The Last Continent
Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

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The Last Continent



time travel

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The Last Continent

Copyright © Terry and Lyn Pratchett 1998

People don’t live on the Disc any more than, in less hand-crafted parts of the multiverse, they live on balls. Oh, planets may be the place where their body eats its tea, but they live elsewhere, in worlds of their own which orbit very handily around the centre of their heads.

When gods get together they tell the story of one particular planet whose inhabitants watched, with mild interest, huge continent-wrecking slabs of ice slap into another world which was, in astronomical terms, right next door – and then did nothing about it because that sort of thing only happens in Outer Space. An intelligent species would at least have found someone to complain to. Anyway, no one seriously believes in that story, because a race quite that stupid would never even have discovered slood.*

* Much easier to discover than fire, and only slightly harder to discover than water.



All tribal myths are true, for a given value of ‘true’.



We might find out why mankind is here, although that is more complicated and begs the question ‘Where else should we be?’ It would be terrible to think that some impatient deity might part the clouds and say, ‘Damn, are you lot still here? I thought you discovered slood ten thousand years ago! I’ve got ten trillion tons of ice arriving on Monday!’

We may even find out why the duck-billed platypus.

You couldn’t stop Tradition. You could only add to it.



‘I don’t think I’m related to any apes,’ said the Senior Wrangler thoughtfully. ‘I mean, I’d know, wouldn’t I? I’d get invited to their weddings and so on. My parents would have said something like, “Don’t worry about Uncle Charlie, he’s supposed to smell like that,” wouldn’t they?’



‘He tried to take his temperature but I’m afraid the Librarian bit him.’

‘He bit him? With a thermometer in his mouth?’

‘Ah. Not exactly. There, in fact, you have rather discovered the reason for his biting.’



‘Grubs! That’s what we’re going to eat! That’s why they call it grub! And what’re we doing to get the grub? Why we’re grubbing for it! Hooray!” [...]

They say the heat and the flies here can drive a man insane. But you don’t have to believe that, and nor does that bright mauve elephant that just cycled past.



Wasn’t it a basic principle never to let your employer know what it is you actually do all day?




Unfortunately, like many people who are instinctively bad at something, the Archchancellor prided himself on how good at it he was. Ridcully was to management what King Herod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association.

His mental approach to it could be visualized as a sort of business flowchart with, at the top, a circle entitled ‘Me, who does the telling’ and connected below it by a line, a large circle entitled ‘Everyone else’.

Until now this had worked quite well, because, although Ridcully was an impossible manager, the University was impossible to manage and so everything worked seamlessly.

And it would have continued to do so if he hadn’t suddenly started to see the point in preparing career development packages and, worst of all, job descriptions.

As the Lecturer in Recent Runes put it: ‘He called me in and asked me what I did, exactly. Have you ever heard of such a thing? What sort of question is that? This is a university!’

‘Pro-active, I think. It’s a word he’s using a lot.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘Well . . . in favour of activity, I suppose.’

‘Really? Dangerous. In my experience, inactivity sees you through.’

Whoever had designed the skeletons of creatures had even less imagination than whoever had done the outsides. At least the outside-designer had tried a few novelties in the spots, wool and stripes department, but the bone-builder had generally just put a skull on a ribcage, shoved a pelvis in further along, stuck on some arms and legs and had the rest of the day off. Some ribcages were longer, some legs were shorter, some hands became wings, but they all seemed to be based on one design, one size stretched or shrunk to fit all.

Not to his very great surprise, Ponder seemed to be the only one around who found this at all interesting. He’d point out to people that fish were amazingly fish-shaped, and they’d look at him as if he’d gone mad.

Palaeontology and archaeology and other skulduggery were not subjects that interested wizards. Things are buried for a reason, they considered. [...] Don’t go digging things up in case they won’t let you bury them again.

The most coherent theory was one he recalled from his nurse when he was small. Monkeys, she’d averred, were bad little boys who hadn’t come in when called, and seals were bad little boys who’d lazed around on the beach instead of attending to their lessons. She hadn’t said that birds were bad little boys who’d gone too close to the cliff edge, and in any case jellyfish would be more likely, but Ponder couldn’t help thinking that, harmlessly insane though the woman had been, she might have had just the glimmerings of a point . . .



But even ordinary books are dangerous, and not only the ones like Make Gelignite the Professional Way. A man sits in some museum somewhere and writes a harmless book about political economy and suddenly thousands of people who haven’t even read it are dying because the ones who did haven’t got the joke. Knowledge is dangerous, which is why governments often clamp down on people who can think thoughts above a certain calibre.


