1. This novel gets Pratchett explicitly into post-modern philosophies. He’s again talking about belief, like in Pyramids, and gods. Here he comes down opposite to the idea that “seeing is believing”. In this chicken and egg debate, Pratchett has perceived his answer:
Belief is one of the most powerful organic forces in the multiverse. It may not be able to move mountains, exactly. But it can create someone who can.This thought predates Errol Morris’ great philosophical text, Believing is Seeing, and post-dates both Jesus’s comments to his mother in John 11, and the third path of enlightenment in Buddhism. This idea also echoes what Neil Gaiman was writing during this same time period in his comic book The Sandman.
People get exactly the wrong idea about belief. They think it works back to front. They think the sequence is, first object, then belief. In fact, it works the other way.
—But these other examples of similar thoughts do not detract from Pratchett’s point here, they merely show that he is not alone in rejecting the idea that seeing leads to believing. The opposite is largely the theme here—though Pratchett also works with alien invasions, corporate consumer culture, identity politics, and a loner integrating into a society:
—This last one sees Death, as Bill Door, trying to understand humans more by living like one. He has beliefs about humans when the novel begins, but he doesn’t understand them fully. And the opportunity to live among them, like them, as one of them, brings him a measure of understanding that carries parts of the novel.
—The wizards don’t believe upon seeing, as a rule. On one hand, they recognize many options of what a single action can mean—which plays out here in the alien invasion and corporate consumerism themes. On the other, this means they’re constantly bickering about everything, and at times the reader knows what the action means and knows their responses are dangerous—which allows for many jokes.
—The identity politics are played up for jokes as dead rights: zombies, werewolves, boogeymen, vampires, etc. But, because this is Pratchett, he also points out positives of identity politics. In a way, this fight for common rights by the dead shows “believing is seeing” in action.
—In other words, these ideas, themes, narrative tropes—they try to come together and create a novel whose simple, three word theme is examined in multiple areas, leading to a consistent thrust for the novel’s point. However, it’s so multifaceted for such a short novel, that the book comes off as more exploration and rumination than a tight, logical path.
It was the living who ignored the strange and wonderful, because life was too full of the boring and mundane.
2. And that explorative aspect seems closely related to the structure here—which is a straightforward narrative compared to some of his other books, but with many little cul-de-sacs of scenes that delay the thrust of the whole. Like in Moving Pictures, and most of the prior Discworld books, the story wanders between growing from a firm foundation, and pausing to play up some jokes. Where Pratchett is best, the two are indistinguishable—he holds himself back from some jokes to keep the plot moving, while using some jokes to pause the plot and let the reader process some important ideas. In Moving Pictures and here, the story runs away from him and he seems to write plot developments that disagree with his basic philosophical premise.
—I think it is impossible to write anything devoid of meaning—words are designed to convey meaning, after all. However, it’s now a popular approach to try and write stories without morals, or points: just a story and let the reader make up their own minds. But usually, the plot tips the author’s hand. For instance, if a character is a materialist, and they cannot overcome the bad stuff that keeps happening to them, maybe I’ll understand the author as stating that materialism ruins lives. Or if the character always tells the truth and it ends up causing the death of friends, like in some World War II narratives, I’ll see the author as making an argument for lies where they protect one’s friends. In this way, Pratchett’s structures sometimes undercut his larger ideas. It doesn’t so much strike me as lazy writing, as it seems he can’t resist good jokes, even if they subvert his own themes. And he’s about subversion, so it makes sense.
—But another way to look at this nebulous point I’m trying to firm up is that this novel is stuffed full of ideas, and there are too many for the story. I’m not trying to write rules for stories: three to five balls in the air for any short story, one major theme and three minor themes in any novel, etc. Those are ridiculous and create predestined, formulaic writing that makes authors indistinguishable from each other. What I am saying is that this novel has a lot of ideas, and some of them get lost behind others. Dibbler and the snowglobes, the wizards and the shopping carts, or the mall as a monster—this would carry anybody else’s novel. I like that Pratchett bites off too much sometimes, it means that his novels are often worth re-reading. But at the same time, sometimes he bites off too much and can’t handle it all—like both here and Moving Pictures.
Wizards don't believe in gods in the same way that most people don't find it necessary to believe in, say, tables. They know they're there, they know they're there for a purpose, they'd probably agree that they have a place in a well-organised universe, but they wouldn't see the point of believing, of going around saying "O great table, without whom we are as naught." Anyway, either the gods are there whether you believe in them or not, or exist only as a function of the belief, so either way you might as well ignore the whole business and, as it were, eat off your knees.
3. All that said, this is an enjoyable book to read. That’s something Pratchett has never lost sight of: the jokes are solid, the character creation is good, descriptions often come at you sideways, and this all results from solid writing. I might quibble with the story telling from time to time, but the writing is wonderful.
Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber and, in some cases, backbone.
4. I probably will not return to this book often. I’ve started to realize some of the inconsistency of Pratchett’s series. And though it’s a good book, it’s not great. Though it makes some points I agree with and some I don't, playing both out on a hilarious, engaging stage, I don’t resonate with this novel like I did with Guards! Guards! In some ways, this is probably nearing the end of Pratchett’s first phase, the early, experimental Pratchett. And his later stuff seems more mature and direct. More confident. I look forward to that, though I’m still glad I read this.
Inside Every Living Person is a Dead Person Waiting to Get Out