’s top two characters in terms of development and frequency of usage, the other one being Sam Vimes. In fact they have some superficial similarities, but Granny is much darker, and that’s despite the fact that Vimes is cynical and disillusioned. Granny Weatherwax is a person who is immensely powerful, and cannot bear not to be in control in any situation. But unbeknownst to the other characters she is constantly battling against her dark impulses, which she manages by exercising a good deal of righteousness, strong principles, and avoiding any trace of religious belief, because she expects it would turn her into a violent crusader, who would unleash wars sweeping across the lands. The other witches are interesting, but much lighter characters, who I personally usually enjoy more.

The book is about elves managing to enter the Discworld through some dimensional portal and let me tell you, in Pratchett’s world elves are evil. It seems Pratchett wanted to take Tolkien’s famous elves (not “elfs”!) and turn them into something else entirely. While I prefer Tolkien’s elves, I can certainly attest that Pratchett was successful in this. His elves are evil, graceful, beautiful, histrionic sociopaths who magically enchant people and then kill them for the fun of it. Pratchett several times compared them to cats, and as he owns about 10 cats, I expect he knew what he was talking about.

It seems the German translator was seriously at his wit’s end with this book’s title, because he did not translate it at all, so it became Lords und Ladies.

Men at Arms

This is the second novel featuring the Ankh-Morpork city watch (formerly night watch), and it faithfully follows where Guards! Guards! lead. This includes new recrutes to the watch, some of which are interesting characters who recurred in later books. Another unique recurring character who originates here is Leonard of Quirm, who is like Leonardo da Vinci, only more so.

As this is a watch novel, it features a crime story, which gets lost a bit in the midst of decent comedy and character development though. In fact, I was never sure I quite knew what the plain of the villain was. In details, I mean. It involved a unique weapon invented by said Leonard of Quirm, which would be a very perfect McGuffin, except it is used a lot to kill people. Or rather, it uses people to kill people. It is a bit mystical.

So to sum things up, Men at Arms provides nothing substantially new since Guards! Guards!, but it has good characters, good comedy and is fun to read. Quite typical for Pratchett’s middle period.

The German translation of the title was a gem of true bad taste and stupidity. Once again the translator thought a book title without a gag in it was just unthinkable, so he came up with Helle Barden. It is a play on the word “Hellebarden” (halberds), which at least has something to do with city guards. But by splitting the word it became what in English would be Bright Bards. Bards as in people who play lyres and sing. I think I am right in saying that usually puns are expected to make at least a bit of sense. Needless to say there are no bards at all in this movie.

Soul Music

Another typical example of middle period Pratchett. Basically insert “Rock’n’Roll” for “Hollywood” in Moving Pictures and you get this book. Lots of spoofs as well, as might be expected. Nice and easy read, but not very much more than that. Has a gratuitious subplot about Death vanishing (again) which makes the author introduce Death’s granddaughter (by way of his adopted daughter Ysabel and former apprentice Mort, see above.), who will turn out eventually as a rather interesting recurring character (though certainly not one of the best).

I rate this book with three stars because like most middle period novels it’s not bad, though nothing special either. These books are all more or less average.

The book’s title did not make too much sense to me: It’s about rock music and related things; in the book it is called Music With Rocks In. It’s not about the kind of music we call “soul music”. I have to assume it was meant as pun, meaning that the music in the book has a kind of soul in it (it does). But as bad as this pun was (for Pratchett’s standards), the one the German translator used was worse. He titled the book Rollende Steine, which means Rolling Stones. Oh, the fun we had!

Interesting Times

This would be another classic three star middle period book, if it didn’t have a couple of truly good ideas which make it stick out a bit. In fact there are some people out there who rate Interesting Times among the very best of all Discworld. I do not, but I still like it. It revisits Rincewind, Cohen the Barbarian (Ghengiz Cohen he is called from now on) and Twoflower, from the first two books who now turns out to live in a continent that resembles real-world China and is incredibly repressed. I smell a big fat continuity problem here, as a Twoflower from such a land could not possibly act like the Twoflower in the earlier novels, but be that as it may.

Anyway Cohen is out to conquer the entire continent with his “Silver Horde” of seven barbarian warriors each older than 75 years. Of course he succeeds. Rincewind spends the time running away from many things, which is what he always does. The book contains a rather generous helping of rather bad puns, but there’s just no accounting for taste. You might like them more than I do.