Books (general)

Logic is a wonderful thing but doesn’t always beat actual thought.



‘But when you’ve been a wizard as long as I have, my boy, you’ll learn that as soon as you find anything that offers amazing possibilities for the improvement of the human condition it’s best to put the lid back on and pretend it never happened.’



‘He’s not even heroic. He’s just in the right place at the right time.’

The old man indicated that this was maybe the definition of a hero.



Creators aren’t gods. They make places, which is quite hard. It’s men that make gods. This explains a lot.



In fact she moved with more than dignity, which is something that is given away free with kings and bishops; what she had was respectability, which is home-made out of cast iron.



He hated weapons, and not just because they’d so often been aimed at him. You got into more trouble if you had a weapon. People shot you instantly if they thought you were going to shoot them. But if you were unarmed, they often stopped to talk. Admittedly, they tended to say things like, ‘You’ll never guess what we’re going to do to you, pal,’ but that took time. And Rincewind could do a lot with a few seconds. He could use them to live longer in.



He wasn’t any good at magic, that he knew. The only curses of his that stood a chance of working were on the lines of ‘May you get rained on at some time in your life,’ and ‘May you lose some small item despite the fact that you put it there only a moment ago.’



These things always sounded fine when he worked them out in his head. He’d read some of the old books, and sit and think for ages, and a little theory would put itself together in his head in a row of little shiny blocks, and then when he let it out it’d run straight into the Faculty and one of them, one of them, would always ask some bloody stupid question which he couldn’t quite answer at the moment. How could you ever make any progress against minds like that? If some god somewhere had said, ‘Let there be light,’ they’d be the ones to say things like ‘Why? The darkness has always been good enough for us.’

They never bothered to learn anything, they never bothered to remember anything apart from how much better things used to be, they bickered like a lot of children and the only one who ever said anything sensible said it in orang-utan.

Discworld constellations changed frequently as the world moved through the void, which meant that astrology was cutting-edge research rather than, as elsewhere, a clever way of avoiding a proper job.



The god, almost alone among gods, thought questions were a good thing. He was in fact committed to people questioning assumptions, throwing aside old superstitions, breaking the shackles of irrational prejudice and, in short, exercising the brains their god had given them, except of course they hadn’t been given them by any god, lord knows, so what they really ought to do was exercise those brains developed over millennia in response to the external stimuli and the need to control those hands with their opposable thumbs, another damn good idea that he was very proud of. Or would have been, of course, if he existed.

However, there were limits. Freethinkers were fine people, but they shouldn’t go around thinking just anything.



You could see light all the way through it. Clear beer. Ankh-Morpork beer was technically ale, that is to say, gravy made from hops. It had texture. It had flavour, even if you didn’t always want to know what of. It had body. It had dregs. You could eat the last half-inch of it with a spoon.

This stuff was thin and sparkly and looked as though someone had already drunk it.



‘Haven’t you noticed that by running away you end up in more trouble?’

‘Yes, but you see, you can run away from that, too,’ said Rincewind. ‘That’s the beauty of the system. Dead is only for once, but running away is for ever.’

‘Ah, but it is said that a coward dies a thousand deaths, while a hero dies only one.’

‘Yes, but it’s the important one.’

‘I really couldn’t see the point of the whole business, to tell you the truth. Shouting, smiting, getting angry all the time . . . don’t think anyone was getting anything out of it, really. But the worst part . . . You know the worst part? The worst part was that if you actually stopped the smiting, people wandered off and worshipped someone else. Hard to believe, isn’t it? They’d say things like, “Things were a lot better when there was more smiting,” and, “If there was more smiting, it’d be a lot safer to walk the streets.” Especially since all that’d really happened was that some poor shepherd who just happened to be in the wrong place during a thunderstorm had caught a stray bolt. And then the priests would say, “Well, we all know about shepherds, don’t we, and now the gods are angry and we could do with a much bigger temple, thank you.” ’

‘Typical priestly behaviour,’ sniffed the Dean.

‘But they often believed it!’ the god almost wailed. ‘It was really so depressing. I think that before we made humanity, we broke the mould. There’d be a bad weather front, a few silly shepherds would happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and next thing you know it was standing room only on the sacrificial stones and you couldn’t see for the smoke. [...] I mean, I tried. God knows I tried, and since that’s me, I know what I’m talking about. “Thou Shalt Lie Down Flat in Thundery Weather,” I said. “Thou Shalt Site the Midden a Long Way from the Well,” I said. I even told them, “Thou Shalt Really Try to Get Along with One Another.” ’

‘Did it work?’

