Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

1. What happens
2. Why I want to write about it
3. My credentials


1. What happens:

The Auditors from outside our dimensions audit the Discworld universe. It’s what they do. Ever since humans appeared, things have become much more complicated. The Auditors resent that, but they cannot interfere too much. They find a loophole in the cosmic laws and trick a clockmaker on Discworld into making a Perfect Clock, which measures the tick of the universe. In this universe at least, there is a basic time unit, which is the time for the the briefest possible thing to happen. A clock that measured this tick of the universe could not be part of the universe, but would have to be partly outside – which would mean the end of time, the universe would stop, everything would be frozen still. Happy news for the Auditors: it makes counting and measuring everything so much easier.

A handful of people find out about the Auditor’s plan and try to stop them and their hapless clockmaker. They include:
Miss Susan, a schoolteacher of the old school, and granddaughter of Death
Death himself – who is trying to bring the band together again: himself, War, Famine, Pestilence. They’re all a bit reluctant, having got on with their lives, but for the showdown they all appear: Even the final Fifth Horseman, who left the band for reasons of artisitic differences before they became famous.
Lu-Tze, a history monk from a sort of Discworld Shangri-La. The history monks look after time, collect it and redistribute it. That explains the common feeling of „Wow, is it Tuesday already“. They collect time from schoolrooms and meetings, and if necessary from prehistoric times. Lu-Tze is a common sweeper in the monastery, but the most uncommon monk there. „Is it not written,“ he often begins, but noboy can say for sure, because what he is quoting from is The Way of Mrs Cosmopilite – whose pearls of wisdom include „it won’t get better if you pick at it“. He promotes knowledge of Rule One: „Do not act incautiously when confronting a little bald wrinkly smiling man.“ His hobby is bonsai mountains (complete with glaciers).
Lobsang is his apprentice, and has a very special relationship with Time. He is forbidden to call his master „Master“, who in turn promises never to call him by the name of any insect. People who remember David Carradine in Kung Fu know the setup.

2. Why I want to write about it:

I have been entertained by all Pratchett books so far, if only for a fun read and one or two brilliant ideas per book (stunt linguists pronouncing difficult names, bonsai mountains). This book, I really, really liked. I think this is because it is a science fiction story set in a fantasy world. Bear with me.

One thing is, the story is full of scientific and philosophical concepts. I associate this much more with science fiction than with any other kind of fiction.

There is the question of whether there is a basic time unit, a time quantum. In the book, Time moves like this. From tick to tick, the universe is completely destroyed and completely rebuilt by Time. Consequentially, the philosopher Wen, with whom the book begins and who is said to have understood time, is called the Eternally Surprised. Every morning, every moment, he is continually surprised by trees, sun, people, because he is aware of seeing them for the first time. Much to the annoyance of his disciples, by the way.
When the clock (responsible for the halt of the universe) is destroyed, the hero has to remember everything (but everything), because he then has to rebuild everything to start history again (p. 317). Some feat, eh? I’ll get back to supermen later on.

Early in the book, Lobsang, the thief of time, plummets to his death. Before he hits the ground, time stops, and one of the history monks offers to take him to their monastery. They manage to break his fall by transferring his kinetic energy to a nearby cart, which jumps up into the air as Lobsang falls his final metre (p 58).

The history monks store time in prayer-wheel-like cylinders of varying size. At the beginning and at the end of the book, something is wrong with the complex machinery; there is an accident, but the heroes manage to stop and realign the machine before things come to a nasty end. That’s traditional science fiction fare!
The monks themselves remind me of Arthur C. Clarkes „The Nine Billion Names of God“. It features monks in Tibet or such, who recite all the names of God, that is, all permutations of a number of possible letters in a particular alphabet. Once they have finished this, the world ends. It would have taken them eons, had they not taken advantage of modern science in the form of computers. The story is narrated from the viewpoint of an American computer expert/salesman who helps the monks with the new machinery. Of course, he thinks the monks are wasting their time.
All of these owe much to the Tower of Hanoi puzzle by Edouard Lucas. (Three stacks, two empty, one full of concentric disks, smaller disks can only be placed above larger ones or on an empty stack.) The fictious story that goes with the puzzle is that once the monks in Hanoi manage to transfer all disks from one stack to the other stack, the world comes to an end.