This book is more or less one big spoof of The Phantom of the Opera, and of opera houses in general. Despite the fact that it is set in Ankh-Morpork it features the Lancre witches, and for Granny Weatherwax it is pretty light-hearted.

Unlike Wyrd Sisters which plays Mcbeth straight this one puts a lot of alternate Pratchettian twists to the story. I liked it, but then again I like the Phantom (the songs and the actors, at any rate), so it need not be too significant. The book has a lot of very good, witty dialogue and interesting, enjoyable characters.

Feet of Clay

This is the third Discworld novel revolving around the City Watch and its commander, Sam Vimes. It is also the third Watch novel where the villain’s plan is to overthrow the city’s ruler, Lord Vetinari and return the city to the rule of a king. Some king. The first time they used a dragon with the intention of having it be defeated by some random strapping boy who could wave and grin and otherwise be controlled by the villains who summoned the dragon. This stooge king was so unimportant he was not even given a name, never seen close up and soon burned to ash by the dragon.

The second time it happened (in Men at Arms) they planned to simply shoot Lord Vetinari and put some undisclosed scion of the royal line onto the throne. In fact, that particular aspect of the story quickly dropped from the table along with its carrier, young Edward d’Eath, and only was alluded to again at the very end. As it came out, the man destined to be king was probably Carrot Ironfoundersson, who declined to fill the role and kept his lineage secret.

The third time around the villains tried to do away with Vetinari by arsenic poisoning in order to replace him with Corporal Nobby Nobbs, the disgrace of the Watch, on whom they bestowed a fake lineage to present him as a duke. As with the other plans, it did not even come close to working. I don’t know whether it was meant as a running gag about all villains having similar plans in the Watch novels, or whether it was just laziness on Pratchett’s part. Anyway, the Nobbs thing was only a side dish. Basically the novel is a classical whodunnit, where the mystery is how Lord Vetinari was being poisoned (of course it was not anything as simple as food or drink). As is the custom in such situations the novel is also filled to the brink with red herrings.

This book introduces a new Discworld species that came to stay, the Golems. They form a second story arc that runs parallel to the attempted murder mystery and only tangentially touches it, though the two plots seem considerably less out of joint than in Reaper Man. I think the series of watch novels would have run out of steam after this had Pratchett not tried something new with the next one, Jingo.

The title is of course a famous quotation from the Bible’s book of Daniel. Once again it would have been perfect for a more-or-less literal translation into German, but once again it was not to be. Believe it or not, it became Hohle Köpfe (Hollow Heads). Well, at least one hollow head was involved in the process, it seems.


I do not quite know how to place this book. Basically it is a Discworld Christmas story. As usual Pratchett tries to subvert as much as he can, by having Santa (called the Hogfather on the Discworld) disappear and Death himself filling in for him, because Christmas (Hogswatchnight) needs to happen. It has a lot of jokes, some of which work and some which don’t. It features Death’s granddaughter once again, as well as the wizards and even the Watch. Pratchett does his best to not portray the Hogfather like Santa Claus, the Coca Cola version of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, but as a warped remnant of a dark, pagan midwinter ritual figure involving human sacrifice. It makes a rather forced impression; the beard did not quite fit, so to speak. All in all this makes the book a somewhat heterogenous mixture of truly funny, Christmas-like cutesy and just weird moments.

This book was made into a movie that isn’t bad, except for the fact I found it strange that Death does not move his mouth when he speaks.


In this novel featuring the city watch and Sam Vimes once again, Pratchett tried to take on some of the more current social problems, namely racism, jingoism, warmongering and migration. It deals with a small island called Leshp that one day rises from the sea (there’s some moments of allusion to Lovecraft’s sunken, rising island-city of R’lyeh, where dead Cthulhu lies dreaming, but in fact the island is perfectly normal, even useless), and is claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and the empire of Klatch, which in the course of the book leads to war.

