April 10, 2014


Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion…So Far. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs. Harper. $27.99.

     An absolute must-have for fans of Terry Pratchett’s 40-book series set on the thoroughly unbelievable but almost believable Discworld, Turtle Recall – despite an abundance of irritating flaws – will enthrall and delight Pratchett’s constant readers and is quite likely to change inconstant ones to the constant type. There is just so much here, so much richness and variety and depth and utter, complete and unremitting silliness! Turtle Recall is an alphabetical presentation of places, people, non-people, objects, gods, small gods, characters, characterizations, and other miscellany from 55 sources – yes, 15 more than the total number of Discworld books, and that is because some of the material comes from ancillary sources and thereby confuses things somewhat, a fact that (irritatingly) Stephen Briggs, who assembled the project using snippets and sometimes extended elements of Pratchett’s prose, never discusses.

     The 55 sources are abbreviated for ease (ease?) of cross-reference at the end of entries referring to them. The abbreviations, however, do not always make sense. Thud! very logically becomes T! But Guards! Guards! becomes GG, without exclamation points. And Maskerade, whose title lacks an exclamation point, becomes M!!!!! (yes, five of them). Also, The Wee Free Men, which ought to become TWFM, since other books starting with “The” have the “T” included, is actually listed in the table of abbreviations as WFM; but in the alphabetical entries within the book itself, it is indeed TWFM. Irritating. Also, the dates of the books, which it would have been very helpful to include, are not included, except that the dates of Diary books (e.g., Reformed Vampyre’s Diary) are given, thus ensuring confusion and frustration, which do not appear to be the point here, but perhaps are.

     Oh, and Turtle Recall, which is actually a not-quite-thoroughly revised version of earlier Briggs “companion” material, is cleverly subtitled, “Fully updated and up to Snuff!” – or that would be clever if Snuff! were the most recent Discworld book. But it isn’t – it is the 39th, and the 40th, Raising Steam, is actually listed on the “Also by Terry Pratchett” page but is not included in the Turtle Recall contents or comments. Irritating.

     But Pratchett’s world is so wide and wonderful that this companion book is most welcome, for Discworld is so complex that pretty much any companionship while navigating it would be. Welcome, that is. Discworld perches on the backs of four elephants that in turn stand upon the carapace of a “star turtle” named A’Tuin, and while this compendium of mythologies shows what has grown for years in Pratchett’s fertile mind, it does raise some questions that Pratchett resolutely refuses to answer: “People have asked: how does the Disc move on the shoulders of the elephants? What does the Turtle eat? One may as well ask: what kind of smell has yellow got? It is how things are.” This begs the question in many ways, not the least of which is that yellow does have an odor, at least to those with synesthesia, but it matters little: acceptance of “how things are” is a necessity for enjoyment of the Discworld books, and is a smaller willing suspension of disbelief than Samuel Taylor Coleridge would likely have expected, given the outré nature of Pratchett’s creation.

     What Turtle Recall does well is to collect bits and pieces of Discworld lore in a single spot and elucidate them wonderfully, frequently through generous descriptive helpings drawn from Pratchett’s writing. Here are the deliciously awful puns and the words that you simply must say aloud, or at least within your own mind, to get what Pratchett is driving at – the kingdom of Djelibeybi, the village of Bad Schuschein, and the N’tuitif people, for example. Here are characters such as the Igors, “a clan which, instead of myths and legends, passes on the secrets of incredibly skilled surgery (except in the area of cosmetics), plus various associated hints and tips, often to do with weird chemistry and lightning rods. …Igors do not so much die as get broken down for spares.” And they typically work for such typical-sounding typical mad scientists as “Mad Doctor Scoop, Crazed Baron Haha, Screaming Doctor Berserk, Nipsie the Impaler, Dribbling Doctor Vibes and Baron Finkelstein.” All this on Igors, who are ancillary characters. Turtle Recall also includes extensive discussions of central protagonists, such as the perfectly Machiavellian Lord Vetinari, ruler of the endlessly fascinating and endlessly corrupt city of Ankh-Morpork; Granny Weatherwax and other witches; the self-important, strutting wizards of Unseen University, and the thoroughly incompetent Rincewind, who may be the most powerful of them all; Sam Vimes of the City Watch; and many, many more. Dabbling at random in this book – a great pleasure, and one that will be new to anyone accustomed to the directed search at which the Internet excels – also shows just how marvelously inventive Pratchett is with names: Eumenides Treason, ‘Gobbo’ Nutt, Troglodyte Wanderer, Banana N’vectif, Malicia Grim (not to be confused with Agoniza Grim or Eviscera Grim), Casanunda (the Discworld variant of Casanova), Cripple Mr Onion (a card game), Death (the character) and New Death (a temporary replacement), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Cosmo Lavish, Frankly Ottomy – and on and on and on.

