On Terry Pratchett, Discworld’s Scientists, and Profound Silliness

by PhysicsJenn

Terry Pratchett passed away today. He will be missed. In a way, he prepared his readers for this, both through interviews in which he expressed his wishes to die at a time of his choosing, and in his writing, where he never shied away from Death. In fact, Death was one of his best characters.

I always found his books enjoyable on many levels. On one level, I was utterly absorbed in his characters. On another level, his fantasy world was huge and comprehensive. It was explorable, like a video game. If you had enough of his books, it felt like you had traveled Discworld. And on another level, there was his depiction of academic sciences in the guise of the wizards. These academics — sorry, wizards — sat in their towers feeling vaguely superior and protecting their secrets. They had hierarchy and woe betide any who felt like messing with that. Pratchett outright said that magic is analogous to technology on Discworld in interviews, and the feelings of the general public towards the wizards is pretty similar to how much of the general public feels towards science.

So it was fun to see my own demesne mocked in a good-natured way. It reminded me to stay connected to the rest of the world, to learn how not to be a scientist-in-a-tower, but instead know how to bring this magic, even just a little bit of it, to anyone who was interested. And it reminded me that there is nothing inherently better or worse about a person because he or she chooses to pursue one career over another. Scientists aren’t smarter than other people, just different. Sometimes very different.

But it was Pratchett’s Death character that spoke to me the most. He took an archetypical character, one that is the epitome of fear, and humanized him. It’s like learning that the menacing shape in your closet is really just a sweater hanging from a chair. He didn’t make Death absurd, but rather turned him into a relatable character. In this way, Pratchett brought even Death into the fold of things that were familiar and not-scary.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t silly. He could be very silly at times. Just the names of many of his characters are extremely silly. He uses silly characters in absurd, exaggerated situations to prove the most profound of points. He speaks to human conditions left and right in his books. Beyond death, he covers workers’ rights and cultural prejudice. He explores government corruption and the plight of the common man (or woman). He even flirts with gender politics. But it never comes off as heavy handed or preachy (unlike some fantasy writers I’ve read) because it’s all sublimely silly. He makes a serious point palatable by seeming like he’s not serious. So you read through, but when you get to the end, you think, huh, that’s a good point.

And that’s important in the world. It’s important to have craftsmen of words who can make a profound point in a silly form so that the silliness coats the pill for swallowing. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a writer who has Pratchett’s gift with profound silliness, but I hope that someday I will.