The Tower of Art over Ankh-Morpork
From King’s Landing to Mos Eisley, the most compelling aspect of fantasy and sci-fi genres has always been, for me, the creation of place—especially when that place is a city. All it takes is a bridge, a palace, a cantina, or any hint of urban civilization, and I start to wonder about the names of the streets and the seediest place to get a beer. When an author persuades his readers to fall in love with an imaginary city, and when he lets that place evolve from one novel to the next into a vital, changeable city, he’s made his readers citizens. I may not be the fantasy buff I once was, but no author I’ve ever read has created an imaginary city as exciting as Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork.
On March 12, Terry Pratchett, author of the 40 book-long Discworld series, died from Alzheimer’s Disease. Between 1986 and 2014, he published one, two, and sometimes three novels every year. Pratchett’s type of fantasy is “sword-and-sorcery,” the kind of fantasy where the magic is whizz-bang, where thieves form guilds, and where adventurers can be found in any dingy tavern. It’s the kind of stuff that Dungeons and Dragons was based on. More importantly, though, Pratchett was also a humourist. His books are, above all, hilarious. They satirize real world history, politics, the industrial revolution, and fantasy’s sombre, epic granddad, J.R.R. Tolkien. The Discworld is a place where dwarves, golems, vampires, witches, wizards, dragons, and trolls run rampant, but never anything like Tolkein’s wise and tragic elves. Everyone else from the high fantasy realm is close enough to the earth that you can imagine them farting and forgetting to read the fine print.
In The Colour of Magic, Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, a flunked wizard meets the world’s first tourist, a real estate insurance salesman. They meet in the Broken Drum, the worst bar in Ankh-Morpork. Entrepreneurial as any Morporkian, the owner takes out an insurance policy promptly before setting the bar, and half the city, on fire.
Many of the novels that followed, especially those that revolved around Ankh-Morpork, were about the snafus and absurdities of introducing modernity to a place that runs on the rules of wizards and sword-swingers. With each new Ankh-Morpork novel, another technology or system was introduced, from golems to the printing press to the postal service to rubber condoms, transforming the city from a medieval town run by criminals and sorcerers to a (bizarrely) industrial metropolis.
The transition is overseen by Patrician Vetinari, an oligarchical ruler who is meant to remind readers of a Florentine Medici, but whom I compare to New York’s Giuliani. Until recently, most Ankh-Morpork stories focused on the once-hopelessly inadequate city guard. Originally, Pratchett wrote Guards! Guards! to play with the trope of city watchmen rushing into battle where they were easily slaughtered by either the hero or the villain. Against genre conventions, the guards really do slay the dragon in Guards! Guards! With every murder they solve and conspiracy they expose thereafter, the City Watch becomes a force that actually stops crime. The result, by book 40, is a sprawling, modernizing, semi-mechanized metropolis. No longer threatened by dragons and sorcerers, Ankh-Morpork’s crises are far more likely to revolve around currency and bureaucracy. It’s a city that’s grown out of its mad kings, street revolutions, forgotten heirs, bandits, and, in many ways, the magic that runs the rest of the world.
The city in fantasy, more than science fiction, is often the place where comedy and chaos upset the epic narrative. In the TV adaptation Game of Thrones, King’s Landing, with London-esque place names like Flea Bottom and Mud Gate, is where people throw feces at their monarchs, pimps become lords, and kings hire dwarves to clown at their weddings. After Bree and its shady adventurers’ tavern, there are no real cities in The Lord of the Rings. There is no place in its epic-heroic mode for shit, satire, or the kind of human ugliness that’s too ugly to be put in tragedies.
Neil Gaiman gives his urban fantasy TV series, set in a timeless underground London, the name Neverwhere. It plays off of fantasy names like Erewhon and Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon (Nowhen), but synthesizes the two to negate both time and space, without dismissing the concept of place. Never is not no. It is a reference to the fantastic, to Neverland and “Once upon.” The word is a reference to fantasy itself, and in this configuration imbues the “where” with that meaning. Fantasy-space is a place, and at its best, it is as richly detailed and provocatively suggested as any real world setting.
As it’s grown from a seedy meeting place that sets off adventures, Ankh-Morpork has become a neverwhere, a non-place that is as specified, textured, mapped, and crucial to its stories as Alexandria to the Alexandria Quartet or Dublin to Dubliners. In addition to making sword-and-sorcery fantasy a vehicle for satire and hilarity, Pratchett had an enormous, Dickensian talent for writing the city.