Klatch is clearly modeled after the middle east, in particular the Ottoman empire, being an assembly of more or less rebellious provinces which are mainly Arabic and North African in style. There’s also a great desert with denizens called the D’regs (like the Tuareg, only they attack everything in sight as a lifestyle). Interestingly however, there is nothing resembling Islam. It seems Pratchett, like so many other writers, was scared to touch that particular issue. (It was written before the caricatures controversy of Jyllands-Posten, but well after Salman Rushdie.) Or there might be a more complicated reason. Let me try to carve it out:

Political corectness is among other things the notion that one ethnic group is not allowed to blame another in any way, even if there is friction; or to put it bluntly, the problem is always us, never them. This is of course in a way racism as well and certainly just as wrong as putting all the blame on “them”. The truth as always lies somewhere between the two extremes, and this is obviously the way a shrewd author would like to portray things. It is dangerous, though. As we all know the prevalence of strict political correctness in public discourse puts powerful pressure on any author who is not just out there to cause a stir. You must mention the errors of the “other side” with care and on your own peril. So prudent writers often take care to be slightly biased in favor of the “enemy”.

Pratchett tried to manoeuvre his way through this dilemma by delicate assignment of roles to the characters. It was clear to every reader that Sam Vimes was Pratchett’s mouthpiece, so for the sake of his own reputation Vimes had to display a hefty dose of the good old PC. He was assisted in that by the generous display of stereotypical jingoistic resentiments by Ankh-Morpork secondary characters (Sergeant Colon, Lord Rust et al.). In order to balance things out, Pratchett introduced Vimes’ Klatchian counterpart, 71-hour Achmed, who has an unbiased point of view (as he told Vimes):

‘After the attempt on the Prince’s life I suspected everyone. But you only suspected your own people. You couldn’t bring yourself to think the Klatchians might have done it. Because that’d line you up with the likes of Sergeant Colon and all the rest of the Klatchian-fags-are-made-of-camel-dung brigade.’

True words, but you wouldn’t want your hero to utter them, because it would make him less of an hero. So Vimes forces himself to be naïve, and Achmed is wise. He would have stolen the reader’s sympathy away from Vimes, so he had to get negative traits to counter that: Achmed is hard and cruel and administers quick justice with his curved sword.

So far, so good. But what’s missing is the other side of the coin which has Sergeant Colon’s image on it. We certainly do have our jingoistic right-wing troublemakers and hate-mongers, but let’s not forget there are people in the immigrant communities who make bad things worse, by sometimes validating the slurs brought up against them. Homegrown terrorism, hate preaching, criminal clans, forced marriages of teenage girls, they do exist.

They do not exist in Jingo, though. Pratchett’s immigrants are honest, hard-working people, and the only one that is not is a 14-year-old hotheaded boy, who somewhat calms down at the end of the book. Of course, most immigrants are hard-working honest people, but to be fair, most of “us” are not of the Klatchian-fags-are-made-of-camel-dung brigade either. So if our dark side is portrayed it would be only fair to show the bad side of the other faction as well. A bit of it, at least.

But Pratchett likes to show off his shrewdness and he therefore has to ultimately present a solution. And if he did show the problem in all its unholy complexity, he could not, because no-one alive has solved it yet. Pratchett straightened the thing out for himself by omission and thus made it solvable. And therefore he could have nothing akin to Islam in the book. Because if he had, it would have irrepressably raised all the issues about which he preferred to keep silent. He would have had to wrestle with the question to what proportions the problems between natives and immigrants were due to religion, patriarchal culture, bad habits, fear or cultural backlash. It would have been to much for an author who aimed to emerge from the book with a superior smile and without much controversy.

While I don’t like Jingo too much for the reasons stated, I unreservedly admit that it is very well-written and therefore does not deserve less that three stars.

One final note. You may have noticed that I had some rather harsh words about the books in this article, and was a bit close-fisted with the stars as well. That is because Pratchett’s middle period books are, as far as I am concerned, not the best he has written. If you want to learn about the books I really recommend, go on to read part three.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Discworld Critique, part I

Today I have endeavored to take on the task of writing reviews of the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Having been one of Britain’s foremost top-selling authors for decades Pratchett has written more than 30 novels of his famous series of books which for want of a better word must be described as satiric fantasy literature. I am proud owner of 23 of them and have read many others rented from libraries, so I think I am qualified in judging them. In the few cases where I don’t know a book well enough to warrant an opinion I clearly say so.

In addition to a description I rate the books by giving them a number of stars between one and five. Please note that this is a relative judgment: Five stars denote the best Pratchett ever achieved, and one star is the worst blunder he ever did. Therefore seminal works of literature like Nabokov’s Pale Fire would have to have at least six stars, while some of today’s dime-a-dozen erotic vampire novels would be somewhere around minus two stars.

