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The Magician of Roundworld

Written by Professor Ian Stewart, Mathematics InstituteTerry Pratchett

A flat world supported by four giant elephants, riding a turtle that swims through space... this is Discworld, the creation of my friend Sir Terry Pratchett, taken from us before his time by early-onset Alzheimer’s.

It is a world that has affected my life in many ways — as a fan, looking forward to the next instalment of the series; as an Omnian priest at a Discworld convention arguing that Discworld is a sphere; as a coauthor of the four Science of Discworld books; or just trying to answer one of Terry’s weird but insightful questions about science and mathematics when he phoned about work in progress.

It is difficult to sum Terry up in a few words. There were many facets to his personality; he was unique. And when a mathematician says ‘unique’, it means what it says on the tin: only one. He was intelligent, witty, wise, and generous. When he presented one of his biggest fans with a valuable present, he also had the insight to pay for the insurance. He did not suffer fools gladly, deploying his wit as a weapon against stupidity and hypocrisy. He set himself high standards, and expected his collaborators to do the same. He campaigned for Alzheimer’s research and assisted dying, even as his ability to handle the physical side of writing was falling to pieces before his eyes.

His fans loved him dearly. They turned up in their hundreds at book signings, which often went on for four or five hours. He, in turn, was devoted to the fans, and gave the same care and attention to the last person in the queue as he had done to the first.

Terry has a special place in Warwick University’s heart, because we were the first to give him an honorary degree. Typically, he added an extra twist to the proceedings by making Jack Cohen and me honorary wizards at Unseen University. Nature published a photo of the three of us wearing cloaks and pointy hats, and I treasure my wizard’s staff with its proverbial knob on the end.

The Science of Discworld books almost never happened. Terry, Jack, and I wanted to write a book using Discworld as a vehicle to explain science — but Terry pointed out, bluntly, that ‘there’s no science in Discworld. It runs on magic and the power of story.’ Six months went by before we figured out how to get round this obstacle. The wizards would bring into existence the Roundworld Project, a magical containment field the size and shape of a football that kept magic out. Inside it would be our universe, where science replaced magic. Then Terry would write a short story set on Discworld, in which the wizards are repeatedly baffled by a universe that runs on rules, not magic. Jack and I would supply commentary on the Roundworld science involved.

This unusual fiction/fact fusion worked better than we ever expected. After the success of the first book, Terry said ‘We can’t do another one. That was so much fun we can never repeat it.’ Pause. ‘If we did do another one, what would be in it...?’ It took eighteen different scenarios before Jack and I came up with one that Terry liked (Elves stop Newton and Shakespeare being born). We went through the same little dance for the third (Darwin wrote Theology of Species, not The Origin of Species) and the fourth (Omnians file a lawsuit seeking control of Roundworld).

The day before we were due to sign the contract for the fourth book, Terry phoned to say he’d been diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy. We immediately put the book on hold. But several years later he phoned, out of the blue. ‘About SoD4... Well, I’m really busy and I’ve got more to do already than I can possibly handle...’ We waited for the axe to fall. ‘So I think this is a really good time to start a new book!’

Terry PratchettI find this humbling. Despite all the handicaps, he gave the go-ahead because he knew Jack and I were still keen to write the book. By that time he had to dictate every word, and he could only read if the letters were an inch high. Yet he could still make time to keep a promise. It was typical of Terry’s generosity.

At one stage we were thinking of calling SoD4 The Magic of Roundworld. It seems to me now, looking back at Terry’s life, that it better describes what he gave to the world. He put magic into the lives of his Roundworld readers, by transporting them into the fantastic realm of Discworld. But this was not mere escapism. His books are wise and satirical; his villains and heroines are all around us.

He teaches us to laugh at ourselves, but also that good can triumph over evil. Terry used fantasy to illuminate universals of the human condition in a fresh and revealing way. He truly was the magician of Roundworld.