26 October, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

0. I’m interested in looking at this book for this book’s sake: not in discussing what became of these characters and this story later when Ridley Scott touched it. This is my second read, though the first was so long ago that I hardly remembered anything about the book.


1. The central theme here is pretty clear: what is human? Coming out in 1968, the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1968—the Fair Housing Act—the metaphor here is pretty clear. And it’s not just context. The whole book deals with questions of what is human when Androids—bio-robotic beings created by humans in a human shape that largely act like humans—are considered subhuman. The culture has devised certain tests to differentiate between human and Android: two branches of testing mentioned in the book deal with reaction speeds and empathy. The former test relies on a limit of biotechnology in the world. But when Rachael is giving her villain interview in the car, she mentions that the company making androids, Rosen, will solve that issue. The main test discussed is the empathy one and the main character, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter trained to administer this test and retire/kill the fugitive Androids who have fled Mars for Earth. The empathy test mimics the classic security conundrum: a test detects Androids reliably enough to be used as evidence in a court of law, so the Android makers learn about the test, and design the next versions to pass it as humans, so the test is then modified to catch the new types, and so on. Dick’s conclusion seems to be,
Rachael said, "Or we could live in sin, except that I’m not alive."

"Legally you’re not. But really you are. Biologically. You’re not made out of transistorized circuits like a false animal; you’re an organic entity." And in two years, he thought, you’ll wear out and die. Because we never solved the problem of cell replacement, as you pointed out. So I guess it doesn’t matter anyhow.
—But part of the reason why this book is so engaging intellectually is that neither side, human or Android, gets a free pass. Dick shows both at their best and their worst, giving screen time to both sides so that the reader gets a complex conception of the central circumstance. And this writing tactic is something I strive to emulate.
"Do you have information that there's an android in the cast? I'd be glad to help you, and if I were an android would I be glad to help you?"

"An android," he said, "doesn't care what happens to another android. That's one of the indications we look for."

"Then," Miss Luft said, "you must be an android."

2. The main way he wrinkles this central question comes from the specifics of the characters. Deckard isn’t a hero. He bests the other bounty hunters, in retirements/kills per hour, but that success tears him up inside through the central questions of the novel: spirituality, empathy, what makes humans human, and where Androids fit on a human spectrum. These conflicts carry the novel crashing forwards.
—Similarly, Rachael Rosen and the Batys question their states from the Android side. When humans can rationally dial their emotional outlook on a machine, and Androids can emulate the emotional tenor of opera, that emulation of humans annoys the Android characters. In a sense, they want to be allowed to be Androids, but they also know too well the ways they can’t be human, and want that too.
"I’ll tell you what fouls us up, Roy; it’s our goddamn superior intelligence!" She glared at her husband, her small, high breasts rising and falling rapidly. "We’re so smart—Roy, you’re doing it right now; goddamn you, you’re doing it now!"
This scene plays against numerous scenes between Deckard and his wife. It also shows that internal conflicts exist in the Androids themselves, despite being hyper-rational beings at the end of the day.
—This character building relies on Dick telling and showing Deckard, telling his thinking and showing the results of his mental processes; all while just showing the reader the Androids. The novel is a book about Deckard, through and through, yet his central conflicts constitute an interesting enough concept to carry the whole thing successfully. And Dick supports his theme with showing the Androids enough to bring contrasting viewpoints into the reader’s mind directly, rather than solely by implication.
Reality is approximately as dependable as a politician’s promise... the result is the same: Reality, of the capital "R" variety, has become as relative a thing as the dryness of our respective Martinis. Yet the struggle goes on, the fight continues. Against what? Ultimately, Powers, Principalities, Thrones, and Dominations, often contained in hosts who are themselves victims, prisoners, manipulated men and women.