As mentioned there are a lot of Discworld novels, so I will split the work into three parts, of which this is the first. The books are ordered by date of publishing. I will skip the Discworld novels for younger readers (the Tiffany Aching novels) because I have not read them. Well then, let’s begin!

The Colour of Magic

This is the first Discworld novel, and it is a very rough draft of that universe.

To begin with, later Discworld would became a handy vehicle for Pratchett to present a lot of intricate philosophical and ethical contemplations. In books that were lighter there would still be a lot of satire of contemporary and historical culture. At worst there would be spoofs. There would be interesting and detailed characters to be hammered out across several novels. There would be an internally consistent world with consistent culture and technology, which enabled people after some years to even try to draw up maps of the Discworld (which unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth was not laid out like that from the start).

The Colour of Magic has nothing of that. First of all it is divided into four seperate short stories, which makes the book resemble four consecutive episodes of a TV series. This made it impossible to develop characters much but Pratchett didn’t even try. In fact all the characters are one-dimensional cardboard caricatures. The book is basically a clone of any unambitioned “swords and sorcery” novel around. It has wizards, it has Conanesque heroes with swords, it has exotic and dangerous princesses and yes, it has dragons.

Sure, the main characters were meant as comical figures: Rincewind, the failed wizard, who cannot do the most simple magic and Twoflower, who suddenly arrives at the scene as the Disworld’s first tourist, complete with clashing Hawaiian shirts, camera, and unbelievably naïve manner. But the secondary characters are more or less straight stock fantasy characters. Most of the regions, countries and concepts are so outlandish and unwieldy they never reappeared in later books, because they were only fit for a swift adventure of the heroes and would not bear out any more serious plot.

There is a curious fact The Colour of Magic shares with one of the earlier ones of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, From Russia, with Love: The central character seems to die on the last page, in Pratchett’s case by dropping over the edge of the Discworld into empty space.

One last note: Until his death a few years ago, all Discworld cover illustrations were done by a man named Josh Kirby. I have to admit I loathe his illustrations. He did everything wrong you could do wrong. He drew beautiful people ugly, he drew dwarves without beards. He drew Rincewind as a very old man, when he actually was rather young. He was clueless about how to draw hands: In his cover designs all people have taloned claws that look like nasty cases of arthritis. Like here: (Cover for Equal Rites) But with The Colour of Magic he did a blunder worse than usual: At one time the character Twoflower was described in the text as having four eyes. This was a quip about him wearing eyeglasses. Kirby took it literally. See for yourself, if you don’t believe me.

The Light Fantastic

After the first Discworld novel despite its shortcomings seemed to have success Pratchett decided to write another one, so the first task was to bring his heroes back to life, which was accomplished in a kind of deus ex machina way by application of magic.

The Light Fantastic is a bit similar to the previous novel, but it is a definite improvement in that it has a contiguous narrative, and a real villain. (A wizard called Trymon, who is described as fair-haired in one instance and as dark-haired in another, which made me shake my head a bit; I thought authors visualize their characters in a consistent way.) Also, unlike the barbarian hero Hrun in the previous novel, who was very stupid but otherwise true to the stereotype, in this book satire begins to slowly emerge with the creation of the barbarian hero Cohen, who differs from the usual in being old (80 or thereabouts and still living by the sword successfully despite having a bad back and no teeth).

The plot is ambitious in that it concerns the impending destruction of the whole of the Discworld, but the book is not as epic as this may sound. In the end Rincewind is seemingly cured from his absolute magical ineptness, but later novels prove that idea wrong. The somewhat annoying character Twoflower would drop from the series after this except for a brief reappearance in a very different context in Interesting Times.

There is one important little scene, where the librarian of the wizard university is magically turned into an orangutan (in this book Pratchett spelled it orang outang with a “g” at the end, which also annoyed me a bit, but later he learned better). Anyway, the ape librarian would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable and ingenious characters of the whole series, but his creation is only mentioned in passing in this book.

Once again cover illustrator Josh Kirby blundered badly in a way that is incredibly ironic. There appears in the story a swordswoman named Herrena, about whose appearance Pratchett has the following to say (and I can’t help but quote the whole passage):

Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one’s shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, thighboots and naked blades.

Words like ‘full’, ‘round’ and even ‘pert’ creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down.

Which is all rather silly, because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialized buyer.

