My household has spent a lot of time escaping to Discworld lately. We started visiting during the beginning of the pandemic (I’d long heard good things). We’ve been returning on a regular basis ever since. And fortunately, the borders have stayed open! With only a small wait time occasionally spent in quarantine (waiting for the volumes we really wanted to read to become available).
The geography of Discworld is fuzzy, at best. The series is set upon an improbable disc, suffused with magic and carried around by four enormous elephants, who themselves tread upon the back of the massive space turtle A’Tuan. More importantly, there are all kinds of different places upon Discworld (the first book introduces many as it follows a tourist from the Counterweight Continent). But Terry Pratchett sets his most endearing stories in two places with a distinctly English flavour: the rustic village (and also tiny kingdom) of Lancre, and the vast and teeming, London-like metropolis of Ankh-Morpork.
Here I just want to touch upon the urbanism of Ankh-Morpork. I want to celebrate it, rather than bury it, so I’ll limit myself to a few quick sociological observations (and safely save the thesis-writing to others!) What’s special about Ankh-Morpork Urbanism?
First we can think about how it works. Making a buck is often cited as a chief imperative of the City and its many residents. But at the same time politics, particularly via the guild system, regulates nearly everything, including thefts and assassinations. In this, Ankh-Morpork is inherently complicated and fundamentally Polanyian in its conception, with regulation and markets growing up together. Indeed, character motivations are remarkably diverse, and often arise as distinct from one another in conjunction with emerging professions, setting in place new fields of practice (hello sociology of fields!) This is perhaps seen most clearly in The Truth, where we follow a journalist as his field develops around him. It’s probably no simple coincidence that Pratchett spent considerable time as a journalist prior to becoming a full-time novelist.
Second, and on a related note, we can think about how it’s governed. Though it once had a king, the City of Ankh-Morpork is governed by a Patrician, a sort of guild-elected executive administrator. Through most books, we get at least some sense of how the Patrician Havelock Vetinari – a former assassin, as with many politicians – rules by his attentiveness to information, managing a delicate balancing of powers while prodding along his particular conception of progress. Vetinari is far from beloved, including by the characters we follow most closely (especially Watch Captain and later Commander, Sam Vimes). Indeed, many plots to the novels follow various attempts to depose the Patrician. Though he’s never Pratchett’s main focus, it’s clear he sympathizes with his most successful politician, portraying him as a complicated and highly competent character, and reminding us, as in Men-at-Arms, that the very etymology of the word politician suggests a shaper of cities. By contrast with the Patrician’s attentive governance via balanced prodding and knowing negotiation, consideration of even the most decent potential King for Ankh-Morpork is made to appear wrong and degraded as a form of city governance, offering a sharp contrast with fantasy tropes valorizing the return of rightful rulers.
If cities should go without kings, and their symbolic importance to an “imagined community” of nationhood, they should instead celebrate the vitality of their growing diversity. Racists and nationalists hate where Ankh-Morpork is going, especially with regard to its increasing populations of dwarves, trolls, and various other non-human denizens. In later books, we also see how the City subverts nationalist demands within communities of migrants, replacing the enforcement of singular solidarities with diverse subcultural affiliations. So it is, for instance, that Ankh-Morpork divides its dwarves into distinct genders, encouraging multiple interests beyond gold, mining, and deep lore. The City of Ankh-Morpork adds diversity by embracing all kinds of migrants and also encourages new types of diversification through its growth. Where many early sociologists remained especially concerned about the resulting loss of community solidarity in cities, Pratchett seems to feel suspiciously aware, “that people who regularly used the word ‘community’ were using it in a very specific sense that excluded him and everyone he knew” (lines written for his much celebrated book Good Omens, co-authored with Neil Gaiman).
Speaking more to this third theme of Ankh-Morpork Urbanism, tolerance for growth and change and diversity is not, of course, the same as embrace. But it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, characters like Vimes, born and bred in Ankh-Morpork, are full of gripes about the how the City is changing, but also resist romanticizing how the City used to be. Vimes love for Ankh-Morpork is expressed through the cheap cardboard soles of his boots while he walks the streets (that the truest policeman is also a Flâneur remains an interesting theme in the books). But it’s a conflicted love, well aware of the City’s ugly sides and many injustices. So it is he can’t quite understand why everyone wants to come to Ankh-Morpork, as in his dialogue with the three sisters who temporarily assist him during adventures in nearby Uberwald and learn where he’s from (accents included).
sister: “You haf a magnificent opera house and many fine galleries”
sister: “Such vonderful avenues!”
sister: “A veritable heaven of culture and sophistication and unattached men of quality!”
Vimes, disbelieving: “Er… I said Ankh-Morpork, with an A and an M.”
sister: “Ve have always dreamed of going there.”The Fifth Element, p. 326
Vimes promises them tickets to come to Ankh-Morpork. Despite disparaging his City, and also occasionally bemoaning its changes, Vimes is sympathetic to newcomers, especially if they look like underdogs. He’s also generally ok with Ankh-Morpork’s growth and where the Patrician is taking it. Though he grumbles, he also agrees to Vetinari’s multicultural affirmative action policies, progressively adding dwarves, trolls, werewolves, zombies, and even vampires to the Watch.
For his part, Vetinari clearly views growth as good, and diversification as a strength, offering a path to innovation and wealth as well as a handy means of balancing local powers. So it is that Ankh-Morpork continues to grow over top of itself, responding and adapting to growth rather than frozen in place. If Fantasy cities generally look pretty NIMBY, favoring everything staying the same, Pratchett gleefully transforms his biggest City into Steampunk. And by virtue of its growth, Ankh-Morpork changes the world.
Holy Cow! All this talk of Pratchett and I haven’t even talked about my family’s generally agreed upon favourite corner of Discworld, which is to say wherever we find Granny Weatherwax! She’s the best! But that’s for some other post. Anyway, Pratchett’s wonderful to read for many reasons, and the urbanism is only an interesting small part of it. Highly recommended for an escape this holiday season. Speaking of which, I’m about to dive into the seasonally appropriate Hogfather. Happy Holidays!
POSTSCRIPT (Feb 3, 2022)
Haven’t finished them all yet, but just started SNUFF, and I’m already sad this is Pratchett’s (nearly) final book of Discworld! But returning to Ankh-Morpork Urbanism, I just have to transcribe this beautiful little paean to abandoned industrial lands in the City, here by way of introducing an unsavoury visitor in THIEF OF TIME:
There were lots of places like the warehouse. There always are, in every old city, no matter how valuable the building land is. Sometimes space just gets lost.
A workshop is built, and then another beside it. Factories and storerooms and sheds and temporary lean-tos crawl toward one another, meet, and merge. Spaces between outside walls are roofed with tar paper. Odd-shaped bits of ground are colonized by someone’s nailing up a bit of wall and cutting a doorway. Old doorways are masked by piles of lumber or new tool racks. The old men who knew what was where move on and die, just like the flies who punctuate the thick cobwebs on the grubby windows. Young men, in this noisome world of whirring lathes and paint shops and cluttered work-benches, don’t have time to explore.
And so there are spaces like this, a small warehouse with a crusted skylight that no fewer than four factory owners think is owned by one of the other three, when they think about it at all. In fact, each of them own one wall, and certainly no one now recalls who roofed the space. Beyond the walls on all four sides men and dwarfs bend iron, saw planks, make string, and turn screws. But in here is a silence known only to rats.Terry Pratchett’s THIEF OF TIME, pp. 184-185