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Interesting Times

Annotations | Information | Quotes

- [title] Interesting Times

One remarkable thing about this book's title is that it changed at least twice since Terry began working on it. It started out as Unclear Physics, then became Imperial Wizard for a few days, and finally ended up as Interesting Times:

"Rincewind and Cohen are having such fun -- that is to say, death and terror attend them at every step -- on the Counterweight Continent and the Forbidden City of the Agatean Empire that it might well end up being called: Imperial Wizard ...which ought to sell well in the US. In some States, anyway."

"The editor and my main beta-test reader have raised objections to the title Unclear Physics. They think it's a lovely title but they don't think it's a good one for this book. Nor do I, because I've got a better use for it -- I've realised how to utilize the squash court in UU... So it will be the original working title: Interesting Times. At least for this week."

- [p. 9/7] "'I accuse the High Priest of the Green Robe in the library with the double-handed axe.'"

Fate and the other Gods are playing the Discworld variant of the board game Clue (known as Cluedo outside North America).

The object of this game is to deduce not only which of several suspects has murdered the unfortunate 'Mr X', but also what weapon was used, and in which room of the mansion the murder took place. Once you think you've figured it out you have to publicly 'accuse' the murderer, just as Fate does, and if you're right you win the game.

Although a Reverend Green is one of the suspects, and the Library is one of the possible rooms, the game does not feature a double-handed axe, last time I looked.

- [p. 10/8] "Let a game begin,' said the Lady."

I'm a bit surprised at having to annotate this, but apparently not everyone recognises just who the Lady is. She is of course none other than Lady Luck, who was first introduced in The Colour of Magic, and who has always had a soft spot for Rincewind, possibly because he never relies on her.

Note that green is a colour often associated with luck (e.g. Irish leprechauns).

- [p. 11/8] "The Hongs, the Sungs, the Tangs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs."

The presence of the McSweeney name ("very old established family") in this list is used as a running gag throughout the book. It also reminded me of James Clavell's Hong Kong novels (Tai-Pan, Noble House and Gai-Jin), which chronicle the Asian business empire founded and headed by various generations of the Scottish Struan family.

- [p. 13/10] "[...] the mandelbrot patterns on the wings are of considerable interest."

Benoit Mandelbrot is the discoverer of the Mandelbrot Set, a famous 'fractal', first plotted in 1980. Mandelbrot sets are rather difficult to describe in words (actually, they are very simple to describe in words only not in a way that most people will understand...), but what it boils down to is that a picture of the Mandelbrot set is a kind of mathematical painting with many swirling colours interspersed by strange, heart-shaped clusters of black. Most people will probably have seen Mandelbrot sets on computer screens or screensavers or wall posters. If not, all you need to do is catch yourself a Quantum Weather Butterfly and study its wings.

- [p. 18/14] The Agatean Empire.

There's a nice extra resonance with China here: Agate is a semi-precious gemstone, originally used in the Orient to make dinnerware.

- [p. 36/29] "'Curiouser and curiouser,' said the Senior Wrangler."

A famous quote from Alice in Wonderland. Not surprisingly, it merely confuses the other wizards.

- [p. 44/35] "'To answer such questions Hex had been built, [...]'"

That a hex is a spell or a curse is well-known, but it may be less obvious to non-computer types that 'hex' is also short for 'hexadecimal', a common number base used by programmers.

To belabour the obvious, this conjunction of meanings produces the perfect name for a computer designed to analyse magic.

- [p. 44/35] "[...] he was pretty sure no one had designed the Phase of the Moon Generator."

The phase of the moon, besides being undoubtedly very handy when it comes to magical calculations, is used in our world's computer jargon to humorously indicate a random parameter on which something is supposed to depend.

- [p. 45/36] "[...] the ants rode up and down on a little paternoster [...]"

A paternoster (in this context) is a closed-loop elevator of linked carriages, somewhat like the bucket chain principle applied to people -- or in this case, ants.

- [p. 45/36] "[...] the aquarium had been lowered on its davits so that the operator would have something to watch during the long hours... [...]"

A reference to the screensaver programs often found running on personal computers to prevent phosphor burn-in of the monitor. One popular screensaver module turns the screen into an aquarium of animated, swimming fish.

- [p. 47/37] "+++++ Redo From Start +++++"

A typically obtuse error message of the type that is thankfully going out of fashion.

'Redo from start' is a bona fide error message for the BASIC programming language, caused by incorrect responses to an INPUT command.

- [p. 47/38] "The Unreal Time Clock ticked sideways."

All computers have a real time clock, but, one assumes, an unreal time clock measures imaginary time, which explains why it ticks sideways: the imaginary numbers are at 90 degrees to the real numbers on the Complex Plane.

