14 May, 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett


1. Now we’re talking! This book shows everything that I love about Discworld, in one novel—and it’s a unique one to boot. The biggest step out of the normal for Pratchett is that this puts all the pieces of the earlier novels together in a confident way. Most notably, it features the multiple primary perspectives of Sourcery, and the ensemble cast structure of Wyrd Sisters. Where the prior seven novels had multiple characters, five were run through the lens of a central character: Rincewind, Mort, Eskarina, or Pteppic. Sourcery had multiple primary perspectives, but its own set of problems with pacing and story. Wyrd Sisters had an ensemble cast, but was so heavily focused on the eponymous three characters that they essentially functioned as the Rincewind to the rest of the characters—the base from which the tone and illumination was built from. Guards! Guards! is an ensemble novel, with multiple stories coming together to form a whole better than its parts. Multiple prime perspectives combine to explore a central theme and story to its conclusion. Where most of the rest struggled to be novels in places, this is a complex novel and pulls it off. Vimes and Carrot and Lupine Wonse and the Patrician play off each other so well, and have such different perspectives on life, that the whole thing impresses me in the craft. This is four stories in one, tied together by an overarching plot. Perhaps the city, Ankh-Morporkh, is the main character of Pratchett’s series as a whole, and this is the first book where he really digs into life in that city, with all the ups and downs, from multiple perspectives. The differences between the perspectives illuminate the city in a way that this architecture student had been looking for. The story itself involves all four characters and requires all four.
I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.

2. So I think that’s the main theme here: cities and how people live in them.
—Carrot is the recent immigrant, eyes still full of the bright lights and beauty of it all. He believes in the city’s inherent goodness and follows its laws so that he can be a benefit to the society. He is the optimist.
—The Patrician runs the city by making sure all the elements balance out. For instance, rather than trying to eradicate crime, he creates guilds for the criminals, and allots them a certain amount of crime every year. He’s hands off most of the time, but subtle with the way he influences things. He is the practical man.
—Captain Vimes is part cynic, part incompetent. He also experiences the most change throughout the novel. He’s an officer of the Night Watch, which Carrot joins, but aware of his position as top of the trash bag. He’s riding out his term, really. His job has lost its luster, as has his uniform. He’s the pessimist.
—Lupine Wonse is the head of a secret organization intending to change the basic structure of the city because it was better back in the day. He’s the nostalgically bitter old man and busybody who thinks he knows how to run things better.
—These four characters encapsulate views of the city. They put categories to the stages of city living, to the thoughts of city dwellers. They have been useful in my life, here in a small city in the Inland Northwest. I recognize these characters in people I meet, and vice-versa. It’s a startlingly discerning portrait of a city, through the eyes of four archetypes of city dwellers.
If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn't as cynical as real life.

3. Pratchett doesn’t let the jokes run away with the story at all. Don’t get me wrong, there are many funny points here. Yet the funny isn’t the point the way it is in earlier novels. This is less slapstick and more wry wit. In other words, the jokes here illuminate and explore the theme, rather than the other way around. It’s more darkly humorous. It’s more ironic and cerebral instead of in your face and unexpected. Where he used to throw two crazy characters together and watch what happened until he ran out of funny ideas, here he throws them together and watches what happens until they wander away from the point of the novel—and this is a big improvement. He certainly uses jokes still, but he also uses them for a point, and that point is his exploration of city-ness. Urbanity. Whatever the hip architecture kids call it now.
Down there—he said—are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no.

4. At its base, the story is a detective novel. This fundamental plot and driving force benefits the novel by making it go forward in a way that’s not too distracting, but still engages. This is a hard thing to say, and I think that prior sentence said it wrong. I will take two examples: The Odyssey by Homer, and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars is an engaging story that goes from conflict to conflict quickly and carries the reader along through cliff-hangers, murders, exploration, and fight scenes. The Odyssey has all the same pieces—exploration, cliff-hangers, murders, and fight scenes—yet is more focused on the theme of hospitality and how people react to this long war that just got over. A Princess of Mars is pulp fiction—there for the entertainment almost exclusively—while The Odyssey is literature based on a pulpy plot line—the pulp stuff drives the book forward in a way that engages, but doesn’t distract me from the theme. This Pratchett novel, Guards! Guards!, is more like The Odyssey than A Princess of Mars. It’s a book that rewards digging past the surface layer, but still relies on that surface to push the characters around, to pull the plot along, to engage the reader but not distract them, to pace the book appropriately. It’s a brilliantly pulled off tactic.
These weren't encouraged in the city, since the heft and throw of a longbow's arrow could send it through an innocent bystander a hundred yards away instead of the innocent bystander at whom it was aimed.

5. In closing, the prior seven novels—I use that term loosely—struggled to find the right balance between humor, story, characters, and ideas. Here, at last, Pratchett is confident with the experimentation in his earlier works. The books before this one were partially misses and partial misses, but this one shows a confident Pratchett incorporating all of the earlier novels’ successes, perfectly balancing the result of his learning. This one is an absolute hit. His confidence comes out as much in the flawless pacing as in the integration of multiple perspectives, as much in his humor as in his characters. This was the book that got me into Pratchett originally, and it’s my favorite that I’ve reviewed here so far. It’s a great place to start in on Pratchett.
It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hot-dogs to the rest.

07 May, 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett


1. Egypt—hot, in a river valley, introverted, and mixing gods and rulers. Djelibeybi—same. This satire, set in sandy climes, studies the power-behind-the-throne concept. And it focuses on this theme tightly.
—First, there is Dios, the pharaoh's right hand man. He stands in for the permanent employees and hangers on in a democratic society’s ruling classes (though this society is not specifically democratic, cue jokes by Pratchett about other countries trying to export and monetize democracy, but being too caught up in arguing about how to do this in order to actually do this). For instance, America gets John F Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy basically comes along as a package deal. On the other end of Margaret Thatcher’s information tube sit a bunch of permanent government employees deciding what she sees and how it’s spun. Raymond Poincaré goes to war in 1914, and Joseph Joffre handles the military side of things. These three examples point out that though the people choose some things, they don’t choose everything when it comes to their governments. Pratchett explores this with Dios, a Richard Neville kingmaker mixed with that one secretary who is the only person who actually knows everything happening.
—Second, the nature of belief is the biggest secondary theme here. The people chose Dios over their new pharaoh, because they know Dios and why would he lie to them? The gods need to be believed in to have any power. The tyranny of tradition itself plays center stage to a large portion of this novel—the most prominent example of which is the ridiculous stuff Pteppic has to carry to meet his people (which echoes his assassin’s getup from early in the book, not letting even Ankh-Morporkh get away from his criticism of tradition and belief). And through this examination of blind belief, the power-behind-the-throne is dethroned. We believe what powerful people tell us. Pratchett wonders whether we should or not.
—To be fair, many people consider belief to be the main theme of the novel, with the power-behind-the-throne as a supporting theme. I see it the other way, but clearly see that it could go both ways. And both themes intertangle to the point that they are largely indistinguishable and Pratchett’s point comes out of both themes: think for yourself.
—The plot exhumes the theme of thinking for yourself through Ptraci taking power and making the positive changes at the end. In this way, everything is tightly focused and supporting each other. Brilliant writing.
The trouble with life was that you didn’t get a chance to practice before doing it for real.