3. At the same time that he has written great characters and focused in on an intriguing theme, Dick also seems maybe a bit too focused on that theme. If an effect of strong worldbuilding is the desire to know more about that world, the flipside is dissatisfaction with what is known. There are all these tantalizing glimpses of the wider world that get passed over to focus on the internal conflict of Deckard: World War Terminus, the architectural implications of a vastly depleted earth population, Mars colonies, why nobody is Jurassic Park-ing extinct animals when they have good enough genetic engineering to make credible humans, what’s really going on between the pair of married or sibling Androids who call themselves Batys. The first two of these may be aspects that Dick doesn’t want to get into—his rigid focus is in the way. But the Mars Colonies are teased so often and tantalizingly—in the TV ad, the words of the Batys and Pris, offhand remarks here and there—that the inclusion of more description or their presence on the page could have been a fantastic opportunity to further contextualize and wrinkle this central theme. Similarly, why Rosen isn’t using DNA to clone extinct animals appears a curious plot hole. And the Baty relationship is a dropped ball: Dick sets it up to be a discussion of potential Android empathy, between Androids rather than between an Android and an animal or human. Yet he drops that ball in order to focus on Deckard. While I appreciate the legibility the focus gives to the central theme, some missed opportunities beg for some more discussion in the book.
"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."

4. As to the writing, it doesn’t annoy me. The language never quite gets beautiful, but it communicates well. As Dick is focused on the theme, the writing itself exists to communicate that theme as efficiently as possible. And it does. When Deckard has his breakdown and is wandering in the wilderness, the language is esoteric and paradoxical. When he is killing Androids, it’s all short, declarative sentences with no room for any gray area or reader interpretation. And the rest of the writing oscillates between these two extremes as Deckard’s mental state changes. It’s a cool trick, but it’s not pulled off quite like Robert Heinlein lets his characters run away with his novels. With Heinlein, the characters are so different from novel to novel that the voice of his books changes drastically. With Dick, the voice here is pretty similar to what he did with Ubik. I wrote about that book, "The writing is fine. Nothing spectacular, nothing terrible. It’s a uniform quality, which is impressive, but doesn’t really sound beautiful or disappoint. It’s good, and that’s about as far as I can go." I think that applies to this novel as well. However, here he has more great one-liners that tap into the consciousness of American marketing strategies:
"Emigrate or Degenerate."

"My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression."

"It's the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity."

"Everything is true," he said. "Everything anybody has ever thought."

"It's the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity."

"The writers," Pris said, "made it up."

You can't go from people to nonpeople.

Office gossip annoyed him because it always proved better than the truth.
These one-liners are great. They certainly help to keep the text moving along nicely and codify certain traits Dick is discussing.
—Dick uses them for offhand humor as well, and I’m left kind of wondering how sarcastic this novel is. For instance, Isidore’s line, "She’ll probably want to, once I show her how; as near as I can make out, most women, even young ones like her, like to cook: it’s an instinct." Or lines like, "I like her; I could watch her the rest of my life. She has breasts that smile," help define characters through showing, but are also pretty awkward to read in today’s world. How sarcastic was Dick being with this text? I think there is some sarcasm in here, some lampooning of the "sexual revolution" for being to the benefit of men by encouraging women to give more of their physical selves for less. Is that too Marxist of an interpretation for Dick? Maybe. But at the same time, the Deckards’ marriage, Isidore’s internal monologue—this book has certain moments that don’t really make sense without Dick putting some sarcasm in there. I probably need to know more about Dick to tell when he’s being sarcastic and when not.
"Is it a loss?" Rachael repeated. "I don’t really know; I have no way to tell. How does it feel to have a child? How does it feel to be born, for that matter? We’re not born; we don’t grow up; instead of dying from illness or old age, we wear out like ants. Ants again; that’s what we are. Not you; I mean me. Chitinous reflex-machines who aren’t really alive." She twisted her head to one side, said loudly, "I’m not alive!"

5. The structure here is my second favorite thing about the novel. On one hand, this is a pretty traditional structure: start with the character waking up, then going to work, then the task of the day spinning out of control until he’s sexing the enemy, finishing his task, and weeping alone in a desert of nuclear wasteland, hallucinating hard—and close novel. But the focus of the novel is the theme, not the sexy action plot. So, there are weird expansions within that pulp plot in sections where the theme takes over: the sex scene is pretty awkward and philosophical and long—intentionally—because it exhumes much of what is deep within Deckard. The ending doesn’t happen when the last Android falls, but rather after a bunch more pages of Deckard trying to come to terms with his place in the world and his views on Androids, spirituality, and the animal kingdom. So the structure is not a strict pulp plot, but rather a thinky book plot with a pulp plot inside it to help frame and drive the thinky bits. Great technique! As I bore of action, or every enemy is dead, a thinky bit appears; as I bore of contemplation, or it reaches a natural stopping point, a gunfight happens. Each pulls the other forward. It’s great pacing and feels honest to the lifestyle of a bounty hunter.
"At that moment, when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn't feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don't. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it 'absence of appropriate affect.' So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair. So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who's smart has emigrated, don't you think?"

6. In all, I love this book, but it’s not my favorite. A couple of faults: the twin plots sometimes combine awkwardly in intentional ways—Deckard having sex with Rachael—and sometimes in ways that seem unintentional—Isidore is forgotten without really having enough flesh to contribute much; while the focus is maybe a little too tightly held.
—Yet, what I’m left with is not annoyance at these faults. What I’m left with is a full and entertained brain. The theme and characters are memorable, the structure strikes a nice balance between pulp and contemplation, the one-liners are endlessly quotable. It’s a good book, but not great.
—Like all books, Dick has to exclude some things in order to get his point across and finish the task of writing it. I may have made a couple of different decisions than what Dick did, but there’s no questions that Dick’s decisions worked out in the end. This is a book many people have read, but they’ve mostly read it in relation to Ridley Scott’s film. After approaching it as itself, some years after reading it for the first time, I found I appreciated this novel a ton. I hope more people will read it. After all, "Humans need more empathy." (Yet another great one-liner.) It’s a book I’ll read again and reference throughout my life. But hey, not every book is perfect: it’s just that the faults here speak to me personally.

25 October, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

For Zac.


1. I think the structure of the novel stands out the most to me, so I’ll deal with that first. The structure of the narrative works for me, but it's also clear this it will be the biggest complaint people have, the reason some people will not read this novel. The structure ends up being fairly simple, but unexplained. As an unusual structure, not explaining it will alienate readers. That's not to say Saunders should or should not have explained it, just that he limits his potential audience. That’s again not a bad thing—every technique a storyteller uses limits potential audience, even writing it in English. I'm more interested in solidifying a statement about new tactics and structures in general, though I will begin by discussing his specific tactic here.
—I haven't read a book structured like this before. It took me a while to wrap my head around. I remember, around about page fifty, noticing a quote from a book about the period of Lincoln's presidency that I know about. That confirmed what I already thought about the structure. Namely, there are two types of chapters here:
⭘ Some chapters follow the characters Saunders creates or borrows from history. Saunders has them telling the reader what happens in their bardo, this purgatory-esque afterlife before reincarnation or judgment. This invented portion of fantasy literature bases itself upon the historical other chapters.
⭘ The other chapters show what are mostly found text quotes about this period of Lincoln's presidency, the American Civil War, and the death of Willie Lincoln. They are snipped from history books, newspapers, and letters. I say “mostly found text” because I read online that some of the quotes are Saunders’ inventions. They come off like newspaper clippings, constituting their own chapters, which intersperse with the characters’ chapters. It shows the great amount of research done by Saunders, and adds to the context and story.
—Both types of chapters here are very short: a couple of pages at most. And they’re written in short sections, usually a paragraph or two. It looks like a play on the page.
—This structure makes sense. Weird, but simple. However, I was confused for 50-90 pages before it really clicked. Because of the spacing that makes the page look like a play’s script, that's probably more like 20-50 pages of a normal novel. But I believe it will turn some people off. It requires the reader trust the author and keep reading—though all novels do to some extent. This required trust is mitigated by that brilliant opening, which drew me in like crazy. In the beginning, Saunders lets the characters introduce themselves by introducing themselves to Willie, and this as a character-building technique is cliche for a reason—when it works, like it does here, the reader can’t put the book down because there are already so many balls in the air right off the bat. I read this book in a little over twenty-four hours. The contradictions and conflicts are apparent at the start, and Saunders lays out that there are multiple narrators, and all are partially unreliable. The found text chapters are usually a nice rest from the craziness of the characters, pauses in the insanity of the fantasy plot, an anchor for the reader to touch that helps drive the plot and introduce new acts into the characters’ story; while the character chapters get crazier and crazier until a war in the afterlife essentially gets going.
—So, the question is, does this structure read like new for the sake of new? I ended up liking the novel a lot. But in order to recommend it to friends, I almost feel like it has to be paired with a warning about the structure. While somebody like me may be into experimental writing in general, and respond to this book positively, if it doesn't work for more people than just Literature Nerds, does it really work? The first to do something isn't always the genius, but the first to do something well is the person the world remembers. Or is a new idea inherently good, even if the execution doesn't quite work out? Is there a difference in the answer to this question between Literature Nerds and people who casually read things that sometimes include literary fiction?
—I think the answer lies in the specifics of the book: yes, it works; and because it works so well, I can't say it's new for the sake of new. Saunders pulls it off. He may be the first to do this, and his both feet in the deep end approach to this structure will alienate readers. But that's fine. It means that for some people, like my spouse, they will not even attempt to read this book. And it seems clear from the response that this novel will be in the jurisdiction of Literature Nerds. But that's no different than Naguib Mahfouz, no different than Dante today, no different than Denis Johnson. And that's some good company to be in, by my book.
Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.

2. And those characters are superb. They're humans as they really are, without masks. Which is slightly odd, coming from an author I already like who typically does such a great job showing how peoples’ masks interact in oddly funny ways. But here, he uses their own words to damn them. They are solely built through telling; and in telling us things, Saunders lets them talk. Rather than staying focused and moving along, the novel is full of eddies in the narrative current, backtracking up tributaries, and switching back and forth between the characters’ stream and the stream of the historical notes. It feels like an Erroll Morris interview, where the interviewed gets nervous at the silence and then just keeps talking.
He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness. Only I did not think it would be so soon. Or that he would precede us. Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay. I am not stable and Mary not stable and the very buildings and monuments here not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable. All alter, are altering, in every instant. (Are you comforted?) No.

3. The world building is both told and shown. Both types of chapters contribute to the fantasy world that Saunders has built. And considering his chapters are split between showing and telling, the world is built with both, unlike the characters.
Strange, isn't it? To have dedicated one's life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one's life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one's labors ultimately forgotten?

4. The writing is something to praise, through and through. The found text never feels forced, or over-long—he clips the best bits out and presents them concisely, but with enough variety that they never grow overly repetitive. At the same time, the characters are a bunch of unique people who are well flushed out. Their dialogue is wonderful. It’s legible, but still retains enough idiosyncrasies that they are distinguishable from the words on the page. His word choices sometimes sing, but Saunders never forces poetry on a character’s voice, rather letting their speech patterns dictate his writing. That's a technique that I appreciate.
When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict. When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be?

5. In all, a spectacular book that may be relegated to the Literary Nerds Only pile. Though the characters and writing and structure all harmonize brilliantly, not much plot happens and it’s a weird structure and it looks like a play on the page. I was asked, "What is that you are reading?" instead of "What book are you reading?" And I think these three traits may mean the book does not see as many readers as it should. I love it, and I hope many, many people read it and share my love, but it may become a cult classic like Lolita before it, or The Circus of Dr. