Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

Second paragraph of third section:

The storm was really giving it everything it had. This was its big chance. It had spent years hanging around the provinces, putting in some useful work as a squall, building up experience, making contacts, occasionally leaping out on unsuspecting shepherds or blasting quite small oak trees. Now an opening in the weather had given it an opportunity to strut its hour, and it was building up its role in the hope of being spotted by one of the big climates.

Years since I had read this, and it was a happy return. This is the book that brought back Granny Weatherwax from Equal Rites, establishing the Witches as a new centre of activity within the Dicsworld mythology. I had forgotten how theatrical it is – the plot borrows heavily and consciously from Macbeth and Hamlet, and of course has a troop of travelling actors as an integral part of the plot. But Pratchett himself was very consciously theatrical in his public presentations, from what I remember. He clearly knew a fair bit about stagecraft. Some bits of the story are a little silly (time-slipping an entire kingdom by sixteen years?) but this has aged better than most of that year’s Hugo shortlist. You can get it here.

This was the top Terry Pratchett novel that I had not yet written up here. Next is my favourite of his books, Small Gods.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

Guards! Guards!

Second paragraph of third section:

And there was light, of course, in the Library.

I’m proceeding through the Discworld books that I have not previously written up online, in order of their popularity on LibraryThing, and that has brought me to Guards! Guards!, the first of the Watch books. I think that this is the first that is really about politics and government – recurrent features in the previous ones, but here Pratchett introduces and / or develops the characters of the Patrician and Vimes, and of course Carrot, as three different takes on how the state could or should be run – contrasted with the conspirators with their unnamed king and then the dragon. Almost all of the humour is well-aimed (there’s a skit with a rich beggar that landed rather poorly for me) and it’s a good example of Pratchett getting into his humane and angry mode. I was glad to return to it. You can get it here.

Here’s the original Kirby cover:

Next up in this sequence is Wyrd Sisters.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

BSFA Best Non-fiction

Five finalists here, three of them online essays and two monographs. I found it pretty easy to rank them, and I will be very surprised if voters choose something other than my own first preference. (Having said that, I was surprised last year!)

5) “Preliminary Observations From An Incomplete History of African SFF”, by Wole Talabi

Second paragraph of third section, with footnotes and graphs:

The database contains 30 nationalities represented by 497 authors, but Nigeria and South Africa make up more than 73% of the works. Reasons for this are likely colonial legacies of proximity to Western publishing, size, economics, etc. Looking at this in the context of population[3] and gross domestic product (GDP)[4] and limiting to countries with total works having proportional significance (> 1%), it’s clear that these are key factors in the trend, and the number of works is most strongly correlated to GDP with a linear regression R2 value of 0.97. South Africa produces a lot more than its population would suggest, and Ghana and Tanzania produce less.
[3] Based on the United Nations (UN) official 2021 statistics.
[4] Estimates for 2022 from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

I’m always up for a good bit of statistical analysis, and this has some decent crunchy numbers about science fiction in Africa. I must say that I am surprised to see so little from Francophone countries (let alone others) and wonder if there is some selection effect going on. The writer disarmingly admits up front that it is incomplete.

While I found it interesting, I’m not ranking it higher than fifth out of five. The main text has less than 1100 words.

4) “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

It has often been surmised, most especially around discussions of war, climate change, natural disasters, and more recently the outbreak of COVID-19, in articles like this in Wired and on The Apeiron Blog we are living in a dystopia. This realization has weaned many of the need for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, and has them preferring instead to immerse themselves in lighter, more upbeat and positive work. This is of course valid, as we all must do what we feel right. But beyond personal preferences of individuals for lighter, “happier” works in this period of gloom, there is a wider and more general assertion that dystopias, apocalypses, grimdark, dark fantasy, and the like are now unnecessary because we live in and have it all around us. A Publishers Weekly piece talks about dystopian fiction losing its lustre due to the pandemic and spells doom for the subgenre of doom. But is this really so? In a viral tweet, the account tweets its disagreement, which I quite agree with, saying that “Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.” The dystopian reality is not new and has been with us for a while. Its fictionalizing continues till date despite those debates regarding its relevance or necessity.

