Hall of Fame finalist review: Terry Pratchett’s The Truth offers hilarious but serious comedy about the rise of newspapers and the value of a free press

By Michael Grossberg

The truth shall make you fret.

Er, that’s not quite right. I meant: “The truth shall make you free.”

And The Truth shall make you laugh, too, while sparking insights about freedom – especially freedom of the press.

Often, while recently rereading Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld novel, I laughed out loud. (What a pleasure in troubled times, especially for journalists like me coping with declining newspapers.)

THE POWER OF THE PRESS

The Truth, a 2024 Prometheus Hall of Fame finalist, tells a smart, sly and ultimately inspirational tale of underdogs seeking the truth against formidable opposition.

“Underdogs,” though, might be a potentially confusing word for this story. After all, Discworld brims with fantastical species of all sorts – humans, dwarves, vampires, trolls, werewolves, zombies and, in The Truth, a talking dog.

In The Truth – Book 25 of the bestselling 41-novel series but easy to enjoy on its own – the metaphorical underdogs are new-found journalists beginning to discover the power of the press. They learn the ropes by reporting, writing, editing and publishing the first modern newspaper in Discworld’s capital city of Ankh-Morpork.

THE LURE OF SENSATIONALISM

The newbie staff quickly face significant obstacles, diversions, temptations and challenges. Among them: the treacherous currents of city politics, the fickle tastes of the masses, the lure of sensationalism and the tricky art of headline writing – not to mention the dubious appeal of “human interest” stories about allegedly magical disappearances or local vegetables grown into unlikely and unmentionable shapes.

As an idealistic reporter insists: “Look, we are not interested in pet precipitation, spontaneous combustion, or people being carried off by weird things from out of the sky…”

That is, until such high-minded protestations are interrupted by the caveat of a more practical colleague: “Unless it happens.”

WORDS ABOUT DE WORDE

At the center of Pratchett’s colorful and twisty tale is William de Worde, a younger son of the city’s nobility who’s writing a limited-distribution newsletter when he accidentally discovers the real power of the press. (Literally: He’s struck and bruised on the street by a cart containing the world’s first printing press.)

Formerly writing his occasional newsletter for just four or five wealthy foreigners curious about capital-city developments, de Worde begins to imagine the possibilities of writing a daily publication that might appeal to larger numbers of readers and could perhaps be sold on the streets.

Joining forces with dwarf Gunilla Goodmountain, who has just invented the printing press, and her team of fast-working metal-typesetting dwarves, de Worde upgrades his elite newspaper step by step into a mass-appeal daily.

A NOSE FOR NEWS

And voila: the Ankh-Morpork Times is born!

(Its mast subhead: “The Truth Shall Make Ye Free,” although a bad typo changes Free into Fret).

Joining the plucky newspaper staff are Sacharissa Cripslock, a practical young lady with a talent for writing catchy headlines; and photographer Otto Chriek, a reformed vampire whose flash pictures subject him to potentially fatal light.

De Worde has his work cut out for him when his reports upset the city’s political, business and religious leaders.

A WATCHDOG AND THE WATCH

The Truth underscores the historic role of newspapers as watchdogs of authority by centering the plot on De Worde’s risky investigation of an out-of-character crime (initially viewed as murder) by city leader Lord Vetinari.

Just as in Pratchett’s Night Watch, the 2003 Prometheus Best Novel winner, The Watch, Ankh-Morpork’s police/detective agency, plays a key role in The Truth.

Both novels reveal the workings of The Watch and its fan-favorite Commander Vimes, as they work against entrenched interests and political pressures that make the fight against crime more difficult, just as it often is in reality.

Although initial “facts” suggest Vetinari’s guilt, de Worde learns that appearances can be deceiving, that witnesses and authorities can be mistaken and that the truth can be surprising – and surprisingly hard to uncover.

Even at risk to his own life and and despite pressures not to interfere, de Worde keeps trying to unearth and verify the facts, including a few odd details running counter to official reports. And when his efforts are stymied by officials or shadowy forces, de Worde suspects he must be on the right track.

An ethical journalist, de Worde inadvertently creates powerful enemies and stiff competition from The Inquirer, an enemy-funded rival paper more interested in perpetuating popular prejudices and spinning yarns that sell.

Overall, Pratchett achieves both a satisfying crime/mystery and an imaginative saga that dramatizes how good journalism can assist in dispelling rumors and falsehoods and sometimes even help avert injustice.

Terry Pratchett in 2012. (Creative Commons license)

HOW PRATCHETT’S LIFE INFORMS HIS TALE

The Truth benefits enormously from Pratchett’s inside knowledge of the daily grind of journalism. Having left school at 17 for a job writing for a local UK newspaper, the late author was familiar with the ups and downs of daily reporting.

Along with Pratchett’s journalism background, The Truth is enriched by Pratchett’s wry wisdom and very British understanding of human folly, venality, stupidity and bureaucracy.

As most newspaper reporters learn, whether on Earth or on Discworld, finding the truth is never automatic or easy – especially within the diverse population, political pressures and criminal elements of a capital city.

