Once Upon a Turtle

First Published March 15, 2015 at http://www.madadventurers.com/once-upon-a-turtle/


The news that Douglas Adams had died recently came as quite a shock to me. This was some time ago, of course. I like Douglas Adams, and, if I have to tell you I liked him because he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and then go on to explain about towels and froods and paranoid androids and fourty-two and why a whale falling to it’s death is genuinely funny… then I’m afraid we have an irreconcilable difference and I have to ask you to stop reading the rest of this article right now. It’s not for you. It’s just not. I’ll never be able to explain to you why one thing lead to another and I found myself, like really, really found myself – in a Hare Krishna kind of way – living on the back of a turtle. And why for the past few days I’ve also found myself mourning the loss of another ‘comedy writer’ as you no doubt would put it.

For the rest of you, you already get it. Like an iceberg sneaking up out of the fog, you can already see the shape of it and you know it’s going to hit and it’s already far too late to man the lifeboats and try to get to safety. All you can do is brace for impact. And then hang on and enjoy the ride. I can pretend we have enough life preservers for everyone, but we all know it’s not true. Best to get the band started on the second go-round of Auld Lang Syne.

Strained metaphors aside, when Douglas (May I call you Douglas? I hope so. I like to think we were at least familiar enough with each other to do that) died I was at a loss. As long as he was alive you could always hope that another Hitchhiker’s novel might be in the works somewhere, or that Dirk Gently would stumble across the deadline and turn up with another case to be meta-physically solved. Sure sometimes the resolutions might be a bit opaque (Does ANYONE know what Dirk said to the Norse gods to resolve The Long, Dark, Teatime of the Soul? Anyone?), but they were always worth reading. Then Douglas died and all that wasn’t possible any more. And no, we won’t discuss authors taking up other authors works and ‘completing’ them. That possibility just wasn’t even in my head. Nor would I have wanted it to be.

So, no more books from Douglas Adams, it seemed to me. What was I going to do? What would I read to fill that very specific gap? The little nook labeled “authors who write about real people in a real world with real people problems, but funny and, therefore, better” was suddenly empty. Honestly, that’s a very long label for a shelf that turned out to be as short as it suddenly seemed it was.

I tried several times to find replacements. On the, as it turns out, wrong assumption that people whose last names start with the same letters are somehow tapped into the same cosmic consciousness I tried Aspirin and Anthony. You can guess how that worked out. You can’t get me not to pun anymore. Show me two words that seem vaguely similar in sound or shape, or look similar when written on a page and we’re off. Many a co-worker has been driven away by my passive-aggressive punishment, and quite probably with good reason. They were decent and entertaining writers, but they clearly lacked something and were just not the same at all.

Right. To the opposite end of the alphabet. Maybe something in a ‘Z’ would suit? Not especially. Too many Crown Princes of Amber, which, though I was happy to have read about them, did not put any more books on that very specific shelf.

In the end, I explored a lot of unsatisfactory candidates. As it turns out, and you already knew this, no one, not even a replacement writer, is quite an adequate replacement for Douglas Adams. It was an interesting journey through all the best exotic locations and I got to meet quite a few interesting characters, but from rats of steel to realms forgotten, there just didn’t seem to be anyone else who was ever going to fill that shelf.

And so, in the end, I gave up and did the unthinkable. I swallowed my pride as a reader fully capable of finding my own reading material, trained in judging books exactly by their cover, and well versed in the arts of well… verse. At the end of my rope I did the last thing anyone seeking new reading material should ever, ever do. I asked store staff.

And the gentleman I asked, who still works there to this day and deserves some form of thanks for his unwitting influence on my life, handed me a book and said, “This is as close to being like Douglas Adams as I’ve ever seen anyone get.” And then he walked off, as if he hadn’t just iceberg-ed my Titanic.

And he was wrong, of course.

This book, this author, wasn’t even close to being like Douglas Adams…

“In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…


Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.

In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.

Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.

Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.”

…Terry Pratchett was better.

There they were. The words that started it all for me and, I imagine, so many others.