+ [p. 47/38] "'Out of Cheese Error'"

In computing, you regularly encounter "out of memory" or "out of paper" errors. Presumably hex needs the cheese for its mouse.

- [p. 49/39] "[...] the Bursar, still happily living in the valley of the dried frogs."

The 'dolls' in the movie title Valley of the Dolls refers to the pills to which the starlets were addicted.

- [p. 51/41] "'Wardrobe? Er... Er... Isn't this the Magic Kingdom of Scrumptiousness?' [...]"

A reference to the Kingdom of Narnia, from C. S. Lewis' series of books. See the annotation for p. 22/22 of Sourcery .

- [p. 54/43] "'We must storm the Winter Palace! [...] Then we can storm the Summer Palace!'"

The Russian Revolutionary army stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, but less well known is that the Summer Palace of the Chinese royal family was indeed pillaged and destroyed by the British and the French during the Taiping Rebellion of 1860. Terry acknowledges:

"I had 'storming the winter palace' in mind because, yes, the events of the Russian revolution are more familiar to us -- and then I came across the storming of the summer palace while reading up on Chinese torture. It took me some effort not to find some joke about the Taiping Rebellion, I have to say... and as for the Boxer Rising..."

- [p. 56/45] "'Your Wife is a big hippo'"

In Interesting Times, much is made of similar sounding words having totally different meanings. Languages such as Chinese and Japanese pay great attention to the pitch and intonation of words, and the same word with a different intonation can indeed have radically different meanings. (Of course not all different meanings are due to intonation -- there are other possibilities, such as vowel lengths, and some words just naturally have many different meanings).

Just in case you think Terry is overstating things for comic effect, there is an anecdote told by linguist David Moser, who was learning Chinese, and was practising with some Chinese friends. He was tired, and said "I want to go to sleep now", but got the intonation wrong, and what he actually said was "I stand by where the elephant urinates".

Similarly, I am told that the Chinese glyph 'sento' can alternatively mean 'public bath', 'residence of a retired emperor', 'first scaling the wall of a besieged castle', 'fighting together' or 'scissors', while the Japanese 'kansen' can mean any of 'main-line', 'warship', 'sweat-gland', 'infection', 'government', 'appointed' and 'witnessing a battle'.

- [p. 60/48] "'Be afraid. Be very afraid.'"

A famous line from the 1986 remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, also used as a tagline to promote the movie.

- [p. 61/48] "... possibly the finest lager in the world."

In our world, the advertising slogan of Carlsberg is: "Probably the best lager in the world".

+ [p. 63] "The Art of War was the ultimate basis of diplomacy in the Empire. [...] No one remembered the author. Some said it was One Tzu Sung, some claimed it was Three Sun Sung."

In our world, Sun Tzu's The Art of War is the oldest known military treatise (around 400 BC). "Know the enemy, and know yourself" is a straight quote from the chapter on Offensive Strategy.

- [p. 88/70] "'The Silver Horde,' said Cohen, with a touch of pride."

Derived from the 'Golden Horde', one of the successor states to the Mongol Empire, based in the steppes of Southern Russia and the Ukraine, and ruled by descendants of Genghiz Khan. There was even a movie, The Golden Horde, starring John Wayne as Genghiz Khan. As my correspondent puts it: "Disbelief suspended by the neck until dead, dead, dead."

+ [p. 72] "'And I was very interested in Auriental studies.'"

'Aurum' is Latin for 'gold'. This is also why 'gold' is signified by the symbol 'Au' in the Periodic Table of Elements.

- [p. 107/85] "[...] a complicated pile of ivory tiles, playing Shibo Yangcong-san."

In our world the Chinese game of Mahjongg is played with ivory tiles, and its rules have many similarities to certain types of western card games. It shouldn't come as a big surprise, therefore, that 'Shibo Yangcong-san' is actually Japanese for 'Cripple Mr Onion'.

- [p. 111/88] "'Where's the pork?'"

In the early 80s there was an American TV commercial for the Wendy's chain of restaurants, featuring an irate old lady looking at her hamburger and ranting "Where's the beef?!". This became a national catchphrase for a while, and then permanently entered the language when it was used in the 1984 Presidential campaign by Vice President Walter Mondale and directed towards Senator Gary Hart as an implication that the latter's promises had no substance.

Terry says: "See? This is probably a genuine joke that Americans will get and most Europeans won't. Hah! and they said it couldn't be done!"

- [p. 120/96] "'Excuse me, what is your name?' Rincewind said. 'Pretty Butterfly.'"

Apart from her ability to cause as many problems for Rincewind as the Quantum Weather Butterfly, Pretty Butterfly's name also resonates with that of the operatic Madame Butterfly.

