“If I didn’t use computers, would you ask me about my pens?” is Terry Pratchett’s testy response to the obvious gadget question about his writing tools.
And the answer, frankly Terry, is Yes.
Eventually, Pratchett succumbs. Perhaps it’s the Italian food we’re eating. Perhaps it’s the chemicals in the Johannesburg air. It’s certainly not the fact that this interviewer has been introduced to him as “a fan”.
He dreads being asked questions by fans who remember obscure punch lines long after he has retired them from his best-selling Discworld series of satirical fantasy novels. Or questions about his computers.
But persevere, and he begins to wax lyrical.
“If I still used a typewriter, it would be an old Imperial 58. That’s the one I had most fun with. After that I got an electric typewriter, but typing a page was so final. You felt you had control of the Imperial 58; it was purely manual.”
“When computers became available I began using a computer immediately. My first computer was a ZX-81, but I did word processing on it only for fun. The first computer I used for writing was an Amstrad 464. It was really a games machine with a tape drive built in, so my first word processor was on a cassette.”
Pratchett then “graduated” to the personal computer:
“In the last 10 years I got through six PCs, six portables and a couple of handhelds. Which is less odd than it sounds, since the real life of early machines was very short – from the XT to the AT and then pretty soon the 386, which let one use Windows with one window open. No one would expect an author of my input to use a PC bought 10 years ago.”
“I always had a policy of having two machines to work on and at the moment it is a low end and a high end Pentium. If one blows up, I want a maximum of 10 minutes before I am working on the other machine.”
Pratchett likes his computing as portable as possible, but is not wildly impressed with Windows CE. “It looks nice,” he says, “but it just doesn’t have the capacity.”
Instead, he uses a Toshiba Libretto when travelling.
“The nice thing about the Libretto is that I am writing a novel on it, I have all my other novels on it and my letters are on it, so if I need to check on something, I’ve got it there. With CE you can’t have that. And the Libretto is not much heavier than a high-end CE. I’ve also got a Palm Pilot with me. It’s fun and quite useful.”
A little more useful, indeed, than Hex, the hilarious, elaborate computer housed at the Unseen University in the Discworld series. Although Pratchett might disagree…
Pratchett’s gadget put a Hex on his work
Hex is a computer like no other the world has ever seen. Or rather, that the Discworld has ever seen. For it is the one and only computer on the bizarre world created by Terry Pratchett, Britain’s best-selling author and the world’s favourite fantasy writer.
In the Discworld series, Hex evolves under the watchful eyes of apprentice wizard Ponder Stibbons, who by default becomes what we might think of as the IT manager at the Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork.
As Pratchett puts it in his Christmas send-up, Hogfather, “Hex worried Ponder Stibbons. He didn’t know how it worked, but everyone else assumed that he did.”
Sounds like most IT managers we know, doesn’t it? But this is different: Hex is activated by “initialising the GBL”, which Stibbons reluctantly admits stands for “pulling the Great Big Lever”. This releases millions of ants into a network of glass tubing, hence the sticker on Hex that reads “Anthill inside”. And it is all powered by a waterwheel covered with sheep skulls. That is, male sheep. In other words, RAM.
“Hex is a lot brighter than most computers,” says Pratchett, discussing the properties of this very insane machine in the very sane light of a Johannesburg afternoon.
In The Last Continent (his new book, set in Australia), Stibbons says that after he has been working with HEX for a long time, it is easier to talk to senior wizards, because he has to break every idea into small bits and mustn’t leave any room for ambiguity.
“It always amazes me that people who spend a great deal of time programming computers don’t spend time programming their fellow human beings.”
The inspiration for Hex, which evolves through seemingly unexplainable upgrades like extra cheese, a CWL (clothes wringer from the laundry) and “small religious pictures” (that is. “icons”), came from Pratchett’s own early experiments with unfathomable upgrades.
“I started off with a ZX-81 which I put together myself. It was very easy to add things to it. By the time I was finished with it, it had a speech card, a sound card, and eight or nine sensors: a barometer, solar sensor, temperature sensor and various light sensors.
“I invented Paged RAM; effectively, I gave ZX-81 lots and lots of memory, but it could only access a certain amount of it at one time. It was important that information was at specific memory locations and stayed there. I had lots and lots of 2kb memory chips. One program would dump all kinds of sub-routines on all these RAM chips, and the next routine would run the whole damn show.
“I no longer knew why that sub-routine was there or what it was doing there but it was vitally important that it was there. I couldn’t figure out why, except that it stopped working if I took it out.”
This Hex prototype still exists today, and would probably be a fine exhibit in a literary museum, if they could prize it from Pratchett’s grasp. But he does not share the same respect for it.
“It’s still lying in a shed. It’s a real rat’s nest, and I no longer know how I got it to work.”
Pratchett got the ZX-81 do do things that the computer industry is still trying to get right in the consumer versions of multimedia PCs and artificial intelligence. In those early days, the world “multimedia” did not even exist.
“I would get up and it would sense me when I went into the office and say good morning, tell me what the weather conditions were, and whatever the forecast for the day was. It had a wind sensor too. If you know the wind direction and what the barometer is doing today, and you have a lookup table, it’s not difficult to forecast the weather.”
“It had a lovely sound card with the sound of waves breaking. It had to do things all the time. Eventually there was too much to do, and BASIC (the computer language that founded Bill Gates’ empire) couldn’t keep up.”
He pauses, and with a practised sense of timing that would have done a stand-up comedian proud, adds: “The voice recognition system was probably a mistake.”
But it did provide inspiration for the Discworld.
“Hex is pretty much the same thing. The wizards are not quite sure why it works and not sure that everything it’s got is what they added. For instance, someone gave me a box of relays, so relays became part of the system. I’m not sure why. It was all done with a soldering iron and a box of spares and a bit of BASIC. Once I stopped using it for a while, I completely forgot how it worked.”
One can never be sure if Pratchett is being serious, but there is no denying that he has a unique view – if rather a strange one in a way that would interest the medical fraternity – of the world and the things in it.
While it is almost comforting to know that our reality helped shape his lunatic ideas, perhaps we also need to look at it from the opposite perspective: if the Discworld is inspired by the real world, we have to question the sanity of our own existence.
As the Unseen University’s Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, would probably say, “Sanity? Now there’s an interesting concept. Totally impractical, of course…”