A conversation with Terry Pratchett, author of The Carpet People
Cory Doctorow and the famed author discuss building worlds, the legitimacy of authority, and the future.
Cory: You took a bunch of runs at building a world where a million stories could unfold—The Carpet People, Truckers, and, finally, Discworld. Is Discworld’s near-total untethering from our world the secret of its staying power?
Terry: It isn’t our world, but on the other hand it is very much like our world. Discworld takes something from this world all the time, shows you bits of the familiar world in new light by putting them into Discworld. Is that staying power? You tell me.
Cory: What’s the secret to Discworld’s unplumbable depths, and is there something a big world lacks when compared to one that’s smaller (in more than one way), like the Carpet?
Terry: We know about Earth; we know an awful lot about the solar system. When you do Discworld, you, the writer, can more or less change anything if you want to, if you can make it fit. It means you’re god, and that’s a great responsibility.
As a writer, you can take bits of the universe and put it in your own new universe. Working in Discworld, you use the word sandwich, and you think: Can I do this? Now I’ve got to have a reason why a sandwich is a sandwich—in our world, it was named after the man associated with its invention, the Earl of Sandwich. Can you have your own universe and still have sandwiches? You have to do it all yourself and decide if you need to open the door into our reality at the same time.
Once Discworld started moving, as it were, it started moving almost of its own volition, because I would write a Discworld novel, and that novel required that such and such should be available, or whatever, and that means that the next time, that’s real in Discworld and the thing grows. And I must say it grows to be rather bigger than a carpet—but with care, it can have just about anything in it.
I’m finishing up Raising Steam, in which the railroad comes to Ankh-Morpork, and an awful lot of things have to be made and discovered until you get to the top of that pyramid. You can’t have Vaseline until someone’s invented something else. You have to create and understand a lot of things before you can move on. And so, since I work on Discworld almost all the time, it grows because I need it to.
Cory: Do you think that there’s any way you could have kept us in the Carpet for anything like the number of books that we’ve gotten from Discworld?
Terry: I was about to say “No,” but right now I wonder. . . . If the idea had taken, I don’t know. I really don’t. But how would it be? It would be almost a kind of . . . People in the Carpet are more or less tribal. What would happen if I . . . You’ve got me thinking!
Cory: Contrariwise, I feel like Dodger could have been the start of its own saga, about any number of characters from Dickensian England—do you think the world of Seven Dials has enough material to fuel a Pratchett engine through quite so many books?
Terry: The answer is yes. Because it’s all there. The people Dodger meets are real, the places he goes are real, and all I have to do is put in that little touch of fantasy, i.e., Dodger himself. Queen Victoria was real, though it’s hard to believe—and she’s free; you don’t have to pay to use her. There’s a whole lot of people that Dodger could have met. I’m pretty certain he’s going to meet Darwin or his grandfather (more likely) at some point.
If I run with it, no limitations, I could keep it going, I think. I know a lot of the stuff. I know how they talk, I know the history. It doesn’t really matter if I put a bit of fantasy in to make the pie rise. You can go into the world of “What if?”
Cory: So much of your work is about the legitimacy of authority. You write a lot of feudal scenarios, but you also seem like a fellow with a lot of sympathy for (and suspicion of!) majority rule. The witches gain authority through cunning and compassion (Nanny Ogg), through knowledge and force of will (Granny Weatherwax). Kings rule by divine right and compassion for the land; Vetenari, out of the practical fact of his ability to control the city’s factions. The Carpet People is shot through with themes of who should rule and why. Where does legitimate authority spring from?
Terry: The people! The only trouble is the people can be a bit stupid—I know that; I’m one of the people, and I’m quite stupid.
Lord Vetinari is that wonderful thing: a sensible ruler—that’s why he’s so popular. Everyone grumbles about him, but no one wants to chance what it would be like if he wasn’t there. I like Vetinari. I don’t mind authority, but not authoritarian authority. After all, the bus driver is allowed to be the boss of the bus. But if he’s bad at driving, he’s not going to be a bus driver anymore.
Now, an interesting sideline on this is the question of the writer’s position is vis-à-vis authority.
A journalist looks at authority as a target as a matter of course. You don’t actually have to fire, but you see it as a target. Since I am tainted as a journalist, I can’t separate that out from being a novelist, and my personal view is that you look askance (at the least) at authority. Authority must be challenged at every step. You challenge authority all the time to keep it on its toes. Vetinari works because there aren’t enough people who think he’s doing a bad job; they’re all factions, in any case. So he balances the world. It’s not everyone being happy, but rather not too many of them being unhappy.
Now you, Cory, seem like a fellow with a lot to say about authority yourself. Where would you say legitimate authority springs from?
Cory: This is a question I’ve put a lot of thought into as well. I think that just authority arises from systems that fail gracefully. That is to say, the important thing isn’t what happens when the ruler does something that you agree with—the important bit is what happens when she does something stupid and terrible.
I am far more interested in graceful failure than blazing success. If you select a leader by a means that contains robust oversight, a meaningful recall mechanism, and recourse to alternatives (an independent judiciary, say) in the event of substantial wrongdoing, the authority is legitimate, because if things were going badly off the rails, you could replace her.
This is something that worries me about Lord Vetenari. He is, like all of us, imperfect. Lacking any checks on his authority (apart from civic uprising), he is likely to fail badly, even though he succeeds brilliantly.
All that said (and to your question below): the *reason* to have authority is to simplify the task of getting on together. But technology lowers coordination costs and so undermines the case for governance in some instances. I generally refuse to predict the future (on the grounds that SF writers who dabble in futurism are like drug dealers who sample the product—unlikely to come to a good end). But when pressed, I say, “To imagine the future, imagine the cost of coordination trending towards zero in more and more domains. Now we make encyclopedias and operating systems the way we used to organise bake sales. What if we could build skyscrapers that way? Airplanes? Air traffic control systems?
The Carpet People concerns itself with many questions of infrastructure and public works—another theme that has featured in many of the most enjoyable Discworld novels, especially Going Postal/Making Money. Ultimately, it comes down to the builders, the wreckers, and the free spirits. Now that we’ve arrived at a time of deep austerity, what do you think the future of infrastructure is?
Terry: To crack and fall away, I sometimes think. From what I see around me, it’s people doing it for themselves. We know the government is there, but we know they have no real power to do anything but mess things up, so you do workarounds.
On the matter of builders, wreckers, and free spirits, I’d say that Tiffany Aching [beginning with The Wee Free Men] is a builder. Moist von Lipwig [beginning with Going Postal] is a free spirit, but also a builder—I think people can go in and out of sequence. My dad was a mechanic; maybe my interest in builders starts there. You made your own catapult. You made your own crystal receiver. He encouraged in me that kind of thing. Even if it was dangerous, he took the view that I ought to be clever enough to know what I was doing.
My parents were practical people. That’s the word that is missing here: practical about just about everything. The ground state of being of practicality. Sometimes things need tearing down—and that might be, as it were, the gates of the city. But if we talk without metaphors, I would say that building is best. Because it is inherently useful.
And you, Cory? Do you want to make the case for wreckers?
Cory: Never wrecking for its own sake. But disruption, yes, I’ll make that case. There is no virtue in the fact that all of us use toilets, but only some of us clean them. If we invented a machine tomorrow that obviated toilet scrubbing, that would be an unalloyed good, even though it also obviated the work of toilet scrubbers.
That isn’t to say that a just or caring society should cast aside the toilet scrubbers. The Luddite fight is miscast as a fight against technology, but it’s not—the Luddites smashed looms over a difference of how to apportion the dividends from automation, not because they objected to automation itself.
Kevin Kelly has a marvellous “robotics curve” that goes:
1) A robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do.
2) OK, it can do a lot, but it can’t do everything I do.
3) OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
4) OK, it operates without failure, but I need to train it for new tasks.
5) Whew, that was a job that no human was meant to do, but what about me?
6) My new job is more fun and pays more now that robots/computers are doing my old job.
7) I am so glad a robot cannot possibly do what I do.
I’m not so sure about #6: we seem to be perfecting a system that only provides a living to financiers who invest in robots. This won’t work (if the bankers have all the money, no one can buy the things the robots make). We need a system that distributes automation’s dividends or we’ll end up with nothing at all.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your books with feudal settings is that it seems you get something like the correct ratio of vassals to lords. I always get a sense that for every ermine-trimmed guild boss in Ankh-Morpork, there are a thousand potato farmers in a shack in a field somewhere. So much of fantasy seems very top-heavy—too many knights, not enough serfs. Do you consciously think about political and economic considerations when you’re devising a world?
Terry: I’ve never been at home with lords and ladies, kings, and rubbish like that, because it’s not so much fun. Take a protagonist from the bottom of the heap, and in the same way it’s good to have a female protagonist, as she’s got it all to play for. Whereas people in high places, all they can do is, well . . . I don’t know, actually: I’ve never been that high. If you have the underdog in front of you, that means you’re going to have fun, because what the underdog is going to want to do is be the upper dog or be no dog at all. And I’ve never felt the need to have lords and ladies as my champions, as it were.
In Ankh-Morpork there are notables, some of whom are stupid, and some of whom are useful and likeable, but it’s a mercantile place. It’s money that matters. And where do I get that from . . . ?
Cory: Damon Knight once told me that he thought that no matter how good a writer you are, you probably won’t have anything much to say until you’re about twenty-six (I was twenty at the time and he was my writing teacher, at Clarion—ouch!). You’ve written about collaborating with your younger self for the reissue of The Carpet People. Do you feel like seventeen-year-old Terry had much to say?
Terry: That’s the best question you’ve asked all day!
I think the he had a go, and it wasn’t bad. And then he was clever enough to read a hell of a lot of books and every bound volume of Punch. But when I was younger, I didn’t have the anger. I think you have to have the anger. It gives an outlook. And a place from which to stand. When you get out of the teens, well out of the teens, you begin to have some kind of understanding, you’ve met so many people, heard so many things, all the bits that growing up means. And out of that lot comes wisdom—it might not be very good wisdom to start with, but it will be a certain kind of wisdom. It leads to better books.
The Tiffany Aching series is what I would most like to be remembered for, and I couldn’t have written Tiffany Aching when I was seventeen. I just wouldn’t have had the tools.
But the question remains: As a writer of fantasy, can I be a proper writer? I don’t do literature, I do writing—you get paid for writing, for literature you just get plaques to put on the wall. I never really bother about it. I don’t think anyone in the genre does. It doesn’t really matter; it’s what you’re doing: you’re working. Writing happens; it’s what I do. I’m here; I do it. I like doing it. I like getting paid for it. I like the fun.
Being an author is not as much a job: it’s a life.
Thank you, Cory. It’s been fun.
Cory: “Being an author is not as much a job: it’s a life.”
It’s been fun for me, too. You certainly have your share of plaques on the wall and a richly deserved sword made of genuine sky-metal, but as a reader of your works, the thing that matters most to me is the books, for which I am heartily grateful.
Today on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, Steven R Boyett (author of the classic fantasy novel Ariel) writes about Fata Morgana, the new alternate history/WWII novel he’s just published with Ken Mitchroney.
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