- [p. 142/113] "Bruce the Hoon"

Hoon is New Zealand/Australian slang for a lout or hooligan. 'Hooning around' describes the act of driving around wildly in one's car, spinning the wheels and so forth.

- [p. 156/125] "There was a corral, for the Luggages."

It is obvious that Luggages are fairly common in the Agatean Empire, yet in The Light Fantastic Twoflower explains that he got his Luggage from one of those mysterious magic shops. Terry says:

"That was a long time ago... think of how it's all progressed. They've got real clocks in Ankh-Morpork now, people wear spectacles... you might as well say home computers were rare and special things in 1980 so how come there were so many of them in 1990? What makes the Luggage special is its peculiarly endearing character..."

- [p. 172/138] "Then he tugged the sword free and inspected the steaming blade. 'Hmm,' he said. 'Interesting...'"

Lord Hong finds the blade interesting because he has just discovered a way to quench red-hot sword blades without oxidising them.

I am told that traditional Japanese sword makers did actually use condemned prisoners, but that was for testing purposes only, not for the actual forging process. Apparently, sword quality was sometimes measured in terms of the number of bodies the sword could cut through with a single blow.

- [p. 221/177] "History told of a runner who'd run forty miles after a battle to report its successful outcome to those at home."

After a successful naval battle at the town of Marathon in Greece, a man reportedly ran all the way to Athens, 42 kilometres away, to inform his leader of the victory. He is also reported to have died on the spot from the strain after announcing their win. This is how the running event of the same name was born.

- [p. 230/184] "'Why're their feet so small?' said Cohen."

Foot binding was a very common practice in China among women of the upper classes. As young girls, their feet would be wrapped in painfully tight bandages. When the girls grew, their feet did not. By adulthood the feet were barely half their proper length, which was considered attractive. Thankfully the procedure has almost died out.

- [p. 236/189] "'So there was only blue left. Well, he'd show them...' [...] He had to simplify it a bit, of course."

Three Solid Frogs is inventing the Willow Pattern Plate, the well-known blue oriental picture of a maiden standing on a bridge.

- [p. 291/233] "'How lucky do you feel, my lords?'"

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. See the annotation for p. 136/124 of Guards! Guards! .

- [p. 296/238] "A seven foot warrior smiled at him."

In 1974, thousands of terracotta warriors (no two faces alike!) were discovered around the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi at Mount Li, in the Shaanxi Province. Huangdi was the first emperor of a unified China (221-207 BC), famed for being harsh, autocratic, and intolerant of criticism.

- [p. 303/243] "'Orrrrr! Itiyorshu! Yutimishu!'"

Terry writes:

"During WWII Hollywood obviously made a lot of gung-ho war movies. But... who could play the Japanese? The Japanese in the US were banged up in holiday camps in Death Valley or someplace. So the producers roped in anyone who 'looked Japanese' -- mainly Koreans, the story runs. The actors didn't really have lines since their job was, basically, to be shot by John Wayne. In order to give them something 'Japanese sounding' to say, some genius suggested they shout, very fast, "I tie your shoe, you tie my shoe"...

I've never dared check by watching the actual movies..."

- [p. 307/246] "It was a grainy picture, and it was in shades of green rather than proper colours, [...]"

Rincewind is wearing the Discworld equivalent of a Virtual Reality helmet.

- [p. 307/246] "[...] a row of little pictures lit up on the wide cuff. They showed soldiers. Soldiers digging, soldiers fighting, soldiers climbing..."

The icons for controlling the Red Clay Army are immediately familiar to anyone who has ever played the computer game Lemmings, in which you have to use similar controls to guide a group of brainlessly wandering lemmings across intricate and dangerous underground labyrinths.

When this was first remarked upon by readers in a.f.p, Terry wrote:

"What? Lemmings? Merely because the red army can fight, dig, march and climb and is controlled by little icons? Can't imagine how anyone thought that...

Not only did I wipe Lemmings from my hard disc, I overwrote it so's I couldn't get it back."

- [p. 329/264] "'Friendly stab', as it is formally known."

The Discworld version of our world's military euphemistic language, in which "friendly fire" stands for weaponry accidentally fired at own troops, "permanent pre-hostility" means 'peace', and "collateral damage" refers to civilians killed.

- [p. 350/281] "[...] a calendar for the year surmounted by a rather angular picture of a beagle, standing on its hind legs."

One of the classic computer programs that circulated in the seventies used ASCII characters to 'draw' a picture of Snoopy from Peanuts, followed by the year's calendar.

- [p. 351/282] "The old blokes say that sort of thing used to happen all the time, back in the Dream."

For an explanation of where exactly Rincewind has landed see the annotation for p. 149/132 of Reaper Man (just in case the significance of the word "kangaroo" escaped your attention).

The Dream is a reference to the Aboriginal Dreamtime religion.


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