Review of Terry Pratchett’s Ethical Worlds: Essays on Identity and Narrative in Discworld and Beyond

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 4

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Terry Pratchett’s Ethical Worlds: Essays on Identity and Narrative in Discworld and Beyond

Maria Alberto

Kristin Noone and Emily Lavin Leverett. Terry Pratchett’s Ethical Worlds: Essays on Identity and Narrative in Discworld and Beyond. McFarland, 2020. Paperback. 155 pg. $39.95. ISBN 978-1476674490.

There is no getting around this fact—Terry Pratchett’s work is funny. Powerfully amusing, we might even say, in every sense of the term. However, as any of his multitudinous readers could also report without a second’s hesitation, Terry Pratchett’s work is likewise thoughtful, deliberate, and nuanced, offering pointed satire, incisive social commentary, and gentle moral reflection filtered through the worldview of witches, watch-members, and other fantasy characters whose experiences both replicate and reveal our own.

Likewise, Kristin Noone and Emily Levin Leverett’s 2020 collection Terry Pratchett’s Ethical Worlds offers an illuminating—and, honestly, just plain fun to read—addition to the growing body of scholarly work on Pratchett’s oeuvre. Noone and Leverett characterize their work as an exploration of the means through which Pratchett “constructs an ethical stance that values and valorizes informed self-aware choice, knowledge of the world in which one makes those choices, the value of play and humor in crafting a compassionate worldview, and acts of continuous self-examination and creation” (2).  These four themes, the editors and their contributors find, run throughout Pratchett’s canon, from his well-known Discworld novels and co-authored Good Omens (1990) to more clearly science fiction works such as Strata (1981), the Long Earth series (2012-2016), and the less-discussed short story “#ifdef DEBUG + ‘world/enough’ + ‘time’” (1990). From the introduction onward, too, Pratchett’s interest in forms of intertextuality, identity, and genre-switching is also noted and explored (1-2). As Noone and Leverett point out, Pratchett constructs worlds and narratives “in which questions of identity, community, and relations between self and other may be productively discussed, debated, and reshaped” (4), in turn leading to their definition of the “ethical worlds” named in this collection’s title: rich, multifaceted “fantasies in which language always matters, stories resonate with the past and the future, and the choices characters make reflect the importance of self-aware and ongoing acts of compassion and creation” (4).

Overall, collection contributors build from a shared interest in Pratchett’s inventiveness and creation—of secondary world(s), of language, and of characters’ selves as well as our own—to offer nine chapters drawing from a diverse range of critical lenses and perspectives. Here readers will find highly-enjoyable pieces examining acts of creation in science fiction (ch. 1), hypermasculinity and adaptational influence (ch. 2), the ethics of choice (ch. 3), free will and growing up (ch. 4), Old English influences (ch. 5), identity construction through language (ch. 6), rhetoricity and magic (ch. 7), “golempunk” and ownership of the means of production (ch. 8), and grappling with the ethics of neomedievalism and aftershocks of colonialism (ch. 9).

In their introduction, Noone and Leverett identify three primary strands of Pratchett scholarship—one apiece focusing on his genre fiction writing, his YA authorship, and his Discworld stories (2)—and position this collection as an attempt to bring various elements of these strands together. In this light alone, the collection is a success. For one thing, while the Discworld novels do feature heavily here, most of Pratchett’s work also receives mention—and in many cases, full chapters—that are characterized by as much attention and detail as his most well-known work. Noone, for instance, looks to Pratchett’s early science fiction and its depictions of acts of creation, maintaining that these texts “offer insight not only into prototype versions of the later Discworld but into the evolution of Pratchett’s moral stance” as these develop across genres and narrative forms (3). As Noone correctly notes here, Pratchett’s work as a fantasy or a YA author, as often prioritized by those existing strands of scholarship, is greatly enriched when considered in light of his science fiction roots, where we find him first sketching out the ethical stances and foundations that he would build later works upon.

For another thing, the chapters that do focus on Pratchett’s best-developed and most extensive work, Discworld, also span a wonderful variety of the characters, narratives, and locations that readers encounter in Ankh-Morpork and beyond. This collection’s contributors bring their insights to familiar faces from Tiffany Aching and her community (friends and enemies alike) to Cohen the Barbarian and his complicated relationship with violence, the Watch and their different arbitrations of justice, and Moist von Lipwig and the technological advances he reluctantly shepherds into the big city. In so doing, the collection thus reiterates the sheer range of subjects to which Pratchett brought his stance on compassionate, self-aware, and humorous creation: capital-b Big topics that include gender roles, the dangers of sexual and gendered essentialism, war and warfare, the legal and justice systems, capitalism, and the all-too-common violence of minority communities’ integration into even heterogeneous societies. It is quite a balancing act, to give these topics the space and thoughtful treatment they deserve in the limited word count of single chapters—particularly while also extricating them from the writing and perspective of a cis, white male author from a former colonial world power, radical as his worldview was and beloved as he himself is—but this collection and its chapters do so admirably.

Finally, and very aptly indeed, I also found that this collection is just a delight to read. Its ambitious project and often complex topics are bolstered by contributors’ obvious enjoyment of the texts themselves, which shines through in the writing of just about every chapter. While definitely an academic work, complete with the criticism and bibliographic work that entails, Terry Pratchett’s Ethical Worlds: Essays on Identity and Narrative in Discworld and Beyond also struck me as accessible and exciting, one of those uncommon works of scholarship that I would also pick up on a rare day off just to enjoy seeing rich new perspectives on a favorite fantasy world.

All things considered, this collection’s emphasis on compassion, creation, and self-awareness, as Pratchett uses genre fiction and its attributes to broach such topics, is well worth a read. Those interested in examinations of the fantasy genre (and in particular, continuations of work by Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James, and John Clute) or seeking out complications of its science fiction counterparts will appreciate the collection’s focus, while those still keeping #TerryPratchettGNU alive and well will value its thoughtful revisitation of a gentle giant in the genre.

Maria Alberto is a PhD candidate in literature and cultural studies at the University of Utah. Her research interests include adaptation, popular culture, digital media, and fan studies, and her recent work includes essays in Mythlore, M/C Journal, and Transformative Works and Cultures, as well as forthcoming book chapters on digital-born romance, fan studies methodology, and queer readings of Tolkien’s legendarium. At this very moment, she is probably working on her dissertation on “canon” in popular culture texts or playing D&D. Either way, coffee is definitely involved.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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