2. However, the novel does wander off a little bit here and there. For instance, this is the first time Pratchett’s attempted to be sexy. Not really sexy, mind you, (the quote below is as sexy as it gets) but he wants to get a little more heat in there, and he does it in a funny way. Ptraci essentially treats sexual positions like a skateboarder treats their tricks: desiring to do them all and willing to talk about any of them casually, at any time, in any company. But this is a part of Pratchett already: in Sourcery, Cohen’s daughter is the woman who would be over-sexualized in any other novel. But Pratchett makes her a character instead. So yeah, she’s sexy, but she’s her own woman stuck in her own struggle between her parental influence and childhood, and her desires to be a hairdresser. Here, Ptraci desires usefulness, but isn’t allowed it because of her training as a concubine. This tendency in Pratchett shows that he treats characters as people. They may be the desire of many men, but women are still people and they are shown as such throughout the novel.
So this was it. You lost your kingdom, and then it was worth more because it was a tax haven, and you took a seat on the board, whatever that was, and that made it all right.

Ptraci defused the situation by grabbing Alfonz’s arm as he was serving the pheasant.

“The Congress of The Friendly Dog and the Two Small Biscuits!” she exclaimed, examining the intricate tattoo. “You hardly ever see that these days. Isn’t it well done? You can even make out the yogurt.”

Alfonz froze, and then blushed. Watching the glow spread across the great scarred head was like watching sunrise over a mountain range.

“What’s the one on your other arm?”

Alfonz, who looked as though his past jobs had included being a battering ram, murmured something and, very shyly, showed her his forearm.

“‘S’not really suitable for ladies,” he whispered.

Ptraci brushed aside the wiry hair like a keen explorer, while Chidder stared at her with his mouth hanging open.

“Oh, I know that one,” she said dismissively. “That’s out of 130 Days of Pseudopolis. It’s physically impossible.” She let go of the arm, and turned back to her meal. After a moment she looked up at Teppic and Chidder.

“Don’t mind me,” she said brightly. “Do go on.”

“Alfonz, please go and put a proper shirt on,” said Chidder, hoarsely.

Alfonz backed away, staring at his arm.

“Er. What was I, er, saying?” said Chidder. “Sorry. Lost the thread. Er. Have some more wine, Tep?”

Ptraci didn’t just derail the train of thought, she ripped up the rails, burned the stations and melted the bridges for scrap. And so the dinner trailed off...

3. But the novel shows some of his early-novel tendencies that pull back from the quality of the book. Again, this is a journey where the story wanders a bit. Some of the scenes don’t add much to the characters or plot. They bring in interesting discussions, as Pratchett is wont to do, but distract from the novel as novel here. Not disastrously, of course, because his writing saves it.
Djelibeybi really was a small self-centred kingdom. Even its plagues were half-hearted. All self-respecting river kingdoms have vast supernatural plagues, but the best the Old Kingdom had been able to achieve in the last hundred years was the Plague of the Frog*.
*It was quite a big frog, however, and got into the air ducts and kept everyone awake for weeks.

4. Pratchett’s writing is still spectacular. He’s hilarious, in more than just one way. He’s not riding a single joke or style of humor, he’s engaging a wide variety of humor and pulls all of them off.
"Therefore I will have dinner sent in," said the priest. "It will be roast chicken."

"I hate chicken."

Dios smiled. "No sire. On Wednesdays the King always enjoys chicken, sire."

5. The characters here are engaging in ways that are typically engaging: conflicted humans with good and bad habits. Most novelists employ this tactic to make their characters interesting and give the writer something to resolve. But here, the question is whether the characters are resolved at the end. I don’t know for sure. Certainly, Ptraci resolves nicely. But the main character is kind of left to wander a bit at the end.
These men are philosophers, he thought. They had told him so. So their brains must be so big that they have room for ideas that no-one else would consider for five seconds.

6. In short: a good Discworld novel, but not a great one. It’s closer to great than Sourcery was, and along the same lines as a quest novel. So, it’s a step forward towards better, but not quite great yet. I hadn’t read this one before and was happy to get into it as much as I did. I kind of wish more was done with the smuggler, but it wasn’t satirized as much as Pratchett’s typical. It’s kind of in there as a foregone conclusion that all importers are actually smugglers, without going into much more depth than that. In all, good book.
Mere animals couldn’t possibly manage to act like this. You need to be a human being to be really stupid.

30 March, 2017

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett


1. This novel is Terry Pratchett’s William Shakespearean tale—meaning that it heavily references Shakespeare, as well as themes, plots, and characters from his works. The themes of destiny, fate, tragedy, power, family, love, death, and supernatural occurrences come up throughout the book. Present are plots about succession, usurpation, a play-within-a-play, romance, and tragedy. The three witches from MacBeth are the eponymous main characters, while the fool from King Lear gets major billing as well. In some ways, most of the characters play on Shakespearean types.
—But this is more Pratchett’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead than his version of an Elizabethan play. In this way, a main theme of the novel is pointing out the differences between the mindset and life of people in Elizabethan times and in the present day. Pratchett pulls this off with his usual hilarity:
“She never sent the castle to sleep”, said Granny, “that’s just an old wife’s tale. She just stirred up time a little. It’s not as hard as people think, everyone does it all the time. It’s like rubber, is time, you can stretch it to suit yourself.”

Magrat was about to say: That’s not right, time is time, every second lasts a second, that’s its job. The she recalled weeks that had flown past and afternoons that had lasted forever. Some minutes had lasted hours, some hours had gone past so quickly she hadn’t been aware they’d gone past at all.

“But that’s just people’s perception, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes”, said Granny, “of course it is, it all is, what difference does that make?”
That’s a wonderful post-modern statement followed by a brilliant joke about it, set in Shakespearean times—this is fertile ground that others have gone over for many years. Yet, Pratchett finds points of agreement between the Elizabethans and us that help to understand their mindset, though the book is still firmly rooted in Pratchett’s contemporary philosophical emphases—for all of its fantasy window dressing. In other words, some of the themes of Shakespeare show up, but they’re all discussed by a variety of characters on the intellectual timeline from Elizabethan to today. Rather than feeling like a history of these themes, this book discusses this variety of viewpoints fairly and even-handedly. And the discussion is fascinating.
—But the main theme is witches. In his 1985 speech, “Why Gandalf Never Married”, Pratchett talks about how witches are perceived:
I'm talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn't such a thing as a female wizard. Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise. Strangely enough, that's also the case in this world. You don't have to believe in magic to notice that. Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.

[...]Of course I hardly need mention the true fairytale witches, as malevolent a bunch of crones as you could imagine. It was probably living in those gingerbread cottages. No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless — it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You'd hear a noise in the night and it'd be the local kids, eating the doorknob. According to my eight-year-old daughter's book on Wizards, a nicely-illustrated little paperback available at any good bookshop, "wizards undid the harm caused by evil witches". There it is again, the recurrent message: female magic is cheap and nasty. But why is all this? Is there anything in the real world that is reflected in fantasy?

