The L-Space Web: Analysis

The Realm of Turtles: Why We Read Novels in the Electronic Age, As Demonstrated by Pratchett's Reaper Man

Kevin Ma
University of Alberta

ClassEnglish 205-C1
InstructorBruce Stovell
Date SubmittedMarch 8, 2002
Citation FormatMLA

Great A'Tuin, the celestial turtle that bears four elephants and the Discworld on its back, long ago swam into the electronic waters of television, computers, and the Internet, yet time and time again it returns to its birthplace: the novel. And every time it does, it still finds legions of readers waiting in eager anticipation of Terry Pratchett's next addition to the Discworld series. The question, of course, is why? Why bother with ink and paper when these and other fantastic tales await us on radio, film, television, and computer? Why read when we can see, hear, and (virtually) interact with worlds of fiction? In his essay, "Turtles All the Way", Pratchett says "we seem to have a turtle-shaped hole in our consciousness" (7). In other words, we have a need for fantasy, to escape our everyday world and travel to another for a time, a world where we are not limited by our five senses. The mediums of the electronic age can get us only partway there, for they only use our senses (primarily sight and sound). Novels, like Pratchett's Reaper Man (the heart-warming tale of Death's retirement and the resulting alien invasion), do not merely use our senses; they multiply them, and raise us into the realm of creative, selective, and fantastic sensation -- into the realm of turtles.

Creative sensation can be defined as the process where we imagine (create) a personalised sensory impression after a prompt from the writer. In a movie, if a turtle crawls on a beach, we see a turtle crawling; in a novel, if we read "a turtle crawls on a beach", what we really see are words on a page, but we visualise what the words describe and see a turtle crawl in our mind. We create an unreal world where we can personalise what we sense; we decide what the turtle looks like, how fast he or she crawls, and the type of sand on the beach.

Creative sense allows novels to describe objects via synecdoche; the novel presents one aspect of an object and ends up describing all of it, as our creative sense fills in the missing details (Lodge 68). When Sergeant Colon of the Ankh-Morpork City Guard enters Reaper Man, Pratchett describes him guarding a major bridge "[f]rom theft", a task that coincidentally keeps him away from any dangerous crimes (in other words, he's a lazy cop) (Pratchett, Reaper 40). With this description as a starting point, our creative sense constructs Colon from our past experiences. Each of us ends up with our own version of Colon; to one person he may look and act like an old relative, to another Sean Connery. This personalisation enriches the character with copious detail from our own past, giving him a psychological complexity no film or digital version could easily match (Lodge 67). Creative sense has a similar effect on setting. When Windle Poons, a newly undead wizard at the Unseen University, walks into Ankh-Morpork's red-light district, The Shades, Pratchett provides a detailed description of it:

The streets were thronged. Muffled figures slunk past on errands of their own. Strange music wound up from sunken stairwells. So did sharp and exciting smells. [...] Windle Poons wandered through the crowds like a random shot on a pinball table. Here a blast of smoky sound from a bar spun him back into the street, there a discreet doorway promising unusual and forbidden delights attracted him like a magnet.
(Pratchett, Reaper 47-48)

Pratchett's words give The Shades a strong sense of place; it feels like a real and unique location (Lodge 56-60). Novels create more comprehensive environments than visual media do because they employ all five senses (let us not only see and hear but touch, taste, and smell) plus the creative sense. The Shade's "sharp and exciting smells" could not easily be expressed via film or computer, nor could the taste of the air or the feel of the cobblestones (had Pratchett chosen to describe them). Via our creative sense, we construct The Shades to fit our personal ideas of what this hive of scum and villainy should be like; those "forbidden delights" fit our ideas of sin, those "muffled figures" fit our ideas of shady, immoral persons. We might not believe a director's or set designer's vision of The Shades, but we will always find the vision we create for ourselves to be realistic. Through creative sensation, novels can create unique and believable places and people.

Also visible in the above quote is selective sense, the process where we do not perceive sensory impressions until the writer invokes them. If a turtle swims in a computer game and a monster eats it, we are immediately aware of the turtle, its action, and its fate; if we read "a turtle swam, then a monster ate it" we do not know of the turtle, its swimming, or its fate until we read "turtle", "swimming", and "ate".

Selective sense has great implications for comic novels, as it enhances and creates funny situations. Comedy depends on timing, on the pace and order in which the audience receives information (Lodge 110). Selective sense gives writers very fine control over timing, and Pratchett exploits this in nearly all his comedic scenes. Take this scene, where Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of the Unseen University, attempts to exorcise Windle Poons with a religious artefact:

"Right, fiend in human shape," he growled, "what d'you think of this, then? Ah­-ha!" Windle squinted at the object that was thrust triumphantly under his nose. "Well, er..." he said diffidently, "I'd say...yes...hmm...yes, the smell is very distinctive, isn't it...yes, quite definitely. Allium sativum. The common domestic garlic. Yes?"
(Pratchett, Reaper 49-50)