     The ways in which Discworld turns in on itself are amply reflected in Turtle Recall, as in the entry on “Laws of Ankh-Morpork,” which begins, including an ellipsis: “There aren’t any. Well… Not entirely true.” The first-mentioned “known and somewhat fossilized” law is the “Being Bloody Stupid Act” of 1581. But if there are not laws, there are rules, some of them quite explicit, laid down by the various guilds, several of which get extended descriptions. There are mundane rules, and then there are the rules, most of them quite flexible, governing magic and magical interactions. Turtle Recall is a good place to find out why wizards are not the same as magicians, who are not the same as conjurers. It is a good place to learn about the city of Ephebe (“major export: ideas”) and the continent of Fourecks, spelled Xxxx; the demon Wxrthltl-jwlpklz; the Glingleglingleglingle Fairy, whose “sole job is to make the ‘glingleglingleglingle’ noise which heralds the arrival of any other fairy”; Gaspode, a dog that can talk, “but not many people pay any attention, because everyone knows that dogs can’t talk”; the Apocralypse, “the Half-Hearted End of the World”; Kaos, “the Fifth Horseman of the Apocralypse, although he left before they became famous”; and, yes, on and on and on.

     Discworld is a wonder; Turtle Recall, basking in reflected glory, is less so. It is not, for example, the place to turn to explore Pratchett’s marvelously garbled Latin mottos for the Guilds: the book gives them but does not explain most of them. These are hilarious if you know Latin – and when they are translated, may not be given accurately. One motto of Ankh-Morpork, for instance, is stated to be “Merus In Pectum Et In Aquam,” which is “literally” translated as “Pure in mind and water” but actually translates as “Pure on the site and in the water” (either way, it is pure in neither way). Turtle Recall is also not the place to turn for unquestioned accuracy or consistency, with Ankh-Morpork referred to at one point as being nicknamed “the Big Wahoonie” – the comparison is with an unpleasant 20-foot-long vegetable – and at another as “the Great Wahoonie.” Nor is this book the place to explore the Guilds’ coats of arms, which Pratchett creates with remarkable heraldic understanding but which are all shown incorrectly, as mirror images, in Turtle Recall: when Pratchett says something is in the top right quarter, it is shown in the top left, and when he says something is in the bottom left, it is in the bottom right – an unconscionable book-design error.

     Pratchett himself, who was diagnosed in 2007 with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, continues to produce remarkable works that mix out-and-out absurdity and a great deal of fun with some barely concealed social commentary and occasional hints of profundity (lightly sprinkled throughout). He is the greatest British fantasy writer since J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work somewhat influenced Pratchett’s early Discworld books but beyond whom Pratchett has long since moved. Pratchett does like to throw in sometimes-subtle allusions to the work of other fantasists, though – for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young,” becomes, on Discworld, “Tshup Aklathep, the Infernal Star Toad with a Million Young,” and you can look him (it?) up in Turtle Recall. But you cannot look everything about Discworld up here – not even some things that the book says you can find. For example, the entry for “Curious Squid” cross-references the land of Lesph (sic), but there is no entry for Lesph – only one for “Leshp (sic), Brass Gongs of.” And “Genetics” cross-references a supposed entry for “God of Evolution,” but there is no such entry under either G or E. Maybe it evolved into other letters.

     The very first Discworld book was called The Colour of Magic. If there were to be a better compendium of Pratchettiana than Turtle Recall, it could well be called The Direction of Wonder. Until it is produced, though, Turtle Recall will serve very nicely as recollection, exploration and appreciation.

No comments:

Post a Comment