The Discworld, travelling through space on the back of Great A'Tuin, a Giant Star Turtle, in the original cover art by Paul Kidby.
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“There’s no justice. There’s just us”: Helen Lewis on the politics of Pratchett

A common misconception about Pratchett’s work is the fantasy setting divorces it from the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“He is, of course, writing about us,” A S Byatt observed of Terry Pratchett. “He is good at policemen, businessmen, fraudsters, murderers, banks and shares, and at music with rocks in it besides, as well as at goblins, witches, dragons, trolls and dwarfs.”

One of the commonest misconceptions about Pratchett’s books is that their fantasy setting somehow divorces them from the real world and its concerns. But as the Discworld series developed, its themes became increasingly political (with both a big and a small “p”). Take Feet of Clay (1996), possibly my favourite in the series. It is an interrogation of power as an ancient vampire herald called Dragon, King of Arms searches obsessively for the “true ruler” of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork –while Captain Carrot, the only living descendant of the last monarch, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is the heir, preferring to serve in the City Watch. (His boss Samuel Vimes, incidentally, is a descendant of the last man to kill a king of Ankh-Morpork.) Vimes’s hatred of authority prompts the Machiavellian Patrician to keep giving him aristocratic titles just to annoy him.

Set against this is another plot strand: the desperate attempts by the Golems (creatures formed from clay and kept as slaves by human beings) to make themselves a king. The Golems are given life by the sacred words in their heads, but they fill their king’s mind with so many hopes and obsessions and aspirations that he is driven mad. You might not notice all this on a first reading – you’ll be too busy laughing about a bull that thinks it’s two bulls because each of its eyes has a different field of vision – but it’s in there.

Similarly, Going Postal is about capitalism. It tells the story of a notorious conman given a second chance if he promises to revive the Post Office. This is a shambolic bureaucracy, but one that offers steady jobs to the old and the slightly simple – unlike the rival “clacks”, a semaphore system where equipment is run into the ground and profit is put before the workers’ safety.

In among the sweeping themes are pointed vignettes: in Small Gods (1992), it turns out that only one person sincerely believes in the state religion, despite its enthusiastic enforcement by an inquisition. (This being Pratchett, a deity’s corporeal manifestation is in direct proportion to the strength of belief, resulting in the god Om taking the form of a one-eyed tortoise.)

In Jingo (1997), a new island appears in the sea between Ankh-Morpork and the nearby state of Klatch, prompting both to prepare for war – and culminating in Vimes trying to arrest both armies for a “breach of the peace”. In the earlier Equal Rites, a girl discovers that she’s a wizard, rather than a witch, and tries to enrol at the men-only Unseen University (an eccentric organisation that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in academia).

The moral cores of the series are Vimes and the witch Granny Weatherwax, characters to whom Pratchett has returned again and again. Both are feared –Weatherwax’s nickname from the trolls is “She Who Must Be Avoided” and to the dwarves she is “Go Around the Other Side of the Mountain” – but they are also unbending in their principles, fiercely loyal and protective, and unafraid to take the right decision even if it is hard and unpopular. As Death – another recurring character – says in Reaper Man (1991): “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

Read Laurie Penny's interview with Terry Pratchett and the New Statesman leader "Facing Death (and Binky)" about the significance and afterlife of his work.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.