Thursday, 30 June 2011

Discworld Critique, part III

This is the third and last part of my series of reviews of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. The first two parts can be found here and here.

If you read the previous two parts of this work, you might have noticed that I never gave a book full marks (=5 stars). That was because Terry Pratchett is an author who, unlike most, constantly improved with time. He is just the opposite of a “one hit wonder”, or, as Thomas Aquinas put it more elegantly (in Latin), a homo unius libri. And therefore the best of the Discworld novels appeared late into the series, and therefore in the last part of the reviews. Here you will find several books having 5, 4.5 and 4 stars.

Finally I also wanted to place a little unimportant complaint about a point in which I am somewhat of a stickler. In some places where Pratchett cited written materials that were meant to sound quaint, like old laws, royal proclamations or letters, he sometimes underlined this by the use of an old typographic variant, called the “long s”. Now there exiſt very preciſe rules about the uſage of this letter variant, where it will ſtand, and where there will appear the uſual “s”. It ſeems Pratchett did not know thoſe rules; his uſage of “ſ” is very arbitrary, including miſsing every alternate one completely.

Furthermore his typeſetters apparently did not have the glyph in the typefaces they were uſing, ſo they replaced it by an italic “f”, which looks kind of fimilar but, as you can fee, is flanted unlike the other letters and looks juft plain wrong.

The Last Continent

After a long time Pratchett once again wrote a novel with Rincewind in its center. In consequence this book is limited plotwise, because there’s only one thing Rincewind is capable of doing in a book, which is running away and trying to survive. This time he does it on the continent XXXX (or Fourecks) which is one huge spoof of Australia, and so is the book. You name any sterotype about Down Under—it’s there. If that is your idea of a perfect Discworld novel, have fun!

In addition there is a subplot involving the wizards of the faculty being stranded on an island run by the god of evolution. If you think that makes no sense, well, it doesn’t. I’m not even sure what the author wished to say with it or who (if any) he wanted to lampoon with it.

The faculty wizards are very good characters, but the repeated scenes of them being uncomfortable in the presence of women, and particularly their head housekeeper, Mrs. Whitlow, make me cringe or yawn, depending on my mood.

On the whole, compared to what Pratchett is capable of, the Last Continent is a stupid book, but most of the blame goes to Rincewind, who Pratchett freely admitted to not liking as a character for reasons apparent. It seems though that a portion of his fans demanded another Rincewind book so much he finally gave in and wrote it, and this is it.

Carpe Jugulum

This book is more or less a retake of Lords and Ladies. The kingdom of Lancre is took over by monsters who enchant people and the witches fight them. Only this times it’s vampires instead of elves. I am under the impression that Pratchett wanted to write a very dark book, but somehow it did not work completely. He tried too hard, by giving us conversations between a spiritually troubled priest and Granny Weatherwax, with insights in the latter’s inner life (it’s a dark abyss). Sometimes it strongly feels like the author himself ranting (less subtle than in Small Gods too).

All in all it is the combination: Terrifying villains who are still silly caricatures in a country of silly caricatures, a regurgiated plot and as much darkness as the pen would yield. In short, a failed book.

The Fifth Elephant

It is almost miraculous how Pratchett managed, after the lousy Carpe Jugulum, to write one of the best books of the entire Discworld series. Indeed it is. The Fifth Elephant has Samuel Vimes in the dark vampire-and-werewolf country of Überwald for the occasion of the new dwarven “Low King”. And, as Pratchett likes to say, where there’s policemen, there’s crime. In this case it is political intrigue and conspiracy which threatens to throw dwarf society into a civil war. But that’s not the important point of the book. The important point is that it manages to paint a fascinating in-depth portrait of Discworld dwarf cultures, after so many books of them having been the usual beard-and-pickaxe cardboard cutout characters. It is a thing which Tolkien never quite managed to do (with the Dwarves, that is). And it has Sam Vimes, who is a gift of a character, and always fun to read. The ending throws a bit of a damning light on the hero, but we’re not in Hollywood after all and it’s no different from the things John McClane does.

Another thing worth noting is that this book is the first one to mention an invention called the “clacks”, which is a semaphore tower network that is the Discworld equivalent of the telegraph. I consider it a remarkable thing by Pratchett to not only be aware of this historical concept but also bring it to the books. In fact they popped up fully-developed in The Fifth Elephant so that for a moment I wondered if I had maybe missed a book where they were introduced as part of the story, but there is no such thing. However, the clacks line plays a significant part in a later book, Going Postal.