Oh well, all right. The point that must be made is that although Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan would look quite stunning after a good bath, a heavy-duty manicure, and the pick of the leather racks in Woo Hun Ling’s Oriental Exotica and Martial Aids on Heroes Street, she was currently quite sensibly dressed in light chain mail, soft boots, and a short sword.

And this is what Kirby did with her:

Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan

(Again, all that can be wrong about this cover is wrong. Herrena as mentioned, Twoflower with four actual eyes, Rincewind with arthritic hands and way too old and looking evil, dwarf without beard and the same goes for Cohen the Barbarian who is explicitely described as having a beard down to his waist.)

Equal Rites

Equal Rites marked the first departure from the well-tried main character Rincewind. The reason must have been that Rincewind did not allow much (if any) character development. I believe this book is not held in very high esteem with most Discworld fans, but I have to admit that I have a certain fondness for it. Pratchett still had not quite found his characteristic style and Discworld itself was still a bit of a raw draft. The book deals with the adventures of young Eskarina “Esk” Smith, who strives to become the first female wizard (not witch) of the Discworld. It also introduces the country of Lancre and one of Pratchett’s most important characters, the witch Granny Weatherwax. Later she would evolve into a truly remarkable and complex character, being among the main protagonists of at least five Discworld novels, but here she almost unrecognizable as her later self. For all there is she might as well have been some other person entirely.

The book is written in a gentle and somewhat cute yet serious tone, which may be why a sentimental guy like me took a liking to it. In fact some years ago I painted a picture of Esk. Here it is.

Mort ( = ?)

I have to admit I only read this book once and that was a long time ago, and do not remember it too clearly. Therefore it would not be justified to rate it here. I can only say that as far as I recall it was not bad, though still being an early work, of course.

It is the story of how Death himself decides to take on an apprentice, Mortimer (called “Mort” in short), who promptly does the unthinkable and rescues a princess who had been supposed to die when he is sent to fetch her soul. This splits the Discworld into two zones in which different realities prevail, one where she died and one where she survived. Magical complications ensue. In the end Mort gets a girlfriend and later will marry, but it is not said princess.


Another Rincewind yarn which from all the series most resembles the first two novels, making it a bit of a step backward in the development of the series. Basically of the “journey through fantasy realms including swords and dragons” variant, including characters that turned out to be not as funny as the author had hoped. The villain is a so-called “sourcerer” who, for being a second-generation wizard (despite being still a child) is almost almighty. The magic wars occuring in this novel destroyed so much of the Discworld that I wonder if the entire novel should be considered non-canon for the sake of continuity. Certainly the concept of “sourcerers” was never again brought up by Pratchett. This is also the last novel to show the university of wizards before introducing the famous (and very funny) faculty members of the following novels. This book can easily be skipped when catching up with the series.

Wyrd Sisters

The first true Lancre/witches novel and in some ways the first true mature Discworld novel as well. While Pratchett certainly is not above spoofing (sometimes annoyingly so), here he takes it from the best: Shakespeare. The plot of the novel has (admittedly) quite a bit of Mcbeth in it. It is not a deep philosophical book as some of the others, but it is certainly one of the best comedies the man ever wrote. It features a brilliantly written villain who is constantly agonized by his ambitious wife, the witches, the thick-headed people of Lancre and his own paranoid delusions. In the end the country gets a new king (I won’t tell you, who) and, probably, a queen as well. This book is a very recommended read, and you might need it, because it introduces characters and plot elements that continue in the other witch novels.


Over the years Pratchett wrote a number of novels whose shtick is that he describes a Discworld country that is very similar to some real-world region, and choses a plot that is in accordance with what he perceived as the spirit of the place. This is the first one like that and it is not hard to guess that the country in question is very much like Egypt. Some of those novels are very good (like Small Gods), some are rather bad (like The Last Continent). Pyramids is so-so.

It describes a small Egypt-like country where nothing has changed for thousands of years. Pteppic, the country’s heir to the throne is busy passing the final exams in Ankh-Morporks school of assasins (the best part of the novel, a brilliant parody of British driver’s license exams), when the news reach him his father has died, and he has to return to take up the rule. One main point of the story is the building of a pyramid that is so large its magical powers warp space and time.