Another very interesting piece, making the point that a lot of concepts which European and US writers consider to be the stuff of dystopian fiction are happening right now in the reality of Africa, specifically in Nigeria. It’s an important perspective and I hope people read it. I’m marking it down, however, for two reasons: first, it could have done with a bit of editorial smoothing – it reads rather first draft-y (even the above paragraph shows this); second, again, it is rather short (3100 words) and I prefer the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction to celebrate substantive contributions.

3) “The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker“, by the much-missed Maureen Kincaid Speller

Second paragraph of third section:

Similarly, Garner has ranged back and forth in time. The Stone Book Quartet (1976–8), ostensibly about Garner’s own family—and its cantankerous patriarch, the stonemason, Robert—brought with it the first hint of Garner’s interest in deep time. When Robert takes his daughter, Mary, under Alderley Edge to visit a chamber whose clay floor is marked by thousands of footprints, representing all the Garners who has visited it, we are asked to marvel at this sense of continuity. It is presented as a family rite of passage, although so far as anyone knows, there was no actual family ritual of this sort.

One of MKS’s last bits of criticism, this is a detailed examination both of the reception and of the content of Alan Garner’s recent novel, ending with a reflection on the role of the critic which is perhaps a suitable envoi for her own career. Over 8,000 words, which is getting a bit more substantial compared to the two above. I have not read Treacle Walker, and to be honest Maureen’s review doesn’t strongly incline me to do so. But I like her ending:

As I’ve noted, disagreeing is very much part of the critical process. And reviews are part of the critical process too, even if, in this instance, they do not offer that much critical insight into the novel.

And it is the insight I’m in search of, both when I read criticism and when I write it. I’m not interested in whether X likes a novel, any more than you should be interested in whether I dislike a novel. The questions should always be, “What is this piece of fiction doing, does it work, and if not, why not?” Everything else unfolds from that.

2) Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The first type of leadership theories we will be considering are the earliest to emerge, largely between the 1920s and the 1960s, and are known as “behavioural theories of leadership”. What they have in common is that they generally assume (a) that there are leaders (as opposed to followers); (b) that leaders can be identified and classified into types; and (c) that those types can be defined by certain ways of behaving. Despite their age, they also, more or less overtly, still tend to have a strong influence on popular management literature and leadership teaching, and some of them have passed into popular culture with regard to leaders and leadership.

Fiona Moore is a professor of Business Anthropology in her day job, and a fan and critic on the side (at least I think it’s that way round), and this is her elucidation of some of the principles of basic management theory as they are demonstrated in the TV series Game of Thrones, with occasional reference to the books where needed. It’s always useful for someone like me to see some of the principles I find myself engaged with at work applied in fiction, so in a sense the book ticks both a fannish box and a professional box for me. Also mercifully short.

1) Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Granny Pratchett, Terry’s paternal grandmother, rolled her own cigarettes. Then, having smoked them, she would take the butts from the ashtray, pick the paper apart and return any strands of unburnt tobacco to the tin where she kept her supply. Waste not, want not. As Terry wrote in a short essay about her in 2004, ‘As a child this fascinated me, because you didn’t need to be a mathematician to see that this meant there must have been some shreds of tobacco she’d been smoking for decades, if not longer.’

This is also a very good book about a very important subject. A lot of us know parts of the Terry Pratchett story – I first heard him speak in public in Cambridge in, I think, 1987, and last saw him at the 2010 Discworld Convention, and spoke to him a couple of times in between. It’s lovely to have it all between two covers, with the laughs and the tears, and with Rob also explaining the complicated nature of his relationship with Terry over the years, beginning as amanuensis and ending as nurse. At 439 pages, it’s easily twice as long as the other four finalists combined, and also surely has more weight and relevance than the other four combined; I am voting for it and I expect that others will do so as well.