The curious thing is that the Western world at least has no very great magical tradition. You can look in vain for any genuine wizards, or for witches for that matter. I know a large number of people who think of themselves as witches, pagans or magicians, and the more realistic of them will admit that while they like to think that they are following a tradition laid down in the well-known Dawn of Time they really picked it all up from books and, yes, fantasy stories. I have come to believe that fantasy fiction in all its forms has no basis in anything in the real world. I believe that witches and wizards get their ideas from their reading matter or, before that, from folklore. Fiction invents reality.
And there it is, spelled out for his fans, the main theme of Equal Rites, and also the main theme here—though in a different way. Yes, he’s advocating for equal rights, but not as centrally or hamfistedly as in Equal Rites. He rebuilds fantasy in order to rebuild reality’s conception of it: he attempts to make a new reality about witches—he advocates for a new perception of witches as useful, boots-on-the-ground magic. And while witches do admit capabilities for sparkly lights magic, they treat it more along the lines of what Simon talks about in Equal Rites: magic that doesn’t need to be used because easier ways to do things exist. Headology, as Granny Weatherwax calls psychological warfare, is much less effort and more widely applicable than magic. As evidence, we see both: the mundane placebo effects of positive thinking, right action, and doing good despite traditions to the contrary; as well as powerful magic necessary to travel across time fifteen years into the future. But the focus intentionally stays on the day-to-day because of his wider project here. Instead of what he did in Equal Rites, by doing this recasting more fairly to a wide variety of viewpoints, Pratchett firmly roots this novel in rebuilding fantasy—and hopefully reality as well. He still gets his point across, but not in as preachy a way.
She walked quickly through the darkness with the frank stride of someone who was at least certain that the forest, on this damp and windy night, contained strange and terrible things and she was it.

2. The characters are starting to fall in line too. Instead of Granny’s overbearing nature driving portions of the novel, like it did in Equal Rites, here she serves the story as a character. She does some amazing things that influence the plot heavily, but she still serves the plot here. For instance, in moving people fifteen years into the future, she advances the plot, but not in a way that only allows Pratchett to make more jokes with Granny. The time-leap is mostly for the plot itself. Yet this doesn’t make Granny any less interesting. Rather, it allows Pratchett to not mine his characters for as much content as he has in the past—I’m still interested in Granny at the end, rather than being slightly relieved that Rincewind goes away at the end of Sourcery. This is important to remember: well developed and explored characters help a story be understandable and memorable by readers, but when they are placed in service to the plot, it may be easier to retain interest in those characters, which let’s the reader still have some wonder left at the end of a book. This is the growth of Pratchett as a storyteller over his first books in the Discworld series.
This book was written using 100% recycled words.

3. The flipside of having the plot drive the novel is that the themes may jump around and end up shallow, the characters may be lost in service to the story. It’s a balancing act between plot and depth that needs to fit the novel as a whole. The question is whether Pratchett’s balance is more appropriate here or in his first couple of books, where the jokes run everything, or where the characters control it all, or where the themes take over—excluding Mort, of course. And I think this balance here shows storytelling strength, as I’ve hinted at above. He balances plot, characters, themes, and jokes evenly. Sure, in a delightful scene he’ll draw it out a bit to keep the jokes flowing, or he’ll skip through quick scenes to get the plot moving—but there are enough of both of these types of moments throughout the novel to make it seem balanced well. He doesn’t give preference to one over the others, in the whole.
Humans had built a world inside the world, which reflected it in pretty much the same way as a drop of water reflected the landscape. And yet ... and yet ...

Inside this little world they had taken pains to put all the things you might think they would want to escape from—hatred, fear, tyranny, and so forth. Death was intrigued. They thought they wanted to be taken out of themselves, and every art humans dreamt up took them further in. He was fascinated.

4. A temptation would be to adopt more of the poetry and cadence of Shakespeare, but Pratchett hasn’t here. He continues to write in his own way. It’s not all iambs, pentameters, and groundbreaking spelling. He doesn’t lose himself in his project, in other words. He is still Pratchett writing for us today. And that helps him communicate with his readers on one level, instead of narrowing his audience to Shakespeare nerds only.
I reckon responsible behavior is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.

5. And that’s Wyrd Sisters, a fantastic book that balances a lot of aspects of storytelling skillfully. It’s difficult to not look at the progression of Pratchett across his first novels. He seems to be trying a few different tactics and balances in storytelling in the first few books: the opening pair focus on the jokes and satire, the third tries to tell a character-driven story, the fourth balances things pretty well, the fifth puts the story too much in the front, while this sixth novel goes back to the balance Mort established and does it again. I hope he continues writing like this. And, because I like Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard quite a bit, I was delighted to read this for the first time. (Sorry about the lengthy quotes from Pratchett himself, but he said what he was interested in so well that I wanted to share his words too.)
Destiny is important, see, but people go wrong when they think it controls them. It's the other way around.

19 March, 2017

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett


1. This titular pun gives a good sense of where Pratchett heads with the novel: if this were a movie, this would be the big, dumb, fun, action-comedy. This is a chase, this is a revenge story eight years in the making, this is powers growing exponentially. There's a harem, a magic carpet, some wizard fights, a rich caliph, a beautiful girl, a climactic battle in multiple parts, and the whole thing is an extended chase scene—this novel shows Pratchett demolishing pulp fiction, while simultaneously building up a good example of a pulp-based novel. It often references the Song of Solomon, One Thousand and One Nights, Kubla Khan, and Middle Eastern myth and tradition.
The truth isn't easily pinned to a page. In the bathtub of history the truth is harder to hold than the soap and much more difficult to find.

2. In terms of a theme, this novel initially seems to be Pratchett returning to primarily lampooning fantasy tropes. But he continually plays on the action-adventure themes apparent in a lot of pulp fiction, so I believe his main theme is pulp.
—Supporting evidence is all over the place. Like in the way Pratchett uses deus ex machina plot resolutions—instead of simple escapes from tight spots by unforeshadowed powers, there’s always a twist to the escape: the carpet we half-expect because of the trope is unintentionally mounted upside down, the luggage is acting like a jilted lover when he stumbles upon and ends a wizard fight, the proto-hero is attempting to stop the Ice Giants when they stop because of the gods, all Rincewind has for the climactic battle is cynical compassion and a sock with a half-brick in it, etc. In one sense, this tactic shows Pratchett taking pulp and moving it one step closer to a rational reality—at least as rational as Discworld ever gets—showing him remaking the tropes as his own. While in another sense, they also point out the ridiculous in pulp plot resolutions. And those intertwined senses make Pratchett worthy of reading.
—On the other hand, there is no strong, central hero character, which pulp almost requires. So perhaps my conclusion on the theme is stretching things a bit. Maybe there isn’t a strong central theme outside of the base theme of the whole series—playing with the tropes of fantasy. Or perhaps this is the pulp novel that simply exists without a strong, violent lead—like Reservoir Dogs, the heist film without the heist. I like this idea.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“No harm in that. I’ve never known what to do,” said Rincewind with hollow cheerfulness. “Been completely at a loss my whole life.” He hesitated. “I think it’s called being human, or something.”

3. As for characters, Rincewind seems to exist for jokes, mostly. But also to stay out of the way of more interesting characters and provide a cynical, running commentary on them. Though the commentary is endearing, the Rincewind thing is starting to grow stale, and I felt a bit of relief that Rincewind ended up in the Dungeon Dimensions at the end, presumably unable to return.
—I think Coin was a real miss by Pratchett. His character arc reveals itself through others’ views of him and what others see him doing. We never see Coin and his father fighting, but we hear about it. We never get a sense of who Coin really is until the end, when Rincewind unlocks him. This could have been an insightful story about living up to the expectations of our parents versus finding our own path, about believing what our parents taught instead of thinking things through for ourselves, about a conflicted character trying to honor his father and also follow his conscious while coming of age—but the story is too caught up in action-adventure to delve into that and it’s all dropped on the reader at the end, with minimal exploration earlier in the novel.
Perhaps it would be simpler if you just did what you're told and didn't try to understand things.
—That said, Nijel as the hero-in-training, and Conina as the repressed, heroine hairdresser—are both wonderful characters. They’re full of internal conflicts and goals that they are constantly falling short of, while allowing their own strengths in other places to shine. It’s a tactic he has used well in the past, including with Rincewind, and one I hope he uses more often in the future of this series.
It's vital to remember who you really are. It's very important. It isn't a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.