‘I can’t say for sure. Everyone was slaughtered by the followers of the god in the next valley who told them to kill everyone who didn’t believe in him.’



And they acted like savages.†

† Again, when people like Mrs Whitlow use this term they are not, for some inexplicable reason, trying to suggest that the subjects have a rich oral tradition, a complex system of tribal rights and a deep respect for the spirits of their ancestors. They are implying the kind of behaviour more generally associated, oddly enough, with people wearing a full suit of clothes, often with the same insignia.



He’d become a wizard because he’d thought that wizards knew how the universe worked, and Unseen University had turned out to be stifling.

Take that business with the tame lightning. It had demonstrably worked. He made the Bursar’s hair stand on end and sparks crackle out of his fingers, and that was by using only one cat and a couple of amber rods. His perfectly reasonable plan to use several thousand cats tied to a huge wheel that would rotate against hundreds of rods had been vetoed on the ridiculous grounds that it would be too noisy. His carefully woked out scheme to split the thaum, and thus provide endless supplies of cheap clean magic, had been quite unfairly sat upon because it was felt that it might make the place untidy. And that was even after he had presented figures to prove that the chances of the process completely destroying the entire world were no greater than being knocked down while crossing the street, and it wasn’t his fault he said this just before the six-cart pile-up outside the University.

‘I can’t help thinking, though, that we may have . . . tinkered with the past, Archchancellor,’ said the Senior Wrangler.

‘I don’t see how,’ said Ridcully. ‘After all, the past happened before we got here.’

‘Yes, but now we’re here, we’ve changed it.’

‘Then we changed it before.’

And that, they felt, pretty well summed it up. It is very easy to get ridiculously confused about the tenses of time travel, but most things can be resolved by a sufficiently large ego.


Time Travel

Spaghetti and custard, that’d been a good one. Deep-fried peas, that’d been another triumph. And then there’d been the time when it had seemed a really good idea to eat some flour and yeast and then drink some warm water, because he’d run out of bread and after all that was what the stomach saw, wasn’t it? The thing about late-night cookery was that it made sense at the time. It always had some logic behind it. It just wasn’t the kind of logic you’d use around midday.






At moments like this cowardice was an exact science. There were times that called for mindless, terror-filled panic, and times that called for measured, considered, thoughtful panic.

Historians have pointed out that it is in times of plenty that people feel like going to war. In times of famine, they’re simply trying to find enough to eat. When they’ve just enough to go round they tend to be polite. But when a banquet is spread before them, it’s time to argue over the place settings.*

* In fact it’s the view of the more thoughtful historians, particularly those who have spent time in the same bar as the theoretical physicists, that the entirety of human history can be considered as a sort of blooper reel.



There is such a thing as an edible, nay delicious, meat pie floater, its mushy peas of just the right consistency, its tomato sauce piquant in its cheekiness, its pie filling tending even towards named parts of the animal. There are platonic burgers made of beef instead of cow lips and hooves. There are fish ’n’ chips where the fish is more than just a white goo lurking at the bottom of a batter casing and you can’t use the chips to shave with. There are hot dog fillings which have more in common with meat than mere pinkness, whose lucky consumers don’t apply mustard because that would spoil the taste. It’s just that people can be trained to prefer the other sort, and seek it out. It’s as if Machiavelli had written a cookery book.



‘We’re wizards, young man. Using magic is what wizarding is all about.’

‘No, sir! Not using magic is what wizarding is all about!’



‘We put all our politicians in prison as soon as they’re elected. Don’t you?’


‘It saves time.’



Contrary to the usual procedures it bagan to grow lighter, although the proliferation of luminous fungi or iridescent crystals in deep caves where the torchlessly improvident hero needs to see is one of the most obvious intrusions of narrative causality into the physical universe.

He’d never been any good at art, and this is a distinction quite hard to achieve in many education systems.




The ability to ask questions like ‘Where am I and who is the “I” that is asking?’ is one of the things that distinguishes mankind from, say, cuttlefish.*

* Although of course it’s not the most obvious thing and there are, in fact, some beguiling similarities, particularly the tendency to try to hide behind a big cloud of ink in difficult situations.



‘He gave you a bloody good reference.’

‘Did he? What did he say?’

‘He said if I could get you to do any work for me I’d be lucky,’ said Bill.




text checked (see note T) Aug 2009

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