The Truth

This is about the invention of the printing press and the Discworld’s first newspaper, the Ankh-Morpork Times. Its hero is William de Worde, a disinherited son of a noble and ruthless family, who is clearly not Pratchett’s best character, but still a good one.

Compared to the novels that came directly before it and later, The Truth is a light and humorous book, but as far as those go, it’s one of the very best. It also has a second plot which connects to main one, concerning yet another cabal to depose Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruler. This time the task is in the hands of two hitmen called Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, who are modeled after any pair of whimsical movie thugs wearing dark suits and calling each other “Mister …”. There are lots of them around, though these days it probably is Tarantino’s characters who come to the mind quickest. Anyway these too are silly, sometimes way too silly, but for all that they are still fun to read. I think that remarkable, because usually things like that put me off. It seems to prove it was done skillfully.

Thief of Time

I read this book twice some years ago and can’t remember it too well, which is always a bad sign. One of its main characters is Lu-Tze, sweeper and operative of the secretive Time Monks (much like time travel police and historians in one) and, in my mind one of the main weaknesses of the book as well. It is clear that Pratchett wanted to take the common notion of a wise Dalai-Lama type Buddhist monk and put as many twists on him as possible. Too many, in fact. The result is a character that I feel makes little sense. At least I can’t understand him at all. This character had appeared before and has since, but always in a minor role, which made him alright, but here he is on too many pages altogether.

The plot is a muddle of clocks, time travel, doppelgängers, and the five riders of the Apocalypse (Death, war, famine, pestilence and Ronnie). I did not think it was very gripping. The villains are (as in Reaper Man and Hogfather) the so-called “Auditors of Reality” who are, by intention, incredibly boring creatures. The downside is that the are also incredibly boring to read about.

Night Watch

Believe it or not, this book is actually a Discworld time travel story, and it is excellent.

Now I am sure we have all seen Back to the Future and its sequels and some of the many Star Trek treatments of the theme, in the movies and the series. It boils down to similar things all the time. For some reason almost all time travel stories (except the famous early example, the seminal Time Machine by H.G. Wells) deal with travels into the past. I am sure there are narrative reasons for that, which I won’t go into in this place. However, the defining element of travels into the past is the problem of causality, or, to put it more clearly, the so-called grandfather paradox. I don’t think I have to explain to you what that is. You have seen the movies.

And as this seems to happen in almost every time travel movie, it has become stale and boring, even annoying by now. So I was surprised and relieved to see that Pratchett let us off the hook in this respect.

The book’s plot is about how Sam Vimes, while in pursuit of a psychopathic serial killer, is magically flung back into the past—into the time of his own youth. And despite that fact I am happy to tell you that there is never a question of somebody killing his grandfather or dating his mother etc. etc., except for one very brief uncomfortable allusion (which is a red herring, in fact).

Despite the fact that Vimes’ appearance in the past changes history, and he also tries hard to do just that (in his characteristic way he just has to do the job that’s in front of him), it is made clear quite early that it won’t matter in due course. Though Vimes manages to change some little bits, on the whole history just runs over him like a steamroller. It’s what I term the Asimov model of history, and there’s much to be said in favor of it, which I will reserve for a seperate article. In fact, Vimes’s only objective is to make sure his own younger self (a night watch rookie) gets a few valuable lessons, which he got in the unaltered timeline.

So if Night Watch is not really about time travel paradoxes, what is it about?

It is about a popular revolution that ultimately came to nothing. It is about decent and not-so-decent cops under a tyrannical régime. It is about secret police and torture. It is about politics and betrayal and intrigue and people who just try to make it through all of it alive. It is dark. It is to Discword what Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was to Batman. It was the old stuff, but grittier and grimier and just so much more vital and real. It was entrancing.

In fact, it could have easily been written as a “prequel” like Small Gods, but the time travel stunt enabled Pratchett to use his best character, Sam Vimes, with the added twist of Vimes teaching himself and I think it paid off.

For a change I will complain about some German translation goofs that are not in the book’s title. The first occured in a scene where young Vetinari says about the head assassin, Doctor Follett, “They say he can play a mean lute.” This is a play on the phrase “to play a mean guitar”, which means playing it very well. In addition I believe “mean lute” is an obscure term for a baroque tenor lute as well. Now I admit I had to look up the phrase before I understood it (not being an English native speaker), but then I’m not calling myself a professional translator. This man, however, does, and he still was clueless, so he ignored “lute” completely and translated the sentence as meaning “They say he can be very mean.”