4. As a novel, this is better than the first two books in the series, but not as good as Mort. Plot-wise, it’s got a strong central theme—all of the parts relate back to the Sourcery war ongoing, but the scenes jump around in a series of short stories like the first two did. It’s a better novel because the short stories are all clearly related to the plot, and the characters carry-over, but it still left me not as enthusiastic about this novel as I am about Mort. Perhaps this attempt at synthesizing a novel with those earlier works results from the quick pace of publishing—this is his third novel published in seventeen months. Maybe my belief that the theme is pulp fiction comes from this jumping around. Any way you rationalize it though, this is not as good of a novel as Pratchett can write. It’s funny, but not his best.
As they say in Discworld, we are trying to unravel the Mighty Infinite using a language which was designed to tell one another where the fresh fruit was.

5. And that’s about all I want to say about Sourcery. It’s a good novel, and I’d give it to a D&D player in a hearbeat because the plot echoes so many games that I’ve played. But that plot wears thin, the characters are inconsistent, and an ultimate theme may still be lacking. All of that’s okay in the end though: the jokes are good, as are the insights, and really, why are we still reading Pratchett if not for those aspects? By examining such a niche market so carefully in such a particular time, he reveals things about the world he lives in that other, more serious authors regularly miss.
It is a well-known established fact throughout the many-dimensional worlds of the multiverse that most really great discoveries are owed to one brief moment of inspiration. There's a lot of spadework first, of course, but what clinches the whole thing is the sight of, say, a falling apple or a boiling kettle or the water slipping over the edge of the bath. Something goes click inside the observer's head and then everything falls into place. The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist=s mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the elevator, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different.

This is thought of as somehow wonderful. It isn't. It is tragic. Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time traveling through the densest matter in the same way that a neutrino passes through a candyfloss haystack, and most of them miss.

Even worse, most of the ones that hit the exact cerebral target, hit the wrong one.

For example, the weird dream about a lead doughnut on a mile-high gantry, which in the right mind would have been the catalyst for the invention of repressed-gravitational electricity generation (a cheap and inexhaustible and totally non-polluting form of power which the world in question had been seeking for centuries, and for the lack of which it was plunged into a terrible and pointless war) was in fact had by a small and bewildered duck.

By another stroke of bad luck, the sight of a herd of wild horses galloping through a field of wild hyacinths would have led a struggling composer to write the famous Flying God Suite, bringing succor and balm to the souls of millions, had he not been at home in bed with shingles. The inspiration thereby fell to a nearby frog, who was not in much of a position to make a startling contributing to the field of tone poetry.

Many civilizations have recognized this shocking waste and tried various methods to prevent it, most of them involving enjoyable but illegal attempts to tune the mind into the right wavelength by the use of exotic herbage or yeast products. It never works properly.

16 March, 2017

Mort by Terry Pratchett


1. This post marks my 100th post about literature. It's fitting that this 100th post is about Mort, which may be the first Discworld novel I can fully get behind as a novel. This is a fantastic place to start in on his books. But these notes help me explore and catalogue my thoughts on books, and as I think through one idea, another comes up until I reach the end. So, let me see what comes up here.
“Albert grunted. "Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?"
Mort thought for a moment.
"No," he said eventually, "what?"
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, "Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve 'em right.”

2. Mort is the first in this series that doesn’t put the jokes in charge. The plot and characters clearly drive this novel because they are consistent throughout, because the characters go through interesting changes that realistically result from the worldbuilding and plot, and because the themes are portrayed and explained through the plot and characters. The first two books were collections of loosely related short stories, the third was driven by its theme. This is an actual novel, with a story to tell and everything—and it reads better because of it.
—Partly because it’s what we expect from a novel, sure. But we expect that from a novel because it works. In other words, a contract with the reader is laid out in the opening pages, and the author lives up to that contract throughout the rest of the book, allowing the reader to really dig into the themes and characters without being distracted by switching gears between stories, or having to suspend more disbelief in the middle of the thing. This is one reason why novels are so effective and popular as a format.
Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.

3. Now, that’s not to say this novel isn’t funny. It’s to say that this novel has found the ordinate place for its humor: to satirise culture and discern situations. And this isn’t just my personal preference: the way Pratchett writes the succeeding novels seems to put humor in the same place, showing his preference or his realization about this strategy’s effectiveness. This was my observation and belief as a reader, and then I found this 2004 interview of Pratchett saying the same thing:
Discworld began as an antidote to fantasy. In fact, it was interesting to find out, at the first ever Discworld convention—which was about eight or ten years ago, I don’t know—ninety percent of the people who attended did not think of themselves as fantasy readers, although they read Discworld. In the early 1980s there was a lot of fantasy which in many respects was a copy of Tolkien. And I thought, ‘There were certainly cliches here: so much fun could be had.’ Discworld was, I suppose, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for fantasy. I take my life in my hands by saying that, but that’s probably as good a way as I could put it. Discworld is written by a better writer now. I’ve been doing it for twenty-one years and Mort is actually the first Discworld book that I’m quite pleased about. But if I wrote it now, I’d write it better.
So there you have it: one of his readers who is always thinking about writing thinks that the jokes here are properly placed in the construction of the novel, and Pratchett himself thinks the same thing. Jokes are fantastic, that’s a part of why I read Pratchett. But the best jokes reflect culture in order to impact it—to show us the ridiculous that we take for granted. They last longer when they are the catalyst to make us think about things. And by putting the plot first, then building the jokes off of it, building the jokes to support it, the plot gives a context to the jokes that helps their purpose. For instance:
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever," he said. "Have you thought of going into teaching?”
I’m all for teachers and think they hold one of the most important positions in our society, but this is a solid joke. And without the context of the whole novel, the plot and characters and other jokes, it’s just a solid joke—little more effective and memorable than a knock-knock or chicken crossing the road. Within the context, this adds another wrinkle to his larger discussion of jobs and employment, the main theme of this novel. This joke shows one more way in which the world views professions and personal marketability. Yes, it’s played for laughs. But it also informs. And with the context of the plot, this informativeness surfaces more easily for the reader.
THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES. FASCINATING.
4. The theme of this novel is clearly employment. Before you say, “ugh,” and wander off, hear me out. Pratchett takes a stab at explaining how jobs and humans interact. Namely, he posits that jobs change us as people, but we also influence them simultaneously. It’s funny and sad when Mort can’t find an employer, and all the advice he gets from his father keeps prospective employers away. We can relate to that. And by taking the only offer he gets, he bites off way more than he anticipates. We can relate to that too. And by having his own personality and ideas, he chafes with management. We can relate to that too. But by placing this whole theme in a fantasy context with a job that doesn’t relate to us at all—harvesting souls—the whole theme manages to miss what makes our day-to-day experience so mundane. This exemplifies why speculative fiction can be so useful. Tell me I’m to read a book about a man at a job, and unless the job is something crazy exciting I’m not going to read the book, even if it’s as satirical and funny as Pratchett is. But put it outside of our experience while still lampooning and rephrasing that experience, and this novel really works. This is why I read science fiction and fantasy—for the ideas and reflections of our cultural norms. Speculative fiction makes it easier to digest a theme this close to home.
YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE"
"And what's that?"
A SHARP EDGE.

