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Darwin's Watch

The Science of Discworld III

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Ebury press 2005


Unpublished review

Read: 26th December (sic) 2007


Terry Pratchett's Discworld is deeper than it looks. For one thing it can be used to illustrate the philosophical idea of the 'incommensurability of paradigms' - or more loosely, 'anything could be true, if you tweak the context enough'. The Science of Discworld bounces off this idea. The trope is that the wizards of Unseen University have accidentally created 'roundworld' and feel ethically obliged to intervene when it all goes horribly wrong. Roundworld does not run on magic so the poor roundiverse has to totter on under the unaided laws of physics. To the bemusement of the wizards, it totters on rather well despite the complete absence of narrativium, the property of matter which tells things what they are and what they mean.

So Science of Discworld III has a strongly philosophical favour. The 'science bits' intersperse a time-travel story in which history takes a wrong turning and the Reverend Charles Darwin writes Theology of Species. At the climax of the story we meet the discworld god of evolution, this episode making a very Pratchettian point that although we might find the 'blind watchmaker' of natural selection unappealing, the alternative could be worse. On the way we discuss genetics, the mathematics of infinity, parallel universes, the theory of time-travel (kind of lost me, that one) and finally drift into full-blown philosophy. Why does drive history? Why did it take so many centuries for steam technology to get going? The authors take a sound social science line on this and have no truck with the 'great man' theory - history has tides, pressures and currents, we are largely created by our circumstances, it's all very recursive.

Narrativium might not exist but us roundworldians cannot help but believe it does - and that includes the authors of Science of Discworld. Perhaps it is their ages (Pratchett is coming up to 60, Cohen is in his 70's, ) but I was surprised to see a shy reappearance of that once popular party girl: Human-Destiny-Is-To-Expand-Into-Space. She looked so bashful that I remembered that I was once quite fond of her myself, but really, it's time she started acting her age and got a proper job. In 2005 you really cannot write a book of this sort without at least mentioning the …ahem .. little local difficulty we are having with our atmosphere and energy systems. Which is a pity as this is otherwise an unusually intelligent book and I'm going to read its two precursors.


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