Another one is the phrase “cutting toast into soldiers”, which appears in several Pratchett novels. Once again I looked it up and found it meant cutting toast into strips. The Pratchett translator put it just literally, which makes me think he assumed it meant something like that:

Toast Soldier

Monstrous Regiment

Beginning with The Fifth Elephant Pratchett slowly began to change his writing into a new style which I term his late period. He phased out the spoofs and light comedy in favour of a more laid-back witty tone. Footnotes became fewer. But the books became so much better in terms of atmosphere, approaching the level of real literature at times. This enabled him to succesfully take up more serious topics more regularly. Many ideas and characters were revisited in this light to the point of nearly contradicting earlier books. The mechanical Harry-Potter-like magic of the wizards made way to unexplained semi-mystical happenings, that were treated much more serious than in earlier novels. I think it was a very good transition.

While, despite all the changes, Night Watch was still written in a style much similar to the previous novels, Monstrous Regiment is the first Discworld novel that has all the hallmarks of the new period. It is set in a desolate, ruined little country named Borogravia which has been brought low by endless self-inflicted wars with mightier neighbours until basically only the women are left. So now women start joining the army in secret in the last desperate draft. Led by a hapless, famished officer who has been taken from his desk job to fight on the front, they manage to … on second thoughts, I won’t tell you. Read the book for yourself!

Pratchett paints an appropriately dreary picture of a war-torn, famished country additionally tortured by an insane and gloomy religion. Some Ankh-Morpork regulars make guest appearances. I hope you like Jeanne d’Arc. With a twist, of course. As for the other twists of the book (which I won’t divulge): Pratchett has a good idea there, but there is such a thing as using a good idea too often. After seeing that particular thing happen again and again in the book (especially towards the end) I could not help but groan inwardly a bit. One star deduced from full marks for this.

Going Postal

The switch to a different style did Pratchett a lot of good and he produced a series of very strong novels, of which Going Postal is one of the best. It introduces a new set of characters which recur in later books, centered around Moist von Lipwig, a brilliant con man who at the beginning of the book is sitting in a cell waiting to be hanged. He is the hero, mind you. His love interest will be Adora Belle Dearheart, who is angry, severely dressed, and chain-smokes cigarettes (and not from a cigarette holder, as suggested by the cover illustration). I don’t know why, but it seems to work.

In addition there’s a load of brilliant ideas and characters, including one elderly Mr. Groat, who pratices “natural medicine” including sulphur and acids until his socks blow up and who has a very distinct way of speaking (“Well, Mr Mutable, he was the first, decent chap, he fell down into the big hall from the fifth floor, smack, sir, smack on to the marble.”), and the community of pin collecting nerds (they have special shops and magazines about pins, but not nails, because those are obscene). And Pratchett has managed to revitalize the wizards by introducing several new ones not belonging to the old faculty, busy with all kinds of weird research. (“You may experience a taste of eggs and the sensation of being slapped in the face with some sort of fish.”)

Also, which is characteristic for the late period Pratchett, there’s a bit of paranormal mysticism, and scenes that manage to conjure up a truly eerie atmosphere. And there’s a charismatic, modern villain. Another innovation is (finally) the use of chapters, which each do start with a two lines long description of its content in keywords (which make no sense at all before you read the chapter). It is an idea that works out nicely and he stuck to it in later books. Half a point is deduced from full score for the main villain’s henchman, who is a stupid character, and the somewhat confused ending.


— soon to come —

Making Money

This one picks up where Going Postal ended. After Moist von Lipwig was forced to bring Ankh-Morporks stunned post office back to life, he is now ordered to do the same to the Royal Mint. I am getting the impression that Pratchett is in the habit of writing some books twice, as with Moving Pictures and Soul Music, or with Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum. Despite the fact that Making Money is not nearly as fresh as Going Postal, and the new characters aren’t as good, it is still a decent book. Lipwig and Adora Belle “Spike” Dearheart are still very enjoyable characters, and the villain is so crazy you can hardly view him as a real threat. Conculsion: A good, average book of the late Pratchett period.

Unseen Academicals

— soon to come —

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