The chief theme is the struggle of Pteppic against the rigid old-fashionedness of the country, and the rigid bounds imposed on himself as king, which actually leads to him fleeing the country. Later the effects of the pyramid cause the plethora of gods of the country to manifest all at the same time. The book’s antagonist is an old bald-headed priest, who the reader does not perceive as completely evil. In fact he is driven by pathological fear of any change which leads to him being entangled in a state of affairs which he himself created and maintained … for a long time. I don’t want to become more specific because it would be a spoiler, but the final revelation is rather beautiful.

Guards! Guards!

The first watch novel, which introduces the main characters and marks the beginning of the career of commander Sam Vimes (he gets promoted at the end of most watch novels). It also introduces Carrot Ironfoundersson, a hero-type human raised by dwarves who joins the then-sordid night watch because he has naïve ideas about glory and justice. Carrot reminds me a bit of Superman. He is young, good-looking, muscular, clean in mind and body, and incredibly charismatic. Prime boyscout leader or king material. Thankfully Pratchett manages, in later novels, to put a number of very subtle, devious twists on this character so, unlike Superman, he always stays interesting.

Sam Vimes on the other hand starts out in this book as a drunk copper lying in the gutter most of the time, because he despairs over the state of the city. In later books he arguably becomes Pratchett’s best and certainly his most favored character, a cynical, disillusioned, tough and capable police chief, who despises the whole world and yet always does the right thing. I go so far as to view him as Pratchett’s alter ego most of the time. He is definitely used to convey Pratchett’s own attitudes to the reader.

But all of that comes later. In Guards! Guards! Vimes does not show too much of these traits yet. The plot is about a plot (sorry!) to take over Ankh-Morpork by an incredibly lame and silly secret society with the help of a magically summoned dragon and a fake king.

It formally lays to rest the fantasy elements of Pratchett’s first novels: When the dragon is terrorizing the city, a bunch of barbarian heroes arrive, but when they realize that the city’s ruler violates the usual conventions by not even having a daughter to promise to the hero who vanquishes the dragon, they shrug and leave. In none of the later novels a barbarian hero in the usual sense will ever appear again. The age has passed for the Discworld. Likewise the wizards will cease to be an important element of the plots as wizards. They will continue to matter as unique characters but they will do less and less magic. Nothing will be resolved by magic any more.

Faust Eric

This is easily the worst novel of the Discworld series and entirely forgettable. The end of Sourcery left Rincewind trapped in the hellish Dungeon Dimensions and I suspect this novel was written mainly as a ploy to get him back to the Discworld. It does that but little more. It is the shortest Discworld novel as well. I only read this book once and intend to keep it that way.

Moving Pictures

This is the first novel of what I term Pratchett’s middle period. In that period he wrote many novels that were light-hearted comedies with little impact on character and plot development, but written in mature Discworld style (footnotes and all). They are also typically full of spoofs. This one is about how the Dicworld is seized by the film making virus and produces an equivalent of Hollywood. Unfortunately movie spoofs are the cheapest kind of spoofs there are (and you cannot feel smug to recognize them because everybody does), but to my relief he at least had the decency to stick to older movies like Gone With the Wind.

But it’s still a rather enjoyable book, not least because it introduces the magical University’s faculty, especially the hilarious Archchancellor Ridcully. As has been remarked by others, this man just begs to be played by Brian Blessed in possible movie adaptions.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Myths of the Future

This article is not about our myths that concern the future—the Third World War, the Singularity, Ragnarök etc. It is about the myths of the future, when our present days will be remote as the Trojan war, or Gilgamesh or the Yellow Emperor are from us.

Will there be myths at all? I do not think this question can be readily answered. Stone survives a long time, parchment much shorter, paper shorter still, and the lifespan of a DVD is sometimes so short it makes you shake your head over the state of technology. So it is thinkable that the tale of our civilizations will be blurred and muddied some day and turn into myth.

On the other hand, if we manage to evade the whole world falling in an age of barbary ever again, and if the world wide web of information stays alive with all information being copied and recopied scores of times, where will be the myths, unless you count the “urban legends” of the “poodle in the microwave” variant? Maybe even forum posts discussing the best way to display a bar diagram in Microsoft Excel will make it into futurity …

In short, I cannot answer that question. But join me in assuming for the time being that there will be a time when myths will be the only things of our days that arise out of the mist of time! What would they look like?

The future is the realm of science fiction, of course, and many authors have depicted future civilizations on earth and elsewhere, where only pale myths remain of the present. I will discuss two of them, of which I consider one brilliant and one bad.