I don’t claim to have had any sort of special relationships with the Discworld books or with Terry Pratchett that make me more of a fan than any other fan of his writing would have. Nor do I claim to have any special insights into the meanings of the 40 odd novels in the Discworld… series? Oeuvre? Milieu? (Take your pick, they are connected by place, not by any particular continuing plot line or even a consistent set of main characters. Though they can be broken up into general groups featuring a particular set of characters.) I’m not any better at being a fan of Pratchett and Discworld and all the other books he wrote outside Discworld both fictional and non-fictional and curious mixes of both than you are. Well, than you probably are, actual scholars of Discworld notwithstanding.

What I do claim is this, that first book, The Color of Magic, was handed to me at a very delicate point of balance in my life. Much like the elephants on Great A’Tuin’s back who occasionally have to cock a leg to let the Discworld’s Sun go by, one inelegant move on my part and the world could have been plunged into eternal darkness.

Which is incredibly melodramatic and patently untrue. But it is how it felt. And how it feels now. As I began reading my way through the Discworld books, at the time a mere 27 or so, I was discovering a world so well realized and characters so intimately familiar that I could find their analogs in my own little world which was not, and has never been, as well realized as the Discworld. In many cases, many of the characters were no further away from me than the inside of my own skull. I knew these people that ran around on a flat world on the back of four elephants who were, in turn, on the back of a giant space-turtle. I didn’t understand HOW I knew them, at first, but I did know them.

From Rincewind the Wizzard (sic), who had all the trappings and accoutrements of a genuine, real, fantasy wizard and had studied at Unseen University and theoretically graduated but could not perform a single piece of magic and was, quite deliberately, a massive coward…

To Cohen the Barbarian, clearly reminiscent of someone familiar yet different. A man plagued by back pain, poor dentition, rheumatism, and a certain cavalier attitude to personal finances, but also the Disc’s most successful, most feared, and oldest barbarian hero. Or anti-hero depending on what side you were on. How did we know he was the most feared and most dangerous barbarian on the Disc? He was over 80 years old. Think about it. Sometimes just announcing he was coming was enough to turn the tide of battle in your favor…

To Detritus, the genuine stone troll who came out from under the bridge and a life of petty crime and thuggery in the streets of the Disc’s biggest, most affluent and effluent and influential city, Ankh-Morpork, to become a Sergeant in the Ankh-Morpork city watch. A troll seemingly so dim that you had to be very careful about the orders you gave him since they would be carried out quite literally (an unfortunate series of events around the phrase “book him” being an illustrative, if unpleasant, example) and who carried a siege crossbow intended to be used against fortifications and castles as a hand weapon…

To Sir Samuel Vimes, who is reluctantly put in charge of a ragged, ineffectual City Watch but manages by dint of sheer bloody-mindedness to turn it into the best policing force on the disc, so good that they’ve been known to arrest entire wars for breach of the peace…

To ‘Granny’ Weatherwax who is no one’s granny but is, instead, the most formidable witch ever to have existed. Nearly a traditional looking witch, she never could seem to get the right sorts of warts but has instead mastered the very witchy art of headology which, perhaps surprisingly, involves very little actual magic. To the common people of Lancre, a rural community high atop the Ramtop mountains, she may be a bad witch who specializes in giving people what they need rather than what they want, but among her fellow witches she is definitely to be considered a force for good. Or at least a force for not actually evil…

To Captain Carrot, rumored heir to the Ankh-Morpork throne, but simply not interested in having it…

To Tiffany Aching, up and coming young witch in training who not only has second sight, but possibly third and fourth thoughts as well…

To Maurice, a magically-infected talking cat of questionable loyalty, but canny enough to help lead a group of very intelligent talking rodents in running the Pied Piper scam…

To a cast of quite literally hundreds of others, all of whom had a whiff of the familiar if not the actual stink of “Hey! I know a guy exactly like that.”

And that, I think, was the trick for me. By creating a world that operated in such a fantastical manner but populating it with people whose names, no matter how odd, often came from a phone book and whose mannerisms and thoughts and feelings were so real and true, not to type, but to how people actually were, Terry Pratchett pulled the trick that few others, even those writing about actually real real people could manage. He made a world that felt more real than the real one.

Which is why, upon hearing the news of his death this last Thursday, I was prompted to say:

“Terry Pratchett did not write fantasy. He wrote Reality in a fantastical way.”

