‘Lies to children’: From folk to formal science in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

By Mikaela Springsteen

Paul Kidby, ‘The Faculty’ / Joseph Wright, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’


Terry Pratchett is known for the incredible intertextuality of his work, especially in his famous Discworld series. He borrows—or steals, as all the best artists do—from the greats of the cultural canon. In fact it is the stories—the literature, fantasy, folk stories, and histories—of our world, of the so-called ‘Round World,’ which quite literally power the Disc. Pratchett’s use, deconstruction, and reconstruction of these stories have all been the topic of study before, but one discourse which Pratchett drew on quite a bit has been somewhat absent from Pratchett Studies thus far: science.

Early in his career Pratchett was a press officer for a nuclear power station; his interest in and fondness for new forms of technology has been well documented; he collaborated with the scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart on four ‘Science of Discworld’ books; and, although he is perhaps best known for the broadly ‘fantasy’ series of the Discworld, Pratchett was also an accomplished science fiction author (The Dark Side of the Sun, Strata, the Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter)—a genre which has both incorporated and inspired scientific advancements. His life-long interest in science is reflected in his fantasy works as well. In the case of the Discworld series, much can be said about the Discworld as creation myth:

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld.  A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Wyrd Sisters
The Great A'Tuin, the world turtle. There are two theories which purport to explain the behavior of the Great A'Tuin: Steady Gait and Big Bang. Inspired by the scientific concepts of astronomy, cosmology, zoology, the steady state model, Big Bang theory

To use a popular fan formulation: from a ‘Doylist’ (or out-of-universe) perspective the Discworld clearly draws on the mytheme of the world turtle. But from a ‘Watsonian’ (or in-universe) perspective, this cosmology is explored and understood scientifically (as in The Color of Magic). Other seemingly far-fetched phenomena on the Disc are similarly explained in a rather rational, even techno-scientific tone, and the series is scattered with references to collective intelligence, time dilation, and the theorized eleven dimensions of the multiverse.

This article explores how Pratchett leads us to think about the practice and culture of science. It begins by taking a look at what science looks like in the context of the Disc, then exploring the two primary groups of Discworld scientists, and finally finishing up with a look at why the use of science in a nominally fantasy world might be worthwhile to explore.

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