5. However, the pacing is a little odd in places. There are times when it feels like the novel moves too fast for the import of the moment, and times when moments drag on for unapparent reasons. The timing that feels most correct is the opening and the ending—Mort’s first experiences as Death’s apprentice, and their fight at the end. Otherwise, some of the middle portions seem to run long—like when Mort visits the tavern—or short—like when Albert returns to the Unseen University. At the tavern, the drink Mort quaffs doesn’t add much to the story, it reinforces his arc of assuming the aspect of death, but doesn't really add anything new to it. And Albert’s return is set up in the worldbuilding to be more important and influential than it turns out to be. The former feels like an idea where Pratchett ran out of steam; the latter like Pratchett was just getting going when he stopped—a whole Discworld novel could’ve been written about Albert’s return, instead we get a short vignette. That said, I fully admit that this is niggling. Nine times out of ten, the scene fits perfectly.
But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

6. So there we have it: the first Discworld book that fully embraces being a novel. Everything supports the plot and themes, with well developed characters, and interesting insight into an applicable theme. Of course, it’s still fantasy and funny, but that humor and satire is why I often suggest reading Pratchett to a wide variety of people. I would suggest you start here, in a book dealing with the familiar themes of death and love, but focused on the overarching theme of work. This is the highest placed Pratchett novel on The Big Read, and it’s easy to see that it should be highly placed in that particular popularity contest.

28 February, 2017

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett


1. That pun at the end of his 1986 Novacon 15 speech about Equal Rites comes back here—really the whole speech does. The point of this novel is explicitly stated in that speech—and he was probably already at work on this novel, because The Light Fantastic was already on its way to the presses at the time. The premise is this:
"Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There's also a lot of stuff about man's natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule. I'd like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it.”
As this is only his third novel, he’s still fully entrenched in the Fantasy-Jokes-Drive-the-Novel mode of writing, so this book isn’t as explicitly about equal rights as it is about equal rites. But Sandman has me thinking that dreams are just as much a part of reality as physics, so equal rites are equal rights, sideways. This shows Pratchett clearly and directly rebuilding the fantasy that he has been tearing apart for jokes. It’s clear that this is the main theme of this novel, but he’s got a couple of sub-themes that deserve exhuming as well.
—First among these is the fantasy-clichés horse he’s still riding. He introduces witchcraft and witches, but as much as he argues for equal rites, he doesn’t give them a pass free pass: witches get lampooned as effectively as wizards and barbarian heroes have been in the last two novels.
—Second is the rural-urban interchange: this idea that the rural people don’t fit in urbanity, and vice-versa. He mostly just explores this theme for jokes, but at the same time, the jokes are discerning and point out the basic similarities of humans everywhere. For instance, Granny Weatherwax is as confused in the million-inhabitant Ankh-Morporkh as the Arch-Chancellor would be in the Ramtop Mountains—and both are equally awkward when attempting to flirt with each other.
—The last theme he really digs into is the Ivory Tower, the intellectual mindset. Simon has these arguments that people can’t seem to remember, but they make sense when he’s making them. In other words, he’s pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and thinking about academic subjects in ways that are new and interesting. But he’s up against the traditional thought patterns of the university’s tenured lecturers. This is also played up for jokes by Pratchett. Having spent eight years in colleges and universities, this theme provided some of my favorite jokes throughout the novel.
“I look at it all like this,” he said. “Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life. But now,” he brightened up, “while I’m still confused and uncertain it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.”

Treatle nodded. “I hadn’t looked at it like that,” he said, “but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance. There’s so much about the universe we don’t know.” They both savored the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were ignorant of only ordinary things.”

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.
2. Pratchett’s character creation here is strong enough that it resonates through later books. But he also tries something new here:
—First, the familiar done well. Like Twoflower, Granny Weatherwax personifies an extreme. Her confidence and ignorance match in a realistic way—I know many people just as ignorant and confident as she. But it’s also endearing because it allows Pratchett’s jokes about people who are like Granny:
For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all these books people were setting store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy. Among the many things in the infinitely varied universe with which Granny did not hold was talking to dead people, who by all accounts had enough troubles of their own.
Granny is pushed to extremes by Pratchett, but it’s for laughs, not because he doesn’t trust the reader—it isn’t ham-fisted. Since the reader gets insight into the mind of this person that they already know, the character is fascinating. It’s a familiar tactic from the first two novels, yet more confidently written here.
She was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn't.
—Second, Pratchett tries something new with Esk. Her headstrong, clear thinking, and curious personality contrasts his typically ridiculous characters: both to provide a rich field for jokes, and to give the reader a character relatable to themselves in more than one or two aspects. It’s not that the earlier characters were unrelatable: Twoflower was curious and Rincewind was cynical. But Esk is relatable across most of her personality. The key to her relatability is that she personifies what people think of themselves, what they wish they were. I don’t mean that Esk wish-fulfills power-fantasies like Conan or Gandalf—which is the typical fantasy tactic. I merely mean that she is what people wish they were, in their day-to-day lives. And that’s Pratchett playing with the trope of wish-fulfilment in fantasy, again. In another new way.
“That's one form of magic, of course."

"What, just knowing things?"

"Knowing things that other people don't know.”

3. The plot here occupies the center of the book: Esk’s journey from the Ramtops to Unseen University in Ankh-Morporkh. However, the plot meanders all over the world and ends up being split between the journey and the University. The first fifty-one percent of the book deals with the journey, then the last forty-nine percent bases itself around the university. Like Star Wars Episodes V and VI, the book splits between these two stories and it works alright, but it’s also two stories, not one. It exists as two stories, with two continuous characters, but the second part adds in new secondary characters and is an awkward continuation of the former story in the way it separates itself through a new plot, some new characters, and new topics.
—Also, instead of letting the plot drive the novel, he crafts the story and jokes by throwing widely diverse characters together and sticking with them until they come to an understanding. The two witches—Granny Weatherwax as the bumpkin rural witch, and the more cosmopolitan Hilta Goatfounder—come at witchcraft in different ways. Their relationship allows a rich set of jokes that he uses to drive the plot for that portion of the novel. But these parts drag a little bit.
—So, this novel gets closer to great in the way it circles a single plotline—Esk getting admitted to the University. But Pratchett allows himself these moments and scenes to really revel in the situations that he’s set up between characters. It’s two plotlines awkwardly shoved together with similar themes and the loose, overarching thread of Esk trying to be the first female wizard.
For animals, the entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.

4. This is Pratchett’s strongest Discworld novel yet, as a novel: he’s dealing with themes in an informative way, he’s rebuilding the fantasy he pulls apart, and he has an overarching plot line that informs all of the parts. This is a good novel. But it’s not great: the jokes are still in the driver’s seat, distracting the plot into inconsistent pacing. In the whole though, this novel works well. It’s written similarly to the last two novels, but this is a good book to start reading the series on, especially if you’re interested in the main theme. There may be better ones coming, but you have to start somewhere, and starting with something you're already interested in is a great tactic.

13 February, 2017

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett


1. This directly continues from the last novel, The Colour of Magic — people and their luggage falling off the edge of the discworld is the opening scene here, and the closing scene there. It’s a direct continuation of the story as the first novel, with the same characters and many of the same writing tactics. However, this novel is different enough in a few, key ways, that it deserves its own set of notes. This was first published three years after that first novel, and Pratchett has progressed as a writer, but he’s still not perfect.
It was a still night, tinted with the promise of dawn. A crescent moon was just setting. Ankh-Morpork, largest city in the lands around the Circle Sea, slept.

