Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

The Compleat Discworld Atlas is a lovely book. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thick, richly-illustrated pages describing each of the colourful countries and lands that make up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; one of those elastic loops to keep the book closed; an impressively detailed fold-out map, complete with lines of latitude and longitude (appropriately adjusted for a flat world), magic concentrations and temperature ranges. It’s very geeky. And, for a Discworld fan like me, it’s…fun.

But less fun than it should be. Because there’s a sense in which a book like this (which was, it seems, one of Pratchett’s last creations) misses the point of Discworld. Discworld was built out of a series of jokes. There are consistencies between the books, especially as the series goes on, but we always have the sense that Pratchett’s happy to bend the setting around the story he wants to tell. It’s not a place that was ever meant to be mapped. (I think there’s actually a joke to that effect in the preface to one of the books. It goes something like: “This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own.” Fourteen-year-old me loved that.)

That’s…not a problem per se. The problem is, I think, is that this particular book completely misses the sense of fun and parody and transgression that characterises Discworld as a body of work. (There are fun Discworld maps that exist! I’ve seen an Ankh-Morpork map drawn by Stephen Player which I particularly covet.) It takes itself too seriously, its mock-encyclopaedic objectivity unleavened by the wit and wordplay of the novels. (There are some puns. They are leaden and over-explained.)

And codifying Discworld in an atlas like this makes the novels’ Anglocentrism particularly overt and particularly problematic. Everyone knows that Ankh-Morpork is the heart of the Discworld. It is its vital, beating heart; it feels like a real city even in the early novels. It’s also pretty explicitly a London analogue. That’s sort of fine in the novels, because Pratchett was a British author, and the books’ humour is specifically British, and most of their main characters are recognisably British in some form or another (with a few exceptions): so it makes a certain amount of sense that this vast and teeming world should be filtered through a British point of view.* But the objectivity of an atlas means that equal weight is ostensibly placed on each country. Which makes it very obvious when many of those countries are made up of vaguely racist stereotypes. Seeing “wives” listed alongside “camels” as an export from an African-coded country of nomads was a particular kick in the teeth: a vicious form of sexism thrown off as a careless, racist joke.

There is a vague conceit that the atlas has been partially compiled by Rincewind, the cowardly wizard-hero of some of the earlier Discworld novels, who comes with his own bundle of (partly-unexamined) insecurities and prejudices. But this is mentioned once in the preface and then never again; the text has none of the colour that might otherwise serve to distance narrator from author. (See, by way of contrast, the Discworld companion book Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, which is a delight throughout, sprinkled with quintessentially Ogg-ish gems like “If you go to other people’s funerals, they’ll be sure to come to yours.”)

I don’t want to say “this is a terrible book”. Pratchett gets a lot of leeway from me, in part because it’s impossible for me to have any kind of critical distance from his novels. But this doesn’t feel like Discworld, this overly fannish work of codification and reification. (It’s perhaps telling that the Discworld Emporium, the company licensed with selling Discworld merchandise, is listed as one of the copyright holders.) Or, rather, it feels like the worst of Discworld. The map itself may turn out to be a lovely reading companion; but I can’t imagine ever really going back to the gazetteer. Which is a shame, given how expensive the whole package actually is.

*Even so, I think Interesting Times and Pyramids might make me uncomfortable if I read them for the first time now.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

  1. I agree on a lot of your points. I’ve just read the book cover to cover, and overall it’s a little dry. Lacks a lot of the humour of the books, and the few bits it does add tend to be bad puns or references (particularly didn’t think much of ‘Rugs R Us’). I got the feeling that the Discworld Emporium had a lot more to do with the writing of the text than Sir Terry did.

    Some of the content does also come across as a little problematic for sure. I feel like the book would have benefitted from -rather than being an encyclopaedia- being written more as a journal of an explorer sent out by Unseen University to chronicle all of these countries and interact with the locals. That way, not only do you have a more characterful read, some of the problematic stereotypes can be more easily attributed to a narrator.

    A good editor to get rid of the weird inconsistencies would definitely also help; for example there are references to Buddhists, Amazonian Princesses, and a weird bit where they construct this parody of pizza for the Italian Country (Piazzas) and then reuse a joke from the novels later on referencing real pizzas. Might seem nitpicky, but on a book whose main purpose is to codify the lore of the novels, having internal inconsistencies is pretty fumbling.

    That said, the map itself is great, the artwork is all fantastic, and as a companion piece to the series it ends up being fairly effective.

    Like

    1. I agree, this would have been great framed as an explorer’s journal, especially since Discworld explorers are already coded as problematic and colonialist in the novels. That would have made for a much more interesting (and fun) text, I think. As it is, you’re right, it’s in this weird space between “codifying Discworld lore” and “making bad puns” and so it’s neither very funny or very satisfying from a fannish point of view.

      It *is* a lovely art object though.

      Like

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