WHEN I’M NOT WRITING FOR THIS BLOG or thinking about a world that rests on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space, I research the ways that infrastructure and environmental systems are visualized. What stories do photographs or maps tell of the spreading city, the engineered river, the untouched wilderness? What stories are not told, or left on the margins? What are the forgotten histories behind our visual imagination?
Recently, I stumbled upon Charles D. F. Board’s brief but excellent visual history of Ankh-Morpork’s growth, which made my interest in mapping environments sit down and have a cup of tea with my interest in Pratchett’s Discworld. In his article, Board depicts the great city’s passage from mere river crossing to booming mercantile center. Discworld has long been a haven for illustrators and imaginators, and Board’s representation of the city extends an already rich literary source.
Looking at Board’s work, I began to think about how Ankh-Morpork is portrayed in this week’s book, Sourcery. To be honest, I don’t know how well Sourcery works, for reasons Anne and I will discuss in our podcast next week. In short, when everything about the world can be changed at a whim, it’s akin to doors being shut and barred between me and the book. If Ankh-Morpork can be converted to a city of marble and light at the drop of a wizard’s hat, can it not be reset just as easily? What kind of stakes matter in that kind of universe?
Rather than complain about the changeability of Ankh-Morpork, or spiral into an existential crisis, I want to consider what the amorphous Ankh-Morpork of Sourcery represents to the story thus far. I would suggest that the fluidity and impermanence of the Disc is at this points its signature, but Board’s work emphasizes a counter-narrative, which emerges even as early as Sourcery.
At this point, what do we know about the great twinned cities along the Ankh? There is a pub and a palace. There is a university and a market square named after a stone bearing a Latin palindrome. We know that people live there, and thieve there, and that under-clothed heroes arrive there with person-sized swords in tow.
Ankh-Morpork is, at the first blush of slow sunlight over the Hub, the crossroads that we have come to expect from a fantasy universe. No matter how many times it burns down or gets magically altered, the city always reverts to what it was. Ready to greet the next hero, good old familiar Ankh-Morpork.
But Ankh-Morpork is also a place where insurance policies are catching on like a house on fire. There are now tourists. The tourists have cameras. Ankh-Morpork is increasingly two cities in one: the stolidly unchanging city of the heroic age and the city of the industrial age, constantly in motion. Ankh-Morpork, to me, represents the two levels of storytelling that Pratchett undertakes across the series: episodic fantasy and serial human drama.
Which is a funny and cool thing to me, because magical worlds doesn’t always get along well with industrial ones. In our podcast for Sourcery, I raise the question, “Is Discworld a fallen world?” So many fantasy worlds after Tolkien are. So it’s interesting that somehow the power-hungry wizards of Sourcery not only do not fade away as industry grows, but learn to coexist with it, and even to embrace it. The two worlds join. And that, I think, is unusual in a genre so fiercely shaped by Tolkien’s story of dwindling elves and rising mortals.
Sourcery feels like an ungainly first movement in the story of transition between magical and mundane, and the city on the Ankh its central visualization. The shuffle and bustle of new things and old, the clinking and sparking and jostling of people and magic and iron, that slow filling up of the world: that is Ankh-Morpork.