That statement is not really true. On the one hand, those parts of the city which normally concerned themselves with, for example, selling vegetables, shoeing horses, carving exquisite small jade ornaments, changing money and making tables, on the whole, slept. Unless they had insomnia. Or had got up in the night, as it might be, to go to the lavatory. On the other hand, many of the less law-abiding citizens were wide awake and, for instance, climbing through windows that didn’t belong to them, slitting throats, mugging one another, listening to loud music in smoky cellars and generally having a lot more fun. But most of the animals were asleep, except for the rats. And the bats, too, of course. As far as the insects were concerned…

The point is that descriptive writing is very rarely entirely accurate and during the reign of Olaf Quimby II as Patrician of Ankh some legislation was passed in a determined attempt to put a stop to this sort of thing and introduce some honesty into reporting. Thus, if a legend said of a notable hero that “all men spoke of his prowess” any bard who valued his life would add hastily “except for a couple of people in his home village who thought he was a liar, and quite a lot of other people who had never really heard of him.” Poetic simile was strictly limited to statements like “his mighty steed was as fleet as the wind on a fairly calm day, say about Force Three,” and any loose talk about a beloved having a face that launched a thousand ships would have to be backed by evidence that the object of desire did indeed look like a bottle of champagne.

Quimby was eventually killed by a disgruntled poet during an experiment conducted in the palace grounds to prove the disputed accuracy of the proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and in his memory it was amended to include the phrase “only if the sword is very small and the pen is very sharp.”
2. The biggest change is that this novel contains a central plot piece that relates to all the parts — the Octavo’s efforts to delay its use and the red star. However, it’s little more that a framing arc, and the novel is still split up into four short stories: the Octavo versus the wizards, the druids and the introduction of Cohen, Death’s realm, and the Red Star’s coming. But even the introduction of a framing narrative improves the readability of the novel on the whole. This book holds together better than the last, even if the druid computers and Death’s realm sections seem to run long. And those two middle sections feeling overlong gives me some idea of where The Colour of Magic got the pacing wrong:
—The first novel had alright pacing within the four short stories that composed the book. But the pacing of the whole was inconsistent because, without a strong central plot, the stories could not refer back to one, could not build one, could only progress their little part, and not the whole book. The result was a bit of a mess, but enjoyable in its parts. It was a fix-up novel.
—Here, the two middle portions feel like they run long. It’s because these portions don’t dwell on the framing narrative as much as the first and last portions. Pratchett sets me up to care about the red star shortly before largely ignoring it for the middle two portions of the book. So as these two portions get longer and longer while I read them, I start to wonder why they’re there. Of course, this is a satire, and those portions are simply small vignettes, and they’re poking fun at computer haves and have-nots, or Bridge players. But they were so loosely related to the framing narrative that they seem to meander the novel. That’s a big reason why the plot appears tacked on to me.
—However, the first and last portions, which set up and resolve the framing narrative, really start to show the way forward for Pratchett. Instead of adding in a plot to frame his hilarious, small scenes, building the scenes because of a central plot works better: usually seems to force parts of a novel to connect to other parts.
It looked like the sort of book described in library catalogues as "slightly foxed", although it would be more honest to admit that it looked as though it had been badgered, wolved and possibly beared as well.


3. These characters engage when I’m reading them. There are some new characters, and some changes to the characters from the last novel.
—Pratchett still uses some characters to play with fantasy tropes. Cohen, a new character, contrasts nicely with Hrun, the barbarian hero of the last novel. Where in the last novel, Pratchett pushed the barbarian hero cliché to extremes, here he flips the trope, sort of. What happens when the hero grows old? This echoes Beowulf in some ways, but instead of the old, unbeaten king palsy shaking and pissing himself in the corner, Cohen still badasses with the best of them. However, he’s lost all his teeth and sometimes his back or knees give out in the middle of a fight. He’s more Conan than Hrothgar, but it’s Pratchett, so he’s playing with both traditional characters simultaneously. Much of the humor in the second section comes from Cohen, this octegenarian barbarian hero — proving it’s not what Pratchett does, but how he does it.
—But he also begins to use characters to provide discussions on more foundational issues of humanity and reality. Instead of Rincewind and Twoflower’s relationship being used only to lambast tourism, here it’s a cynical, insightful look a couple of layers deeper into the tourist psychology and life philosophy. Instead of just saying, “tourists do stupid stuff,” he’s saying, “tourists do stupid stuff out of ignorance, and a really stupid tourist is one who attempts to persist in their ignorance, though ignorance is sometimes essential in extreme situations.” He uses Rincewind’s cynicism to explore why tourists are both breathtakingly beautiful thinkers, and abysmally idiotic ignoramuses. He shows why ignorance can be bliss, and why it can be deadly. This begins to show Pratchett’s genius.
Twoflower didn't just look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles, Rincewind knew—he looked at it through a rose-tinted brain, too, and heard it through rose-tinted ears.

+++

'I expect everything will turn out all right in the end,' said Twoflower.
Rincewind looked at him. remarks like that always threw him.
'Do you really believe that?' he said. 'I mean, really?'
'Well, things generally do work out satisfactorily, when you come to think about it.'
'If you think the total disruption of my life for the last year is satisfactory then you might be right. I've lost count of the times I've nearly been killed--'
'Twenty-seven,' said Twoflower.
'What?'
'Twenty-seven times,' said Twoflower helpfully. 'I worked it out. But you never actually have.'
'What? Worked it out?' said Rincewind, who was beginning to have the familiar feeling that the conversation had been mugged.

+++

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate beauty, he just appreciates it in his own way. I mean, if a poet sees a daffodil he stares at it and writes a long poem about it, but Twoflower wanders off to find a book on botany.


4. This story starts to build past the just poke holes, Blazing Saddles tactic used in the last novel: here Pratchett begins to rebuild fantasy in his own way. But he only starts to—he only hints at the ways he will rebuild in the future.
—For instance, he uses Rincewind and Twoflower’s relationship to get deeper into the cultural consciousness. Or, instead of playing Cohen up merely for laughs, he uses it to point out a glaring hole in fantasy literature: an old Conan doesn’t exist. Conan is always on the come up, never on top. But Conan does so much so well that he attains the top at the end of each volume. He must give it all up between novels, but it’s Conan, so he must give it all up by choice. What kind of person would continually fight for power, wealth, and prestige just to always give it up? What reasons could there be for these actions? It’s probably wanderlust and a fear of commitment that keeps driving him away. What would this hero trope actually look like when examined fully, with real human motivations and thinking? Especially after he has turned old. This doesn’t just poke holes, it starts to use the hole poking to illuminate the way humans work.
—Simultaneously, Pratchett starts to pull more literary allusions into the tale. He recognizes that Cohen sets up the same catch-22 Beowulf riffs on: what do you do with the unbeatable warrior and perfect leader when he’s old, incontinent, and useless—but still respected? When succession is based on a sword and the old king’s useless, some young punk should come along and chop his head off to get at the crown. But when the king’s respected enough to command a large following of loyal warriors, nobody is willing or able to get into the patriarch with the pointy end. Which poses problems when he stops being able to make decisions. In some ways, Pratchett uses Cohen to explain Hrothgar, to give an alternate take. After all, Hrothgar seems to lead his men to the small lake to confront Grendel’s mother. Sure, Beowulf is the one who dives in and takes out Grendel’s mother, but Hrothgar is still warrior enough to lead his men out in all his armor. Pratchett notices this and uses Cohen to poke holes in the usual Hrothgar interpretation of a palsied old man pissing himself in the mead hall.
—Through taking this trope seriously and looking at it realistically, Pratchett uses Cohen to both bring this Beowulf idea to the fore, and smack fantasy in the face for ignoring the end of life. If literature is mostly about death and love, then fantasy has been letting it down. In other words, Pratchett’s just starting to rebuild what he’s having so much fun tearing apart. This is an exciting leg up over the last novel, and hints at Pratchett’s genius.
Ankh-Morpork! Pearl of cities! This is not a completely accurate description, of course—it was not round and shiny—but even its worst enemies would agree that if you had to liken Ankh-Morpork to anything, then it might as well be a piece of rubbish covered with the diseased secretions of a dying mollusc.

+++

'We’ve never needed one before!’
‘I think perhaps you have needed one, you just haven’t used one.'


5. Again, the writing keeps the reader on their toes in a way that’s engaging, but still not the ribbon cutter of a literary groundbreaking. He surprises. He literally interprets figures of speech. He applies human characteristics to inanimate objects and ideas. He plays with the sounds of language. He writes well for what it is, rather than trying to force his writing or make a specific type of writing work for his comedic voice, he does what he does and perfects it to his taste. Which is all any of us can ever do.
He got down easily by dropping uncontrollably from branch to branch until he landed on his head in a pile of pine needles, where he lay gasping for breath and wishing he'd been a better person.

+++

He always held that panic was the best means of survival; back in the olden days, his theory went, people faced with hungry saber-toothed tigers could be divided very simply into those who panicked and those who stood there saying “What a magnificent brute!” and “Here, pussy.”
6. The theme of this novel is just fantasy, really, though lightly touching on cultural representations of genders within fantasy—Pratchett’s pointing out and torpedoing the tropes and standardized aspects of the genre. Like Pratchett talked about in speeches and interviews, the fantasy world of Lieber and Le Guin largely contribute to the same cultural understanding of fantasy, and he’s having a blast providing insights to its tropes and speculating on their effects. However, that’s not to say that only fantasy readers would understand this book: the tropes he chooses are some of the most well known—dragons whizzing around spouting flames, wizards shouting and issuing sparkly lights from their fingertips, unbeatable barbarian heroes being interested only in gold and women, half naked virgins sacrificed on rocks for ancient rites, witches who live in gingerbread houses and fly around on broomsticks. These are tropes that are well known both to fantasy fans and other people. So, though he limits his potential reach here by mostly discussing fantasy, he takes the broadest swing at fantasy that he can, and in so doing, broadens his audience.
—However, this fantasy referencing holds this book away from many readers: it's just about fantasy, and if you don't care about Conan, or dragons, or wizards, then some of these jokes fall flat—and with the jokes in the driver's seat, this book's not going to get very far without them. For instance, Cohen actually marrying the damsel he saves is funny within genre. On one hand, Conan's damsels are treated as merely sexual objects, not characters or people—they get rescued, they kiss Conan, then the book ends while implying more is about to happen, and at the start of the next book they're nowhere to be found. By the genre standards, Cohen should have a month-long, passion filled tryst with Bethan, then move on. But Cohen marries her. On the other hand, Bethan is not the demure, squeamish, and fainting damsel that Conan usually finds. She is full of gusto and fire. She laments keeping herself pure for so long without getting the reward of being the virgin human sacrifice—an observation played up for jokes by Pratchett, but indicative of her personality. She is intelligent, cunning, hardworking, and loyal. She helps Cohen maintain his aging body with a no-nonsense and forceful attitude, like every ER nurse ever.
—But the point stands: if somebody is entirely unfamiliar with these tropes that Pratchett riffs off of, this book will pass them by. This book is for fantasy fans. If you're not one, you're going to have to do a lot of extra work to pull Pratchett's critiques of cultural representations out of here. And that's the biggest problem this book has.

"Dead?" said Rincewind. In the debating chamber of his mind a dozen emotions got to their feet and started shouting. Relief was in full spate when Shock cut in on a point of order and then Bewilderment, Terror and Loss started a fight which was ended only when Shame slunk in from next door to see what all the row was about.

+++

The other skeletal hand held small cubes of cheese and pineapple on a stick. WELL? said Death, in a voice with all the warmth and color of an iceberg. He caught the wizards’ gaze, and glanced down at the stick. I WAS AT A PARTY, he added, a shade reproachfully.


7. In conclusion, this second half of the story is better than the first half, but it still has its problems with pacing. Pratchett’s getting closer to deep cultural critique, closer to characters that transcend their trope play and provide insight to the way humans work, closer to rebuilding fantasy in a post-modern world, and closer to a central plot driving the whole novel. But he’s still not quite there yet: there's only half a plot, the jokes are entrenched in the driver's seat, and it's so focused on fantasy that it's really only for fandom. The humor carries this novel past most of these problems, and the read is enjoyable. But I definitely wouldn’t start here—for one thing, it’s the second half of the first novel, which is really a fix-up novel. Despite being a second half, it stands on its own legs because a central plot wasn’t important to the last novel, where one is important in at least half of this one. However, it’s not Pratchett’s best, and most of the rest of them are standalone stories that can be read without any prior knowledge of the Discworld Series.
The forest of Skund was indeed enchanted, which was nothing unusual on the Disc, and was also the only forest in the whole universe to be called — in the local language — Your Finger You Fool, which was the literal meaning of the word Skund.

The reason for this is regrettably all too common. When the first explorers from the warm lands around the Circle Sea travelled into the chilly hinterland they filled in the blank spaces on their maps by grabbing the nearest native, pointing at some distant landmark, speaking very clearly in a loud voice, and writing down whatever the bemused man told them. Thus were immortalised in generations of atlases such geographical oddities as Just A Mountain, I Don't Know, What? and, of course, Your Finger You Fool.

Rainclouds clustered around the bald heights of Mt. Oolskunrahod ('Who is this Fool who does Not Know what a Mountain is') and the Luggage settled itself more comfortably under a dripping tree, which tried unsuccessfully to strike up a conversation.

10 February, 2017

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett


0. I’ve read a few Discworld novels, but decided recently to read them all, rereading some along the way. I respect Pratchett over most other authors in my lifetime, and I want to read his novels to see if that’s still something I think; to see why, exactly; because I’m busier at work than ever and Pratchett is funny. Also, when asked who we will still be talking about in one hundred years, a medieval literature professor I had in college, named Richard Fehrenbacher, stated without hesitation that we’ll still be talking about Pratchett. I agreed with him at the time, and I still do. So, as I move into reading through all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, I hope to discover more proof for why this is. Before getting into specifics, let me explain why I think Discworld is one of the most important groups of novels of our time.
—The Discworld novels are fantasy books, but the novels satirize culture today, as well as fantasy literature. In 2005 Pratchett stated:
“Now, how did I start out? It was to have fun with some of the cliches. It was as simple as that.”
And on one level, that’s really a lot of what there is to Pratchett, and it actually is as simple as that. But there is more to him, and he had already explained what he means by ‘fun with cliches’ in 1985, during his speech at Novacon 15. This speech was given between the publishing of the first and second Discworld novels. He begins by laying out the basic premise of both his work and his speech:
“I want to talk about magic, how magic is portrayed in fantasy, how fantasy literature has in fact contributed to a very distinct image of magic, and perhaps most importantly how the Western world in general has come to accept a very precise and extremely suspect image of magic users.”
In other words, magic and fantasy novels have become standardized. The novels of Fritz Leiber and Ursula Le Guin contribute to the same world. Not just in their use of tropes—you know, dragons, barbarian heroes, witches, exotic environments, questing to save the world, magical objects, etc—but also in their use of them. Pratchett continues his speech by laying out his basic task with those standardized tropes:
“But a couple of years ago I wrote a book called The Colour of Magic. It had some boffo laughs. It was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. It was also my tribute to twenty-five years of fantasy reading, which started when I was thirteen and read Lord of the Rings in 25 hours.”
And that tribute/comedic-sendup interplay is what’s most important here, that’s what makes Pratchett so astounding. He writes what I define as the post-modern tribute, in 1983. I think it’s a tactic definitional for many artists and writers. For instance, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson do this now in cinema: they make movies that critique culture and deal with specific genres—comedically sending up the tropes of those genres, while at the same time crafting a loving homage to them and a good example of them. Pratchett predates these directors’ first movies by nine years and thirteen years, respectively. He’s doing the same thing, though more couched in comedy, much earlier.
—And Blazing Saddles itself? Well, it only makes fun of—it doesn’t simultaneously craft the loving, actually good Western that Tarantino made. It just pokes holes. Pratchett and Anderson and Tarantino actively attempt to change the genre, build it up, make it better, point out the power that is it’s raison d’etre—where Blazing Saddles just tears down.
—But what sets Pratchett a cut above is his breadth and depth of cultural criticism. He’s as wide reaching as discussing serious topics like religion, politics, and money; while also discussing frivolous ones such as taste, rock music, and fantasy. All in the same novel, all at the same time. If you want a snapshot of late twentieth century culture, I would point you to Pratchett without qualification.