In reality, truth tends to emerge gradually, one difficult-to-verify fact at a time. Pratchett instinctively grasps Hayek’s epistemic modesty about the limits of knowledge and the difficulty of central planning in a modern economy and multifaceted world. At best, reality becomes visible, in part, not via large-T Truth but in a mosaic of small-t truths and facts that hopefully add up.

A LIVE-AND-LET-LIVE PHILOSOPHY

One of Pratchett’s subtler but most heartfelt themes is his libertarian live-and-let-live-attitude.

That tolerant perspective is embodied in de Worde, Pratchett’s veritable alter ego. De Worde insists on treating everyone around him with the same respect – whether highborn or of low caste, and no matter what form they take. To De Worde, humans, dwarves, vampires, trolls, zombies and the other motley citizens of Ankh-Morpork deserve basic respect for their dignity and rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Like many other Discworld novels, The Truth offers amusing and implicit history lessons illuminating how modern society and its liberal/libertarian order arose, warts and all.

Pratchett is perhaps most widely known for the tongue-in-cheek style and constant wit of his Discworld fantasy series, which helped lift his overall sales to more than 100 million copies worldwide.

Yet just as important from a libertarian/classical liberal perspective is how well Pratchett weaves into his inventive Discworld-building a deeper appreciation for progress as it actually has occurred (often messily and serendipitously) in human history. Pratchett grasped how important freedom and free markets have been in spurring such progress.

FOUNDATIONS OF FREEDOM

Pratchett’s broader insights especially reflect his appreciation for pluralism and the decentralized hustle and bustle of free and freer societies.

Here’s a key excerpt from the novel that reveals both his insight and wit in evoking that theme:

“I’m sure we can pull together, sir,” William responds when the Patrician asks him not to upset Commander Vimes “more than necessary.”

Raising his eyebrows at William’s reply, the Patrician responds:

“Oh, I do hope not, I really do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.”

He smiled. “It’s the only way to make progress.”

British writer/columnist Matt Ridley, one of the most brilliant libertarian thinkers of the 21st century, couldn’t have said it better.

The same theme, explored and documented in much greater detail and depth, emerges explicitly from Ridley’s non-fiction bestsellers – most notably his recent book recounting the surprising history of invention (How Innovation Works, and Why It Flourishes in Freedom) and his classic book chronicling our species’ extraordinary progress over tens of thousands of years through cooperation and free trade (The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves).

Yet Pratchett achieves something in his fiction that’s beyond the powers of Ridley or other mere non-fiction-writing mortals: He communicates the essence of the same truths of history while sparking waves of “aha!” laughter.

No ponderous pedantics afflicts The Truth or other Discworld novels, just well-told tales satirically informed by the author’s genuine knowledge of our checkered human past and progress.

MODERNITY, TECHNOLOGY AND LIBERTY

In some ways a key novel in the Discworld series, which previously focused more on magic, The Truth explores technology (the printing press, photography) that helps spur the transformation of a primitive society toward modernity.

While The Truth deliciously skewers the newspaper business for its fallibility, populist biases and other flaws, Pratchett nevertheless plausibly underscores the vital role of a free and independent press in pursuing the truth, no matter the pressures and presumptions of power.

Quoting Winston Churchill, who once said that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” Pratchett offers a surprisingly serious defense of truth and liberty.

That’s all the more relevant in today’s era of misinformation and manipulation, even by elite media-government interests who wish to suppress free speech and the free press in the name of the truth while failing to look in the mirror at their own biases, distortions and inaccuracies.

Without undermining its story or its humor with dogma or preaching, The Truth reminds us that the rise of newspapers and the associated spread of literacy became bulwarks of liberty and valuable if imperfect checks on tyranny and other abuses of State power.

First published by Harper in 2000, The Truth has remained one of Pratchett’s enduring bestsellers, its popularity buoyed not only by sly jokes and rich humor but also by its persuasive depiction of the truth.

Terry Pratchett (Creative Commons license)

Biographical note: Terry Pratchett (1948-2015), a bestselling British sf/fantasy writer, is best known for the 41 comic-fantasy novels of his Discworld series.

Pratchett’s fiction has been translated into 43 languages.

He also was nominated for Prometheus Awards for Raising Steam, a 2015 Best Novel finalist; The Long War, co-authored by Stephen Baxter and a 2014 Best Novel nominee; Snuff, a 2012 Best Novel finalist; and The Truth, a 2001 Best Novel finalist.

All but The Long War, part of a five-novel parallel-earth series, are Discworld novels.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus on both quality and liberty.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremonywith inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freerand Sarah Hoyt), Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook pagefor comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by imagining better visions of the future incorporating peace, prosperity, progress, tolerance, justice, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Hall of Fame finalist review: Terry Pratchett’s The Truth offers hilarious but serious comedy about the rise of newspapers and the value of a free press”

  1. I’ve long suspected that William de Worde is, among other things, a clever allusion to Wynkyn de Worde, an immigrant who was one of the founders of the printing industry in England, along with Caxton.

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