There’s a tale about Thales of Miletus that has provided succour to young philosophers and other non-engineer-doctor-MBA-types for generations. Thales, one of the earliest philosophers in the West, was being teased by more “useful” members of society for not being rich, famous, getting all the girls — for generally being a sort of woolly-headed nerd. But, using his powers of observation, logic et al, Thales predicted the seasons, got rich on agri-futures and then went back to his old ways. He had proved his point, and the superiority of those who lose at life was established. A delusional superiority, perhaps, but so essential for survival, as all delusions are.
The surfacing, last month, of a Bill Gates interview conducted by Terry Pratchett in 1996 for GQ is a Thales moment. In the interview, Terry da (there’s something about his writing that makes you think of a witty and wise older boy in the neighbourhood, the kind you wished was your brother), writer of the Discworld fantasy series, predicted the future of the internet — fake news — and the response from Gates, at that time the richest man in the world — and classic science-type — was wishy-washy.
Terry da: “OK. Let’s say I call myself the Institute for Something-or-other and I decide to promote a spurious treatise saying the Jews were entirely responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust didn’t happen. And it goes out there on the Internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research which has undergone peer review and so on. There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the Net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up.”
Computer engineer: “Not for long. Electronics gives us a way of classifying things. You will have authorities on the Net and because an article is contained in their index, it will mean something. For all practical purposes, there’ll be an infinite amount of test out there and you’ll only receive a piece of text through levels of direction, like a friend who says, ‘hey, go read this’, or a brand name which is associated with a group of referees, or a particular expert…”
Bill Gates was in the technology business for the money. He thought his friends could be trusted. He didn’t stand a chance against the writer of the greatest science fiction fantasy in the last half-century. For Terry da, technology was just another crossword puzzle, its implications clear in its most nascent stage.
Journalists, the refrain goes, speak truth to power. Pratchett started out as a journalist. Perhaps that’s why he could speak truth to the universe, about science and its limits, the madness of technology, the simplicity of true morality and, of course, politics. He explored these questions in Discworld, and maybe it is this breadth of scope that has made the series so difficult to adapt. The most recent attempt is Good Omens (1990), the novel Pratchett wrote with another maverick, Neil Gaiman, which has been made into a six-part series, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Eminently watchable, the series is faithful to the book. Perhaps a little too faithful. There’s something about Pratchett’s turn of phrase, like a background score of cynicism and smirks, that doesn’t quite translate into the visual medium. An adaptation, in this case, needed to be more than just a faithful rendition.
The brilliance of Discworld — a plate-shaped planet which sits atop four (rather large) elephants which, in turn, balance themselves on a (rather larger) turtle — lies in its sheer diversity, the continental proportions explored over 40 novels and, perhaps, most importantly, the deployment of humour of the highest order to explore questions of the deepest significance. For its readers — usually young and grasping for solace — there is nothing patronising in them. Each book takes something we think we know — or ought to know — and makes our certainties a little less rigid, and in the process, imparts a pinch of wisdom.
It is this wisdom, always bracketed by punchlines of a Wodehousian calibre, that is at the heart of Terry da’s unfolding and imminent resurgence. He indicates, like the Oracle at Delphi, cheat codes to answering the great questions of our times.
The most striking thing about Pratchett’s work is the way the writer manages to overcome what appear to be his natural misanthropic tendencies. Two of his best-known and most recurring characters in Discworld — Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax (head witch, healer, master of headology and of many magics) and Samuel Vimes (top cop at the greatest city in worlds real and fictional, Ankh Morpok) — are true humanists, and the only truly honest ones. As people who actually deal with people, their political morality is simple.
Granny invokes fear and awe, but also respect. She heals, sits at deathbeds, and is not swayed by glamour of any kind. Her iron-clad moral certainty emerges from a simple, almost Kantian, dictum: “All evil begins when you treat people as things.” In the rural world of witchery, there is little room for theorising and such, just the job (person) in front of you, and the best you can do.
Vimes, on the other hand, has to deal with race and religion, politics and crime, and the sordid underbelly of a megalopolis. People keep trying to sell him ideology, a map of how society and people ought to be, and this is what he learns, after a lifetime on the beat: “People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people. As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.”
Pratchett’s truth, the truth of Granny, Vimes and ourselves, is that people don’t measure up. They vote according to their prejudice, they give in to demagogues, they are pettiness personified, at times. But they are all we have.
Apart from Granny and Vimes (and another fan favourite, Rincewind), there is the ultimate meditation on journalism — The Truth (2000) — which describes accurately how the beast of mass media needs constant feeding, in the end cannibalising itself. In Small Gods (1992), Terry da makes sense of religion. And the only way it makes sense is as a set of personal dictums and rituals, inherited and modified, that helps us jump over the everyday potholes that life puts in our way. Technology and modernity, the perils of communication and the seductive flamboyance of celebrity, inevitably make their way to Discworld too in Going Postal (2004), as does AI and machine learning and its consequences for labour.
Each of Terry da’s works is a thought experiment, the characters are archetypes, yet complicated. They teach you just enough to arm you, open up science for the math-fail historian, politics for the engineer, and empathy for the closed-minded. The magic lies in his footnotes, where the punchlines often hide, and the clever wordplay that only really makes itself felt with the written word. Perhaps that’s why he is so difficult to adapt: His characters, without their master’s context, lose a little something for those in the know.
For a man who created universes, with a dark brilliance in each molecule, the richest engineer in the world was no match. Gates, for all his genius, will lack a fantasist’s imagination. And those who will never make the big bucks, remain disappointments to their parents, go to fat too early and stay cynical till it’s too late — they can take solace in being Thales to those who have never visited Pratchett’s world. Because Discworld can make a prophet of anyone.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Prophet for interesting times’.