Thursday, 17 July 2003

The Science of Discworld II: The Globe

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen
Ebury Press
ISBN: 0-091-88805-0

Usually, the sight of the words ‘The Science of…’ in the title of a book fills me with dread, heralding hundreds of pages of dreary explanation on how the sliding doors on Star Trek worked, or whether warp drive may some day be possible. Having read the original ‘Science of Discworld’ book, however, I knew that this wasn’t the case. Instead, Pratchett takes his readers on a tour of hard science, using the context of the Discworld books to explain what makes reality tick.

 Just like its predecessor, ‘The Globe’ mixes alternate chapters of a Discworld short story with the scientific ramblings of Pratchett and his co-novelists, usually with the fiction setting the scene for whatever part of the scientific spectrum the authors want to talk about. In the first book this worked quite well, as the wizards of Unseen University accidentally created our universe and began exploring its (to them) bizarre rules. I was curious to see whether ‘The Globe’ could live up to such high standards.

 Focusing more on humanity and the world we live in than the first book, the scientific chapters lean heavily towards discovering what makes the human mind tick, exploring it in numerous different ways. At the core of it all is Pratchett’s belief in stories, how the tendency of the human mind to see patterns in everything and apply them to the world outside has influenced the way human society has evolved. The first few scientific chapters skip merrily from topic to topic, covering along the way the ethics of cloning, quantum mechanics, and a quick history of early scientists. It’s not exactly light reading material, but easy enough to follow, though in places Pratchett makes reference to concepts from the first book and expects his reader to understand, an obviously irritating habit for those who haven’t read the original ‘Science of Discworld’.

Once again, the ‘interspersed chapters’ format works well; just when you feel your mind can’t take any more, you hit a section of fiction and can let that overworked organ relax a little. The writing is good, as you might expect from an author of Terry Pratchett’s calibre, but you can’t help but feel that the fiction is little more than a distraction from the real science, rather than being integrated with it. Nonetheless it bears all the best qualities of the early Discworld books; funny, easy to read, and offering a refreshingly twisted view of the world.

It is towards the middle of the book that ‘The Globe’ begins to encounter problems. The science becomes muddled and sometimes descends into pidgin psychology, and you can’t help but see that this is Pratchett’s own interpretation of the way things could have been, rather than solid fact. Despite my own fairly extensive grounding in science, I found several chapters difficult to follow and began to lose interest, something that isn’t the best of signs in a book written for the layman. Without a doubt Pratchett expects his reader to be intelligent, well educated and well informed, but even so, I’d suggest reading slowly and taking notes.

The difficulty eases up towards the end of the book, and I found myself genuinely interested in the science once more. Religion, art and music all get the Pratchett treatment, their development and the way they affected the growth of society explained clearly and entertainingly. The fiction sections continue at a high standard throughout, and the last two chapters mesh well, providing a well-rounded end to the book.

Despite not living up to the quality of the first ‘Science of Discworld’, ‘The Globe’ is an entertaining and thought-provoking trawl through the origins of human society, and if I found myself wishing occasionally for the end of the chapter and the next section of fiction, what of it? It only goes to show the quality of Pratchett’s storytelling.