The L-Space Web: Interviews - Post-Fantasy Fantasy
An interview with Terry Pratchett


Fantasy is pretty serious stuff. After all, there are dangerous dragons, sharp swords, and black magic to be dealt with. But British author Terry Pratchett has flipped the genre over onto its back and tickled its belly. The Fifth Elephant Elephant is the 24th hilarious episode of his Discworld series. Pratchett stopped by for a chat with Science Fiction & Fantasy editor Therese Littleton about how he fits into the fantasy world and why the city of Ankh-Morpork has a condom factory. What do you think is the difference between the American and British senses of humor?

Terry Pratchett: I think the thing you have to remember is that America has four times our population, which means you've got four times as many of everything, including morons. You've also got four times as many intelligent people. You've got more, shall we say, people who are differently stupid. What we often see in the U.K. is a slightly distorted view of what things are like in America, because journalists like to go for the story that shows what a weird place it is--the sort of place where dogs sue cats and that kind of thing. I don't think there are any real differences. A lot of humor is based on cultural association. So I could watch a late-night American show, and the audience is laughing hysterically--mind you, I think they empty the asylums to get the TV audiences, there's no other explanation--and it's all cultural references, so I can't hook into it. But the same thing happens in the U.K. Some American fans of "British humor" act a bit superior, maybe because most of it is on public television stations.

Pratchett: Oh, yes: [snootily] "We love your Monty Python." Why do you think most fantasy takes itself so seriously?

Pratchett: I think there is this kind of constipated seriousness about a lot of fantasy. But there are degrees of it, I have to say. You've got to make the difference between what I call light fantasy and comedy. Although the Discworld started off as a kind of spoof on fantasy at the time, within about the first four or five titles I was no longer sniping, because I was out there among the soldiers. Discworld was a fantasy universe in its own right. A lot of The Fifth Elephant is not funny. It's certainly not funny to the people who are participating in it. There are murders and people in fear for their lives. We think it's funny in the same way that we laugh at the man slipping on the banana skin. Do you ever want to write something completely different?

Pratchett: I've got plans for other things. I've done a lot of work on the Arthurian legends, predicated on the fact that the person who pulled the sword from the stone was a female. The nice thing about that is that you don't get the classic Arthurian myth with the sexes changed, because it can't possibly work like that. The dynamic is wrong. So you get a completely different story. It's fun tracing that one out. Trouble is, knowing me, it will probably become funny, because I don't think I can do it any other way. Did you cut your teeth on Tolkien like the rest of us?

Pratchett: I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was 13 years old. I went to sleep with the book open, woke up, and continued reading. That's how much of an effect it had on me. But then you grow older, and you learn things that don't detract from Tolkien but rather position him. There's a dire phrase that is used: "of his time." And Tolkien was "of his time." The qualities of people were distinguished by where they lived, for instance. So it's quite difficult to imagine a bad elf or a good orc. It didn't fit into the way Tolkien worked. And there were people in the landscape, but no infrastructure. There was the occasional city, but you didn't get the feel of a continent that was operating. How does Tolkien figure in fantasy these days?

Pratchett: Tolkien appears in the fantasy universe in the same way that Mount Fuji appeared in old Japanese prints. Sometimes small, in the distance, and sometimes big and close-to, and sometimes not there at all, and that's because the artist is standing on Mount Fuji. He has had such an effect, even if someone has said, "Bugger me, I'm not going to write like Tolkien!" The big thing he did was open up the fantasy market. Before then, if you were not a genre reader, you would never hear about that sort of thing. The Lord of the Rings seems to me to be the first major fantasy book to really appear on the everyday shelf. Maybe a few too many kids were given names like Galadriel and Bilbo, but none of this matters, because he was an enchanter. It's as simple as that. It was magical to everyone who read it. Do the physical constraints of Discworld help you keep the continent alive and busy?

