Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Life, but not as we know it (1)

Following on from the mention of Discworld in the last post but one, and all the talk of the scope of fiction, here's the first of a series on especially unusual fictional lifeforms.

This one's from Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, possibly one of the first places you'd expect to find something out of the ordinary (except maybe The BFG..?). I'm a latecomer to Pratchett, and for many years was a bit closed-minded about the Discworld series. Now I realise what I've been losing, with the earlier books at least. It's good, unexpectedly old-fashioned fun, unpretentious. Pratchett's one of us. What I like most is the way we're given idea after deep idea seemingly only as a catalyst for the jokes.

One of these, and in my view one of the deepest seams in the book, is the digression on the nature of stone. We probably all remember the nomes of the movie Return to Oz and the Rockbiter in The Neverending Story, but this is more metaphysical than fairy tale. As Granny looks for a rat or a cockroach to Borrow - respectfully of course - we get this:

It is well known that stone can think, because the whole of electronics is based on that fact, but in some universes men spend ages looking for other intelligences in the sky without once looking under their feet. That is because they've got the time-span all wrong. From stone's point of view the universe is hardly created and mountain ranges are bouncing up and down like organ-stops while continents zip backwards and forwards in general high spirits ... It is going to be quite some time before stone notices its disfiguring little skin disease and starts to scratch ... .

How's that for a thought? Makes crystal therapy seem far less esoteric. Incidentally, Granny then Borrows the Unseen University itself and we get an excellent sense of what it is to be a building. Pratchett's mind is in my view one of the best of our time, and what's happening to it is a great loss of potential for the noosphere, even beyond the sad, and perhaps horrific, personal loss. The debate on death coming at the time of our choosing is a complex one, but I find myself intuitively trusting an approach that he puts.

An interesting footnote is the observation made in this recent post at Ghost Hunting Theories that hauntings correlate with a certain rock pairing. The guide on the hike is dissatisfied even with this profound thought and proposes something more stimulating.

Read around, people, and help blow the cobwebs out of our thinking.


Jedediah said...

Funny, I just read that exact passage last night before going to bed. I love Terry Pratchett's books. I find myself reading them, laughing and having fun in a fantasy world and then I discover that he's writing about the real word just as much and that he's very serious indeed. This is why I love the "darker" books, like Night Watch and Thud!
I also have my own Pratchett rule: if it's really outrageous and you're sure he's made it up, it's real. I'm pretty good at accumulating useless knowledge and weird facts, but I bow to his mastery.

By the way, I thought of you when I read the Penny Arcade comic today.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

I'm suprised (Okay, how do you spell suprised, then? Blogger keeps redlining it.), that there isn't a blarney stone among Dwarf battle breads.

Porky said...

@ Jebediah - That's certainly a coincidence, though I'd imagine the odds are much less against than we'd think, plus an absurd universe may have hired Pratchett to write the script. Your rule is an excellent one. The fictional universe idea is in some sense pondering how much fiction and nature might be one and the same. Fiction has a habit of prefiguring real developments, as if the gauntlet is thrown down, the ideas themselves becoming fulcra and demanding a load be levered. As for Penny Arcade, I might hope you thought of me as the guy on our right, but rest assured I'm more the guy on our left..!

@ C'nor (Outermost_Toe) - Blogger is spot on: it's 'surprise', with an extra 'r'. But what does it matter if we all think differently? If everyone agrees the extra letter is ornament only, no spell check can hold us back! That would make a fine next project after mapping the fictional universe - helping the English language do what it does even better. Many have tried, and it's a work in progress, but the time and technology might just be right. Re Pratchett, blarney is the thing, but who says blarney isn't a fundamental force running through all? As I suggested in my reply to Jebediah, it may well animate more than fiction.

Von said...

'Equal Rites' is, to my mind, the first 'proper' Discworld book; the first two are pastiching sword-and-sorcery literature, and it's with 'Equal Rites' that we see the Discworld-as-fantasy-setting deployed to explore and parody something other than itself.

There's a point later on - roundabout 'Thief of Time', I think - where it can be argued that the series moves into pretension to an extent, although I personally think 'Going Postal' arrested that swing and brought the Discworld back to its best use in the 'here is an Issue which the Discworld is being used to explore' mould.

Porky said...

My knowledge of the series is miniscule really, but I'm interested in this view. I'd understood the conventional wisdom was the reverse, that the 'Discworld does x' approach was producing stories too unambitious. You've given me more reason to go on, although as I wrote to Jebediah under Beer and pretzels, I'm trying to string the reading out. It's hard to hold back anyway, and harder for this.

Von said...

In fairness, I am extremely cheap for 'fantasy setting does x' as a trope; consider as further evidence my deep love of Kim 'will Von ever get tired of jokes at the expense of my Jack Yeovil pseudonym' Newman's collected Warhammer works, which adopt an almost checklist approach to the 'story type x with a Warhammer twist' format, and encouraged/drew upon concurrent short stories by a whole mess of authors (read and, I hope, enjoy 'The Laughter of Dark Gods' for exempla).