I stand behind that. By creating a fantastic, comedic world populated by the familiar faces of people just like people we already knew he got to pull the jester’s trick:

In the old days, before the king business went into practical liquidation, the court jester was an established institution. This functionary’s job required him not only to be’ entertaining, but also realistic; in fact, his success at entertainment was pretty strictly conditioned by his sense of reality. All the other court functionaries cooked up the king’s facts for him before delivery; the jester delivered them raw. This was the curious convention of the time. The jester was the only person permitted to tell the king the plain, unupholstered truth about things as he saw them, even about royalty itself and the most intimate matters pertaining to royalty; and he was not only permitted but expected to do this. The jester criticized State policies in a full-mouthed way that would have insured anybody else a life sojourn in the Bastille; and he got praise and favor for it. He could tell the king that his favorite mistress was a mercenary old rip who should be thrown to the sharks and, as our phrase goes, he could get away with it, and be applauded for it, which no one else could do, either in the court or in the kingdom at large.

http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~ckank/FultonsLair/013/nock/jester.html -Originally published in Harper’s Magazine; March 1928

Inside the comedic fantasy form that he’d built up, Terry Pratchett could tell us the truth not only about kings and governments and religions and institutions both big and small, but about ourselves as well. He could package that truth in a very attractive box and we would take it happily from him, thank him for it and unwrap it in order to marvel at it at our own leisure and wonder how it was we didn’t see it for ourselves.

One of the most important truths, maybe the biggest truth Sir Terry (for he was knighted some few years ago) managed to tell us and certainly the one I have taken most to heart and have made use of since first learning it was this: Humans are creatures of story.

Nowhere is this more beautifully explained than towards the end of Hogfather, a novel in which Death (capital letters please for all your standard anthropomorphic representations of abstract concepts) takes on the role of the Discworld’s analog to Santa Clause, for…reasons. Here, Death (who speaks in all capitals, naturally) is speaking to his granddaughter (it’s complicated) Susan Sto-Helit about the nature of belief:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”


“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”


“So we can believe the big ones?”


“They’re not the same at all!”


“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”


And then I have to go step away for a bit until I can see the screen again because it is stuff like that, the truth that the world only operates the way it does because we believe that it should and not because ‘that is the way it is,’ that at once breaks my heart but gives me the hope that with the right story, you can change the world.

We learn stories from the very beginning of our lives. It’s a fundamental building block in the make a human kit. In the series of books known as The Science of Discworld, co-authored with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (no relation, as far as I know, to the famed Barbarian above) this story telling instinct is discussed in a few simple terms. The first of these is the imaginary element known as narrativium:

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.

-The Science of Discworld III

In other words, narrativium is an essential element in helping human beings to understand what a thing is, what it is meant for, and how it fits into our world. We need the story of the thing, whether that thing is an iron bar, a black hole in space, or the tiniest imaginable degree to which someone can care about someone else, to make sense of the thing itself. Narrativium and the stories it creates even shape how we are able to think about things:

Narrativium is powerful stuff. We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say – not much, anyway – but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories….

-The Science of Discworld I

We grow up on the stories of our world around us and how we fit, or don’t fit, into it. We use stories to explain our present circumstances and to create narratives we can understand for events we don’t. When the world changes, either in significant or insignificant ways, we think we understand why it has changed based on the stories we either tell ourselves or hear from others:

Our children have been hearing stories since they recognized any words at all, and by three years old they are making up their own stories about what is happening around them. We are all impressed by their vocabulary skills, and by their acquisition of syntax and semantics; but we should also note how good they are at making narratives out of events. From about five years old, they get their parents to do things for them by placing those things in narrative context. And most of their games with peers have a context, within which stories are played out. The context they create is just like that of the animal and fairy stories we tell them. The parents don’t instruct the child how to do this, nor do the children have to elicit the ‘right’ storytelling behaviours from their parents. This is an evolutionary complicity. It seems very natural – after all, we are Pan narrans – that we tell stories to children, and that children and parents enjoy the activity. We learn about ‘narrativium’ very early in our development, and we use it and promote it for the whole of our lives.

-The Science of Discworld II

That Pan narrans up there? It’s the notion that we aren’t really Homo Sapiens. Being the ‘wise man’ had very little to do with our success as a species:

We are not Homo sapiens, Wise Man. We are the third chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from the ordinary chimpanzee Pan troglodytes and the bonobo chimpanzee Pan paniscus, is something far more subtle than our enormous brain, three times as large as theirs in proportion to body weight. It is what that brain makes possible. And the most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape.