1. This first Discworld novel is a strong start, but also shows places where Pratchett can improve as a writer. This first novel focuses on simply playing with tropes and critiquing culture. And the tropes play runs away with the whole. When he brought up Blazing Saddles in 1985, he obviously meant it for this book—this book almost exclusively pokes holes. He does not craft a superb plot, everything isn’t intricately connected together, and the gags run the show towards inconsistent pacing. They don’t ruin the show, but they obscure Pratchett’s genius too often. The novel is split up into four novellas, all connected by characters. It comes off like a fix-up novel, but each novella seems to attempt a different topic without finding a cohesive uniting element. The first burns down urban fantasy, the second dismantles wizards, the third makes fun of dragons and barbarian heroes, the fourth pushes exotic locales and customs over the edge. This novel ends on a cliffhanger, or three waterfall-fallers, and is picked up in media res in the next. But what this novel forgets to do is craft a good plot with solid pacing. Portions run long, other bits fly by too fast. He gets better, this I already know. But if you weren’t one of the five hundred and six who bought this first book in 1983, you’ve already been influenced by a lot of similar things that came later, and it’s hard to see just how groundbreaking and exciting this was.


2. Throughout the novel, he clearly critiques the tourism culture of the late twentieth century. The Luggage is a sapient, silent box with legs—and the tourist, Twoflower, never quite knows where it is, but it follows him around. Twoflower’s ignorance and naivety get him into terrible scrapes and stupid situations. Pratchett is consistently insightful, and this novel’s theme questions tourism and tourists. It shows the positives and negatives both. And often, both are funny.


3. But the novel’s theme is also in questioning the tropes of fantasy literature. RPG games like Dungeons & Dragons don’t get a pass—nothing does in Pratchett’s novels. They’re served up to show how ridiculous they are. But he also shows the strengths of why they are popular: at the most basic level, he populates this fantasy world with believable people, people we know and love, beside the ridiculously overblown fantasy characters from the rest of the genre. Bravd and Weasel may be Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, yet Rincewind and Twoflower are normal people who probably work the next cubicle over. And the combination is often funny, insightful, and biting.


4. But because the novel mainly plays these tropes up for laughs, it doesn’t click, it doesn’t sing. This isn’t close to the greatest novel ever written. It’s great for what it is, but if you’re not interested in wry humor about tourists, insurance, or fantasy, this isn’t the novel for you. I don’t suggest you start exploring Discworld here, though some of the worldbuilding done here does help contextualize later novels, it's not needed as most of the later novels are standalone. It’s disjointed, but funny. It’s wandering, but poignant. It’s delightfully realistic, but fantastic beyond the usual fantasy genre.


5. One of two parts where this book really sings is in playing with some of the tropes when it comes to worldbuilding. The Thieves Guild and Assassin’s Guild are the primary crime-fighting guilds in the city. They’re a bureaucratic arm of the city and, in exchange for a certain level of licensed crime, fight “with the full force of injustice” to keep the crime for themselves. Because they have skin in the game, they root out other players in order to keep their monopoly. Some of this is explained in more detail in later novels, but the seeds are laid here. And what wonderful seeds they are. He builds this world through brief mentions, followed up by specific scenes of examples, or explanations to the usefully ignorant character, the tourist Twoflower.


6. The other part where it really sings is in playing with some of the tropes when it comes to characters. I say ‘some’ because he adheres to enough of the tropes to still make this a fantasy novel, but he looks at enough of them with fresh eyes that it’s also its own thing.
—The ignorant Twoflower exemplifies this: most ignorant characters fight to be knowledgable. That’s usually how the author talks to the reader and explains his world. But Twoflower fights to maintain his ignorance, and that makes a world of difference when compared to a Jason Bourne character. I’m not a big fan of the amnesiac or ignorant character used to explain things to the reader, but here it’s played up for laughs, and that makes it work for me as a worldbuilding tactic and a character trait.
—Rincewind is a wizard. A failed wizard. He can’t use a single spell. Rincewind bemoans excitement and longs for boredom. He runs away from danger. This isn’t the typical conception of a powerful, confident magus. This isn’t Gandalf.
—At the same time, Pratchett uses the tropes of barbarian heroes by pushing the pre-existing ones to their limits, instead of flipping them:
No, what he didn't like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.
This quote illustrates how some of Pratchett’s work here even starts to make fun of post-modern, gritty, realism—what the comics genre was about to embrace in the 1980s, and what some cinema and literature had already gotten to. This is where Pratchett’s genius comes through, and his importance as an early example of these traits that were to take over in the 1990s and continue even today.


7. His writing itself is fine. It’s not the best I’ve read, but he allows himself a few moments to play with language the same ways he plays with tropes, and those moments are gold. Often, he takes phrases literally for humorous effect:
Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.
At other points, he applies human rational and emotional traits to inanimate objects and ideas. This relating of two things that aren’t often related works wonderfully and shows his usual insight:
Rincewind tried to force the memory out of his mind, but it was rather enjoying itself there, terrorizing the other occupants and kicking over the furniture.
He also tends towards surprise, by stating something new that he hadn’t hinted at earlier, in a nonchalant way:
‘We've strayed into a zone with a high magical index,' he said. 'Don't ask me how. Once upon a time a really powerful magic field must have been generated here, and we're feeling the after-effects.'
‘Precisely,' said a passing bush.
These four traits of his writing are where it really shines. And that’s perhaps the most unifying thing in this novel—that nothing is sacred and everything is to be played with. Even language. Especially language.


8. So in all, this first novel is one I’ve read a couple of times, but I never feel like I need to go back to it because it lacks a focus that helps it remain memorable. I wouldn’t suggest it as a first novel, but fans of Pratchett do like it. It doesn’t show the genius of Pratchett often enough, and it isn’t quite as funny as later books because it takes the fantasy tropes angle too seriously, but it’s a worthwhile read and I enjoy reading it every time I do. It discerns what makes tourists so odd and somewhat endearing, and does a great job making fun of fantasy, but doesn’t quite pay enough homage to really get to a level of satire higher than Blazing Saddles. The 2008 film adaptation of this novel does a better job of telling this plot than the book did.