There’s a famous science fiction trope named in the Turkey City Lexicon as “The Jar of Tang.” You know this sort of thing: the story where the heroes are slogging across an orange desert, only to encounter a slick transparent barrier and—you guessed it, they’re microorganisms in a jar of Tang.
You can identify a genuine Jar of Tang story with a simple test: does the story have any impact at all if you simply drop the characters in a mundane, twist-free setting, or does the story’s entire impact derive from that (rather cheap) reveal?
It’s tempting at first blush to see Terry Pratchett’s The Carpet People as a Jar of Tang. The characters are minuscule beings dwelling in the fibres of a vast plain known as the Carpet; they live in the shadow of a great Woodwall that fell from the sky long ago (one end of which is charred and burnt); and their greatest cities are approximately the size of the full stop on the end of this sentence. The great menace that threatens the people of the Carpet, known as the Fray, might be the descent of a human foot onto a patch of carpet, or perhaps the depredations of a vacuum cleaner. But Pratchett is entirely up-front about the nature of his setting—no shoddy last-minute reveals here—and instead leverages it to develop an imaginative and dangerous fantasy world that is imbued with the wondrous idea of an entire world with its own empires and mythologies, existing literally beneath our feet.
The Carpet is populated by a distinctly Pratchettian bunch of unplanned-for heroes, self-important kings, and mystics with unusual insights into Time itself. The Munrungs—which means “The People” or “The True Human Beings,” in the finest tradition of of all nations everywhere—are a reasonably peaceable tribe of hunters and gatherers getting by in harmony with their surroundings until their land is suddenly afflicted with the Fray. This terrible, destructive phenomenon wrecks their village and brings in its wake a tribe of warlike beings called mouls, which ride forth on the dreaded black snargs to steal everything they can and kill the rest. The Munrung chief, Glurk, his brother Snibril, and the Munrung’s head wise man Pismire need to lead the tribe to safety, and along the way ally themselves with the other people of the Carpet—the Dumii, the Deftmenes, and the precognitive wights, amongst others—if they want to have any chance of surviving the Fray and all that comes after.
Pratchett originally wrote The Carpet People and an array of related stories when he was seventeen. Most writers’ output from that period is comfortably forgotten and subsumed under the heading of “juvenilia”; Pratchett, however, ended up revisiting the book at forty-three, and decided that it could use a bit of tidying-up—“you know how it is when you tweak a thread that’s hanging loose.” Now it’s published for the first time in the US, illustrated with Pratchett’s own drawings and including the very first Carpet People stories from 1965, written for Bucks Free Press.
Longtime Pratchett readers will recognize a number of archetypes and tropes further developed elsewhere in his fiction. There’s Pismire, the Munrung shaman who, in contrast to other shamans who rely a bit too much on yellow mushrooms, depends instead on what book-learning remains to the Carpet dwellers and a hefty dose of what Granny Weatherwax would come to call “headology.” The wights, who remember things that haven’t happened yet, are early versions of the History Monks. And what the wight Culaina sees, in the last desperate battle between the heroes and the mouls, will have definite echoes for Discworld fans:
…Normally futures came in bundles of thousands, differing in tiny little ways. But this one was all by itself. It barely existed. It had no right to exist. It was the million-to-one chance that the defenders would win.
She was fascinated. They were strange people, the Dumii. They thought they were as levelheaded as a table, as practical as a shovel—and yet, in a great big world full of chaos and darkness and things they couldn’t hope to understand, they acted as though they really believed their in their little inventions, like ‘law’ and ‘justice’. And they didn’t have enough imagination to give in.
There is, to be sure, a certain amount of untidiness that Pratchett’s revision didn’t quite fix. The narrative point of view slips all over the place, and one major character falls unceremoniously out of the narrative so quickly and abruptly that it’s several pages before you quite realize that he’s gone. The Carpet People isn’t really one of Pratchett’s great works, and he’d probably be inclined to agree; it’s a very youthful novel, albeit tempered and revised with time and maturity. The Bucks Free Press stories are amusing, but they’re like the demo tracks on a deluxe album re-release—interesting for completists, but not particularly enriching otherwise. But The Carpet People on the whole would be a fine introduction to Pratchett for young readers, and it’s an entirely charming lark for his longtime fans.