Here the humour depends on us not knowing what fantastically powerful talisman Ridcully has employed for as long as possible. Because "the object" plays such a central role in this scene, we are anxious to learn what it is, and quickly grow infuriated with Windle's slow, careful examination of it. That "the object" turns out to be "common domestic garlic" makes all our anxiety and Ridcully's energetic "Ah-ha!" patently ridiculous. Selective sensation produces this anticlimax, as we are unaware of the garlic until Pratchett points it out to us. If we knew what "the object" was as soon as it appeared, it would eliminate our anxiety and ruin the joke's timing. This scene could be reproduced on film with restrictive camera angles, but the sense of anxiety and anticlimax would be less; we get more anxious over not being able to identify something right in front of our (read: Windle's) noses than we do over something we can't actually see. Selective sense can combine with creative sense to create unique comedic moments, such as the self-induced surprise. A convincing surprise requires the author to provide the reader with enough information to make the revelation convincing when it comes, but not so much as to make it too obvious (Lodge 72). Writers like Pratchett will often surprise their readers by manipulating their creative sense via the selective sense. At one point in the novel, Windle appears to fall flat on his face as the text reads, "And then the cobblestones came up to meet him" (Pratchett, Reaper 116). But as Pratchett clarifies in the next paragraph, this doesn't happen: the cobblestones really do float up to meet Windle. Our creative sense imagines Windle's collapse, but then our selective sense steps in and directs our attention to the fact the cobblestones are floating. We do a double-take, re-imagine the scene and get a self-induced surprise: Pratchett tells us exactly what happens, and we surprise ourselves with our own creative sense. This scene's humour comes from the self-induced surprise, a phenomenon unique to the novel; in a film or television environment, this scene would be unusual, but not funny. With this unique technique and the ability to perfectly time jokes, novels offer innumerable ways to entertain their readers.

Levitating cobblestones invoke the fantastic sense, the process in which we imagine sensory impressions of an awesome nature, impressions our senses cannot comprehend. If we see a turtle zip across a beach at light speed in a movie, we see a fast turtle; if we read "a turtle zips across the beach at light speed," we imagine a light-speed turtle. Light-speed turtles are elements of fantasy, of the fantastic.[1] All fantastic phenomenon are not normally sensible, either because they do not exist in the real world or because they have traits so unusual or grandiose our senses cannot take them in. Only the mind can sense the fantastic, for only in the mind can the unreal, the ideal, exist.

Through the fantastic sense, novels can portray characters and scenes to astonish us in ways no other medium ever could. Death, the hero of Reaper Man, hints at the reason why when he says, "JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS A METAPHOR DOESN'T MEAN IT CAN'T BE REAL" (Pratchett 194). In our imaginations, metaphors become real. Pratchett builds his Discworld around this principle, as evident in the character of Death. As a cloaked scythe-wielding seven-foot tall skeleton with a permanent grin on his face, he cuts an impressive figure. In the real world, Death could not exist. Our fantastic sense lets us see him, not an actor, not a special effect, but Death himself, while our creative sense lets us give him a voice perfect for someone who TALKS LIKE THIS. Death's encounter with Azrael makes extensive use of the fantastic sense to create a truly awe-inspiring scene. Death comes to Azrael, the Death of Universes, to plead for the life of his love, Renata. Death kneels on a plain, and in the ultimate pullback sequence we see that "the furrowed landscape falls away into immense distances, curves at the edges, [and] becomes a fingertip," Azrael's. Azrael lifts him up "to a face that [fills] the sky," lit not by any old light, but "the faint glow of dying galaxies", with eyes not merely huge but "so big that a supernova would be a mere suggestion of a gleam on the iris" (Pratchett, Reaper 263-264). Death pleads his case, and Azrael thinks:

In the time it took to answer, several galaxies unfolded, whirled around Azrael like paper streamers, impacted, and were gone.

Then Azrael said:
(Pratchett, Reaper 265)

The letters used to describe Azrael's voice tower over the rest of the text and barely fit on the page. When our fantastic sense imagines his voice, we are held in awe. The voice is louder than any other sound in the book, so loud it is almost beyond the novel's ability to portray it, nearly bursting the confines of the page.[2] A movie screen could show Azrael to be large and his voice loud, but not so large "his length would be measured only in terms of the speed of light," and not so loud the speakers could barely reproduce his voice (Pratchett, Reaper 7). But though metaphor and the fantastic sense, the novel can portray Azrael (and a thousand other fantasies) in all his glory.

A handful of pages after this scene we come to those fateful words, "The End", the novel comes to a close, and we leave the realm of Azrael and Great A'Tuin behind. There are many ways for us to experience Pratchett's Discworld, including radio, video, and computer, but we choose the novel. All the former mediums can delight our eyes and excite our ears, but only the novel can stimulate all five of our senses and give us three more. An army of set designers and costumers could construct and populate a version of Ankh-Morpork, but would we find it realistic? With the creative sense we can draw upon our own knowledge to personalise places and people so they are real to us. A trained comedian can make us laugh, but he or she needs the novel and the selective sense to pull jokes with perfect timing and make us fool ourselves. A multibillion-dollar special effects budget can produce some impressive sights, but only the novel and the fantastic sense can portray the utterly impossible. Novels fill that turtle-shaped hole in our consciousness, that need for fantasy, better than any other medium. They can raise us up to the place where turtles swim the stars, and as long as we want to go there, we will continue to read them.


[1] : structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov would call such phenomenon marvellous, while David Lodge would call them uncanny (Lodge 212). The word "fantastic" has been chosen for artistic reasons.

[2] : In the Corgi edition the period runs off the edge of the page. In theory, this could mean Azrael's voice has such power the page itself cannot contain it. However, this appears to be an unintentional printing error. In the hardcover edition, the "YES" appears on a left-facing page to further surprise readers (Breebaart and Kew,, annotation for p.265/232)

Works Cited

Breebaart, Leo and Mike Kew, eds. "Reaper Man." The Annotated Pratchett File. 14 November 2001: ch. 4, 27 February 2002 <>.

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books Ltd 1992.

Pratchett, Terry. "Turtles All the Way." The Discworld Companion. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs. 1997 Vista edition. London, UK: Victor Gollancz Ltd 1994.

--- Reaper Man. 1998 Corgi edition. London, UK: Victor Gollancz Ltd 1991.

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