-The Science of Discworld III

Regardless of your particular view of how we came about as human beings, the idea that our ability to tell stories to each other in order to explain our world and the things that happen around us is more responsible for our successful survival than simply the capacity for bigger thoughts, carries some serious weight.

For me, this is what opening up and reading The Color of Magic back then did for me. Maybe all this stuff about story and telling people the truth and all that seems really obvious to you and always has done. But at the time I first came across it, it was revelatory to me. I just hadn’t thought about things in that manner.

Understanding the impact of story and narrativium on people and the way they think, seeing the way it shaped the world and the people in it, opened up my mind to opportunities that I don’t think would have existed for me otherwise. Learning to use stories and storytelling helped me in jobs that I might not otherwise have been suited to. They’ve certainly lead me down a path that takes me to the present moment and present opportunities and they’ve opened up a way forward for me that might not have otherwise existed.

They certainly inform my views on games and gaming. As both a GM and a Player, as an Editor and a Writer, I will always favor story and storytelling over rules and numbers. It isn’t that I don’t like rules and numbers and discussion about them when it comes to gaming, it’s that I see them as being the framework around which a story is made and not the actual goal of the rules themselves. I don’t learn to be a better gamer, to have more fun, and to help others have more fun, by focusing exclusively on knowing a set of rules.

And no mistake, Terry himself was a D&D player at one time. You only have to read this to know that:

“He sighed and opened the black box and took out his rings and slipped them on. Another box held a set of knives and Klatchian steel, their blades darkened with lamp black. Various cunning and intricate devices were taken from velvet bags and dropped into pockets. A couple of long-bladed throwing tlingas were slipped into their sheaths inside his boots. A thin silk line and folding grapnel were wound around his waist, over the chain-mail shirt. A blowpipe was attached to its leather thong and dropped down the back of his cloak; Teppic picked a slim tin container with an assortment of darts, their tips corked and their stems braille-coded for ease of selection in the dark.

He winced, checked the blade of his rapier and slung the baldric over his right shoulder, to balance the bag of lead slingshot ammunition. As an afterthought he opened his sock drawer and took a pistol crossbow, a flask of oil, a roll of lockpicks and, after some consideration, a punch dagger, a bag of assorted caltrops and a set of brass knuckles.

Teppic picked up his hat and checked it’s lining for the coil of cheesewire. He placed it on his head at a jaunty angle, took a last satisfied look at himself in the mirror, turned on his heel and, very slowly, fell over.”

–Pyramids: A Novel of Discworld

There are other facets of life that benefit from understanding the stories that surround them. That big news event? We learn to understand it from the stories we are told and then the stories we subsequently assemble for ourselves about it. The extent to which we believe that those stories match the actual story of the event – and we’re very good at believing our own stories in particular – dictates how we then feel and think about said event. We tell ourselves stories about our relationships with people; is our girlfriend or boyfriend late coming home because they stopped to get milk on the way home? Or are they having an affair with someone from work? We become suspicious about them based on the story we make up as explanation. What if they just said they needed to get milk to throw us off? What if it has nothing to do with milk or office affairs and they’ve really broken down on the freeway home and now they’re trapped in the center lane and lookout! That truck isn’t stopping! And, my god, what if they’re hurt and dying? I have to go right now and– Well, that’s a story, isn’t it.

We are story motivated creatures.

And the best part of it is, as someone who does understand human nature and the point of stories and how they give us context and meaning and reason for the events of life, Sir Terry Pratchett’s last tweets were these:


Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

As heartbreaking as it is, it’s just one story ending. Eventually, you come to the end of it and you have to close the book. That’s okay, though. Yes, a great author, and one who impacted and entertained many people, myself included, has passed away. Yes, we are sorry for his passing and mourn his loss. But, because we are human beings and because we understand how stories work and why they matter, we also know that Terry would have wanted us to move on to the next story, maybe even find our own stories to tell. It’s time to cast some new characters in a new place. Time to tell new stories.

Thank you for the stories, Sir Terry.

“Once, upon a turtle, there was a time…”