The time-storing devices in Thief of Time are called Procrastinators. Lu-tze and Lobsang carry two experimental portable Procrastinators which allow them to continue moving for a while even when time around them has stopped – like diving, or indeed, space suits.
The monks are able to move fasther through time anyway. The faster they go, the harder it gets. But once they go really fast, they can reach Zimmerman’s valley (p. 219). (Some my remember how I love these names. It’s a local minimum, where they have to expend less energy to keep moving.

One character carries a sword, infinitely long (just like the coast of England) (p. 315), the Doppler effect plays a role (p. 319). But this is my favourite: The Auditors don’t like messy humans. People devise tests to measure the proximity of Auditors by using the „fear and hated that matter has for life“ (p. 313). It appears to be the case that the „local hostility of things toward nonthings always increases when there’s an Auditor about“ (p. 241). One such test is a machine that measures how often a slice of bread will fall on the buttered side (p. 4-6). Another test is the „hosepipe test“ (p. 241): throw a length of rubber hosepipe into a corner, and when you pick it up and it is „knotted and tangled like rubber spaghetti“, you know that Auditors are near.

At first, Auditors are a bit like the Grey Gentlemen of Michael Ende’s Momo. Featureless. Un-human. Grey. Fond of hierarchies and orders. Signs like this (p. 268) are way to confuse them:


In order to appear on Discworld, they take human form. But they find they cannot take human form without becoming more human than they care for: „She was being harassed by her internal organs“, it says. They find that bodies have a mind of their own. They act refexively, instinctively. They develop individuality. „It is essential for humans to use the personal pronoun. It divides the universe into two parts. The darkness behind the eyes, where the little voice is, and everything else. It is…a horrible feeling. It is like…being questioned all the time.“ The taste explosion after eating a chocolate kills them. (Reminds one of the killer music from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Mars Attacks!, doesn’t it?)

Most important, the story just feels like Space Opera. I’m thinking Weapon Shops of Isher or World of Null-A. We have the youthful hero out against other-dimensional malign forces, we have the youthful hero turn out to be all-powerful superman; we have people see-sawing through time, alternate realities, doppelgangers; we have beings from an alien dimension invading earth; we have a ground team dealing with an extradimensional device (the clock) while overhead space ships… make that: Horsemen of the Apocalypse do battle.

The one difference is vital: humour. Neither book nor heroes take themselves too seriously. The book is full of fun ideas: the Fifth Horseman, who left for reasons of artistic differences, whose identity is kept secret for some time. (The final clue is a masterpiece of lateral thinking for the analytically-minded reader.) The monks‘ abbot is being reincarnated, he now is a baby, asking for „bikkit! bikkit now!“ between giving sage advice.

3. My credentials:

I used to read a lot of science fiction as a teenager; it was a good time. Many of the books I read back then I couldn’t read now, but a few of them have held up surprisingly well. I’m still fond of all and rememember many of them.
I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Even when I don’t feel like reading, for lack on concentration, boredom, self-pity or a particularly foul mood, a new Terry Pratchett book always does the trick. (The only other writer that seems to be able to do that is Kurt Vonnegut, for completely different reasons.)

The history monks reappear in Night Watch. I haven’t read the book yet, but it is reviewed here, where the idea behind the history monks is heavily criticized, possibly justly so.

All quotations from: Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time, New York: Harpertorch 2001.

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One thought to “Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time”

  1. Thanks for twenty minutes of delightful reading! Enjoyed pickings from „Rau’s Staff Room“ very much.
    Have I mentioned Jasper Fforde to you in one of my mails? I’m almost sure you’ve read his „Thursday“ series. In case you haven’t, I heavily recommend it. For details, see http://www.jasperfforde.com/
    „The Eyre Affair“ is the one to start with (http://tinyurl.com/3aod9)

    Schöne Grüße
    Peter Ringeisen.

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