The bad example, I am afraid, is by Isaac Asimov. That man is viewed as one of the cornerstones of science fiction literature, and rightly so. His works remain brilliant and seminal, even if there is much cause for criticism in them. And there is. In fact I find it incredible that I am able to find that much fault with an author and still respect him that immensely. It is a deeply paradoxical situation.

Today I have an axe to grind with Asimov’s myths of the future.

Strictly speaking they are not myths about the present day. They are myths about things that happened in some of Asimov’s books a couple of thousand years in the future, but they are told as myths is other books that take place more than 20,000 years in the future (Asimov wrote a lot of books).

I will not go into the details of these mythical stories which appear in the book Prelude to Foundation. They concern earth, which was lost, colonies and settlers, robots and renegades, and mythical heroes.

The thing that bothers me about them is that they are all true. The worst that has happened over millennia of supposedly oral tradition is that the names are changed a bit, for example one Elijah Baley is remembered as “Ba-lee”. Aside from that, as in a witness’ testimony in an Agatha Christie novel, every little detail turns out to be the truth and nothing but the truth. There is no simplification, euhemerism, no mixing-up or combination of several events anywhere.

As satisfying as this method is from the point of view of a detective novel (and most Asimov novels have that whodunnit element in them, even if there is no crime), as unsatisfactory it is when read as a history of the future.

Now for the positive example! It is by one of my favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, from his most famous work, the Book of the New Sun. I recommend that work to you most warmly! Consisting of four books it tells of the path of life of Severian, journeyman of the guild of torturers and executioners in the far future of earth. Being a curious mix of science fiction, fantasy and classic literature, it sparkles with surprising ideas, interesting characters and gems of language. I rate Wolfe in the same league as Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, and certainly superior to C.S. Lewis.

The stories of the past occuring in the Book of the New Sun are mostly rather hazy. Someone for example tells the story of Theseus, of the ship with the black sails, but it has been garbled by the centuries, the name of Theseus does not appear, the Minotaur has turned into an anonymous ogre and the point of the conclusion of the story is not clearly understood any more.

There is another little gem I want to quote to you in full (from the series’ first book, the Shadow of the Torturer):

The picure he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of the figure’s helmet was entirely gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

No further explanation is given, and the picture does not have any influence on the story either. It is just there, a small glint of the past, and it remains a mystery for the book’s protagonist.

Well, do you realize what picture Severian was looking at? I think it’s obvious, but anyway, here is the solution.

So much for the masters of the genre. To conclude this article I would like to describe to you my own attempts in this field. It is a story I began some years ago and never finished. Maybe I never will; I find my abilities as a legitimate author painfully inadequate. The ideas are there; it is the execution that falls short.

I set myself the task of retelling the story of the Cuban missile crisis as a myth or fairy tale of the future.

As befits a fairy tale I would depict Kennedy and Chruchev as two kings. In my draft I called them the star king (from the stars in the US banner) and the crescent moon king: there is a sickle in the Soviet emblem, and I though someone in the future might reason that it made sense to interpret it as crescent to match the astronomical theme of the star-spangled banner. Alternatively they might be called the red king (even if no-one remembered what the communists where, the fact that they were the red ones would remain, I am sure) and the blue king.

Fidel Castro would of course appear, without name, as a bearded duke of a little country before the blue border. I imagined that Castro and Cuba are forever linked to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became such a pop culture icon that he might find his way into the story, although in reality he had nothing to do with it. Everybody knows that “che” means “pal” in Spanish, so I considered making him a semi-heroic messenger figure called “the friend”.

Considering the barbaric age that might tell this fairy tale, the atom bomb would seem like magic to them, so I turned it into a magic weapon, invented by some legendary sage (Einstein?). I considered describing it in the shape of a small metallic mushroom (the notion of a mushroom cloud would remain in the human consciousness, I thought).

And the danger of radiation! For my (European) subconsciousness it is linked to the Chernobyl disaster, so some allusions to that would enter the story as well (although it happened later than the missile crisis). I think the notion of the “liquidators”, men clad in white doing a grisly radiation-related task in secret which killed them is strong enough to survive the ages and suffuse any story concerning atomics.

Add some random trivia, which might be remembered, for example that Chruchev was bald and did something with his shoe. Would Lee Harvey Oswald fit in the story? I did not come so far in writing, but maybe it would be possible after all. Add some more popular themes of the cold war, and tell the whole thing in the cutesy way in which fairytales disguise darker themes and there you are.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

At a Loss for Words

It has been rather a long time since I last wrote an article on this blog. There are three reasons for this. One is that I was rather busy with work; one is a thing I will be writing about shortly. The third is Japan.

I am of course speaking about the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and the subsequent catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which has mostly eclipsed the earthquake and the tsunami in the international perception.

I have mostly considered myself an ahistoric person, at least when the daily tedious national politicking is concerned. I have always a point of being somewhere else in my mind than at the scene of the contemporary tax reforms, economic issues, election campaigns etc., although I have a lively interest in many social issues. Einstein was said to have been offered a political post in Israel and having declined, stating he would stick to physics, as politics was for the day, but formulæ were for eternity. I can relate to that.

But that earthquake and nuclear disaster was too large to ignore it and write about mathematics or literature or UFOs. It would have seemed hearless and simply wrong. It left me shaken for days, and my heart flowed over with admiration for the heroic way the people dealt with it (the people, the residents, firemen, soldiers and technicians, not the obviously crooked owners of the nuclear plant).

So if I would write an article it would have to touch that event. But I cannot claim to have very much to say about it. I am not a physicist. And I note that even physicists are somewhat at a loss as far as predictions on how the thing will turn out are concerned. It may go either way, and my guess is as good as yours.

What else to say then? I might make a sentimental statement (as I have partly done above), but I would not write an article unless I feel I can contribute something which not everybody else can do just as well. So I was in a dilemma, and the only way out was to write nothing at all for a while.

But if there is something I might contribute to the topic it is the shameful way some of my countrypeople reacted to it.

I am from Austria, which lies between Italy and Germany, right across the globe from Japan. It is the place on earth that is probably the most safe from the effects of the disaster, but this did not prevent people from panicking in an absurd way. I heard people stormed chemist’s to buy iodine tablets, and when they were refused went berserk, claiming that we were all lied to by “the authorities” and that the Viennese air was badly contaminated—at a time when there weren’t even problems in Tokyo yet. They seemed to think that radioactive air had the power to dash across the globe at homongous speeds, not being diluted along the way—if they were thinking at all.

Our environment secretary, a dim little wretch of a politician tried desperately to capitalize on the catastrophy by appearing twice a day on TV and stating that Austria was still safe. He even had a telephone hotline installed for worried citicens. I was appalled at the sheer egotism of such acts. It seemed to say that the thousands having died in Japan and the millions in dire danger were nothing compared to the conceited fears of my countrypeople. It was the usual saga of “a plane crashed today, 300 people are dead, but thank god, no Austrians were among them” but multiplied a hundredfold. I had disturbing (of course fictional) visions of employees of the Austrian embassy in Tokyo storming the stores snatching the last provisions, leaving the Japanese high and dry.

Some days ago the giveaway newspaper that people read in subways had the headline “Atomic cloud over Vienna”, despite the fact that it took very precise measurements to detect anything at all, as the effects of the Japanese disaster were below the usual range of fluctuation of natural radiation. But this sounded as if we were in the town of Pripyat.

And another thing that angered me as well was something that turns up regularly in this country and which I term the “me too” effect. It may be that all countries and groups of people are prone to it, but in combination with the fact that in this country the spirit of all things is miserably small and mean produces a ghastly effect. (I realize I sound like one of our embittered litterateurs now, Thomas Bernhard or Nobel price winner Elfriede Jelinek, but there is no helping it.)

The “me too” effect is the displaying of the notion that all great events in the history of mankind—the fall of the Soviet Union, the first moon landing, the discovery of America, all great inventions, the greatest works of art, music and cinema—were only possible because of some small but significant Austrian contribution. Or there is at least an interesting link to us. It is saying, “See, we may be tiny and mean-spirited, but still we matter!”

I admit the effect appeared only in traces in the recent disaster, but still: There is a single nuclear power plant in Austria. While it was being built political entanglements caused a plebiscite on it to be held, which ruled that the plant was to be abandoned. At this point it was completely finished; all that was missing was the fuel rods. And so it has remained since then, as a kind of museum.

And now some newspapers pointed out that that reactor was of a type very similar to the ones at Fukushima and all but insinuated that it might help technicians in solving the crisis by being used to simulate and study possible solutions. I felt somewhat reminded of Apollo 13.