Pratchett: Yes. When we mapped it, I got even more ideas, simply because you see more places in the city, and you don't know what's there. Ankh-Morpork, the largest city in Discworld, operates all the time, like mad. You get the feeling, I hope, of slaughterhouses operating, and factories and things going on. Even though the stories are happening, thousands of people are bustling by, all on errands of their own. I'm almost certain that I've done the first fantasy city in which there is a condom manufacturer. It's just there, and it hasn't got a main role to play in the plot. Ankh-Morpork hasn't got electricity, but it's got a lot of clever people, and it's at the crossroads of the world. So why not? It's a pretty big city--they don't want it to get any bigger. I was quite pleased that I could work this in, and it actually isn't too anachronistic because it is quite a modern city. I would say it's like London would be if goblins, dwarves, and trolls really existed and moved in to start earning a dollar. And if no one had really built anything new since about 1700. They are advanced... now they've got semaphore!

Pratchett: They've got semaphore addresses in the one I'm working on. I'm bringing in the Igors, out of Carpe Jugulum, because they're useful plot devices. If you wish to hire an Igor, you send a semaphore to "We R Igors"--of course the R is the wrong way round--at Yeth Mathter, Uberwald. When I was doing the semaphore system, I thought, this is going to be a kind of slow-speed Internet. Hex, the university computer, will eventually have a semaphore modem. It will be slow, but it will get there in the end. Do you read anything while you write? Or is it too hard to avoid being influenced by others?

Pratchett: I read an awful lot of nonfiction. I read what I call "edge" books. I don't read a book about geography. I read a book about the science of geography. In other words, you get the boundary conditions. And I will read fiction. I've got The Green Mile with me for reading on the plane. But I absolutely steer clear of the fantasy genre, which I don't really read much of in any case. How do you parody fantasy without reading it? Is it because so much fantasy plays off the same themes again and again?

Pratchett: I remember picking up a copy of Locus and seeing either reviewed or advertised no less than three books with dark lords in them. In The Last Hero, the big illustrated project I'm doing with Paul Kidby, we've got a dark lord--evil Harry Dread. He's this little, wizened guy, always smoking cigarettes. He's got all the special dark lord armor with the skulls and everything. But he's the dark lord who never made it big. He works hard, but then another dark lord will open up out of town, where there's plenty of parking. Harry has the "Shed of Doom." Where does Discworld fit in to the fantasy genre?

Pratchett: Discworld is kind of post-fantasy fantasy. Let's consider The Lord of the Rings. What happens when the good guys win? You've got an entire landscape that's been ravaged by war. You have armies of millions of people, and the war's just stopped. Think of the aftermath of that. Metaphorically, who's going to take out the garbage after that? Tomorrow, things have to happen. Things have to be replaced. And we're talking about a very large continent. Discworld is everything that happens after. What would you say to people who are reluctant to read science fiction and fantasy?

Pratchett: Last year I was standing in the street in Perth, Australia, talking to my wife, who was in England, telling her what color a dress was. When we'd been there on holiday about three months before, she'd seen a dress in a shop. So I was telling her what colors and what sizes they had--and this was a call all the way around the world. That is science fiction. We don't think about it because we've gradually moved into these things, but every day we do science fiction stuff, by the standards of the 1960s or '70s. Science fiction is about the impact of technology on humanity and the changes that arise thereof, and humankind's curious relationship with our creative technological environment. Yet films like Star Wars and Star Trek have made us think that science fiction is something that's kind of off, and doesn't involve us any more. I say science fiction is like an exercise bicycle for the mind. Maybe it won't take you anywhere, but it will tone up the mental muscles that will. It teaches you to think about the strange outcomes of things. The relationship between the mating habits of the average American and the invention of the motor car, for instance. You put connections together and see what comes of it. Why are so many people reluctant to read SF or fantasy?

Pratchett: People who don't read science fiction think it's all about robots and spaceships and everything. But it hasn't been like that for ages! Trouble is more than half the science fiction movies are really monster movies with a few nuts and bolts stuck on the outside. As for fantasy, all fiction is fantasy and always has been. The first fiction was told around a campfire about gods and giants and heroes. It's all fantasy. Think of the thrillers. In a thriller, more or less, you've got your clues, you've got your police. It doesn't happen, at least classically, the way it happens in real life. Has there ever been a murder as tidy as in Agatha Christie, with the neat clues and all? G.K. Chesterton once said that fairy tales--this applies to fantasy too--can take the familiar, and turn it around and show it to us from a different angle so that once again we see it for the first time. So if there's no other use for this, it's kind of mental aerobics. It's also good fun!

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