November 1983 saw the beginning of a publishing phenomenon; one that would genuinely change the face of British literature, at least for a while. By the mid-90s, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series about a flat fantasy world on the back four elephants on the back of a giant turtle was everywhere. You couldn’t get on a bus or train without spotting at least three other passengers reading a Discworld. They were easy to spot, too. Firstly, there were those bright, crowded Josh Kirby covers, all nobbly figures and tiny details, the author’s name floating in a box in the middle. You couldn’t miss them. Even if the books were wrapped in plain, brown paper, though, you’d still spot the people reading a Pratchett. They’d be the ones laughing. Pratchett was funny. He was more than that, of course: like his writing he was sharp, warm, angry, deeply human, nerdy, fascinating and crammed with arcane facts. As he went along, the books got smarter and richer, as, indeed, did their creator. By the late 90s, Terry Pratchett was the best-selling living author in the UK. At least, until some pesky boy wizard turned up and changed the face of literature all over again.
Not that you’d have guessed that, had you picked up a copy of The Colour of Magic that autumn from one of the handful of bookshops that stocked it. It felt pretty innocuous at the time – a book of four interlinked short stories (the phrase “the first Discworld novel”, which would later be found on the front of the paperback is, in fact, technically incorrect – it’s not a novel at all) with a cover depicting a turtle swimming through space, by an author you probably hadn’t heard of, published by the relatively small-scale Bucks-based Colin Smythe Ltd. The UK print run was just 506 copies. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and in truth didn’t look to go much further than that.
Pratchett, who would soon be considered an “overnight sensation”, was hardly a newcomer. He’d become a published writer in 1963 when a national sci-fi magazine, Science Fantasy, ran one of his short stories, ‘The Hades Business’. He was 15 at the time, though he’d written it when he was just 13. Local publisher Colin Smythe published the first novel by the 21-year-old Terry Pratchett, a children’s book called The Carpet People, in 1971 to a smattering of warm reviews. A more grown-up, pulpy sci-fi called The Dark Side of The Sun had followed in 1975, and Pratchett didn’t get to his next book, another straight sci-fi called Strata, out the door until 1981. In the meantime, he had written short stories and satirical columns for newspapers, and eventually settled into a role in PR at the electricity board. He hardly felt like a legend in the making.
The seeds were there, though, in those early books – if you knew where to look. Dark Side of the Sun played with the hard sci-fi concepts of Larry Niven and Issac Asimov; focussed around ancient artefacts left by a long-vanished alien civilisation. Strata went further, taking the core of Niven’s Ringworld – an artificial ancient planet in the shape of a ring around a star – and turning it into an artificial disc world. It was while writing about Strata’s artificial flat planet that he remembered an old Hindu myth he’d read about in astronomy books as a child – the world being flat and carried around on a turtle. It’s even mentioned in Strata (“that’s ridiculous” a character replies, “what does the turtle breathe?” A question Pratchett never revisits). The ingredients for Discworld were almost all there.
There would be two other external elements that would push Pratchett toward The Colour of Magic.
Firstly, there was Douglas Adams. His Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy had been a radio sensation in 1978 and Pratchett was a huge fan (later he would even make one of the doors in his house make a sighing noise when it was used). The novelisation had sold in droves the following year. Secondly, there was Dungeons & Dragons; Pratchett hosted local D&D games and often acted as dungeon master, creating elaborate and occasionally absurd stories. As a Lord of the Rings devotee since his early teens who had devoured “anything with a dragon on the cover”, he completely understood the cliches and tropes of fantasy, and had read enough to understand how the whole thing fitted together. At the time, fantasy was becoming big business, with the paperback racks in the newsagents and airports crammed with Hobbity tosh.
The next step was obvious – do for bad fantasy what Douglas Adams had done for science fiction: make it funny. Pratchett approached his publisher with an idea for a book of short stories based on a flat world – not the artificial one from Strata, but a new one, based on the “world turtle” mythos. Discworld gave Pratchett a canvas to explore his central conceit: fantasy concepts with real people. It was all very well conquering Mordor, Pratchett thought, but what do the Orcs do next? Get jobs? His world would put the cliches of fantasy fiction through a reality filter. There’d still be dragons, magic swords, wizards, trolls and dwarfs, but there’d also be blokes down the pub, tourists and, of course, puns. “In a distant and second hand set of dimensions,” began Pratchett. “On an astral plane that was never meant to fly”. There’s a pun in the very first sentence. The stall had been set.
It wasn’t just the jokes that made The Colour of Magic fly where Pratchett’s previous novels had merely meandered, though there were plenty of them. The Colour of Magic is the point that Terry Pratchett finds his voice, and he does so via the inept wizard, Rincewind, a ratty cynic bewildered by the weird unfairness of the world, who has to his own surprise, a heart of gold beneath his grubby cowardice. It was the first time Pratchett had let some of himself bleed into one of his creations, and by extension his first character that really and truly worked. Rincewind, like Adams’ Arthur Dent, is our tour guide through the oddball landscape of the Disc. He is the voice of reason, the eyes of the audience and a cypher for the author’s frustrations with the petty unfairness of existence. It works beautifully.
Admittedly, it took a while for anyone to take notice. The book wasn’t widely reviewed and sales were slow; though no-one really expected anything else. A canny deal by publisher Smythe to give Corgi the paperback is what started the juggernaut rolling. Corgi boss Diane Pearson was able to swing a serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and slowly word spread. 26,000 copies of the paperback, complete with the new Josh Kirby cover, were released into the world in January of 1985 and quite simply never stopped selling. Pratchett set aside plans for another sci-fi book to write more Discworld, and within two years he was a bestseller and had taken up writing full time. Within ten years he was a millionaire, within fifteen the best-selling living British author and ten years after that he was knighted.
Eight years since Pratchett’s untimely death from Alzheimer’s disease, Discworld, numbering over 40 novels plus artbooks, quiz books, maps, diaries, reference guides, a prog rock album and a cookery book, is still selling. A new spin off, Tiffany Aching’s Guide To Being A Witch, is due out this October, co-authored by Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, and the series is currently enjoying a high-profile audiobook revamp, read by the likes of Peter Serefinowitz, Bill Nighy, Sian Clifford, Indira Varma, Jason Isaacs and John Culshaw. Pratchett’s total sales now number over 100,000,000.
And it all began 40 years ago, with a silly idea about a flat planet on a turtle. Funny old world.
Marc Burrows’ comic lecture, The Magic of Terry Pratchett will be performed at 5.30pm in Gilded Balloon Teviot (Dining Room) at the Edinburgh Festival from 2nd – 28th August (Not 14th)
And it wouldn’t be Terry Pratchett without footnotes, would it? Each performance will be followed by a separate interactive show, ‘The Magic of Terry Pratchett: The Footnotes’, featuring a Q&A, readings from rare Pratchett work and interviews with special guests, including friends and colleagues of Sir Terry and Discworld fans from across the Fringe and beyond.
Booking link main show: https://tickets.gildedballoon.co.uk/event/14:4590/
Booking link footnotes: https://tickets.gildedballoon.co.uk/event/14:4631/