I’m conscious that I have ranked these in order of increasing length; but to be honest, if we are ranking finalists by the extent of their contribution to our appreciation of the genre, length is an important indicator of the magnitude of that impact. It’s nice that the BSFA final ballot has a certain diversity of form, but it doesn’t always turn into a fair comparison for the shorter pieces.

The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett

Second paragraph of third section:

That statement is not really true.

I think this was the first book I read by Terry Pratchett, and it was a delight to come back to it. The jokes are still funny, if no longer unexpected; the Luggage remains one of the greatest ever characters with no dialogue; and the overall plot of the world ending, or rather finding new birth, with the spell in Rincewind’s head key to the resolution, remains engaging. Perhaps now that I am 55 rather than a teenager, Cohen the Barbarian is not quite as funny a character.

The one joke that really made me laugh this time, and compelled me to read it out to my long-suffering spouse, was this:

He read that the Great Pyramid of Tsort, now long vanished, was made of one million, three thousand and ten limestone blocks. He read that ten thousand slaves had been worked to death in its building. He learned that it was a maze of secret passages, their walls reputedly decorated with the distilled wisdom of ancient Tsort. He read that its height plus its length divided by half its width equalled exactly 1.67563, or precisely 1,237.98712567 times the difference between the distance to the sun and the weight of a small orange. He learned that sixty years had been devoted entirely to its construction.

It all seemed, he thought, to be rather a lot of trouble to go to just to sharpen a razor blade.

You can get it here.

This was the top book by Terry Pratchett which I had not yet reviewed online. Since I am taking them in popularity order (as measured by LibraryThing), the next is Guards! Guards!.

Here’s the full original Kirby cover.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

Mort, by Terry Pratchett

Second paragraph of third section (as you know, Bob, very few of Pratchett’s Discworld novels are divided into chapters):

Mort was interested in lots of things. Why people’s teeth fitted together so neatly, for example. He’d given that one a lot of thought. Then there was the puzzle of why the sun came out during the day, instead of at night when the light would come in useful. He knew the standard explanation, which somehow didn’t seem satisfying.

When the BBC did its Big Read in 2003, this was the first of five Terry Pratchett novels to make the top 100 books beloved by the BBC-watching public. (The others were, in order, Good Omens – co-written by Neil Gaiman of course – Guards! Guards!, Night Watch and the one that started it all, The Colour of Magic.) I’ve got to it now as the top book on my shelves not yet reviewed on line; in fact the next few on that pile are all by Pratchett, so I’m going to split the pile in two, PTerry and non-PTerry; the next books on each pile respectively are The Light Fantastic, and Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.

It’s years since I last read this. It hasn’t lost its charm. Pratchett’s Death is one of his most memorable characters, from his first appearance in The Colour of Magic:

“I said I hope it is a good party,” said Galder, loudly.
AT THE MOMENT IT IS, said Death levelly. I THINK IT MIGHT GO DOWNHILL VERY QUICKLY AT MIDNIGHT.
“Why?”
THAT’S WHEN THEY THINK I’LL BE TAKING MY MASK OFF.

to the end:

This was the fourth Discworld novel, after the original duology and Equal Rites, and Dave Langford’s comment at the time was “Pratchett has sussed the combination of hilarity with a tortuous plot, and the rest of us would-be humorists hate him for it.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a masterpiece, but a lot of the elements that make for a good Pratchett book – indeed for a good book in general – converge here.

You’ve read it too, so I won’t go on at length. It is as funny as I remembered. I was pleasantly surprised on re-reading by the breadth and depth of references to classic (and Classical) literature. The main driver of the Sto Lat subplot, the rewriting of history and destiny, is actually more of a science fiction trope, rarely found in fantasy (and the description of it is fairly sfnal). And Death’s slogan resonates still for me, 35 years on.

THERE’S NO JUSTICE. THERE’S JUST ME.

You can get it here, if you don’t already have it. My copy is the first Corgi paperback from 1987, with the Josh Kirby cover.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown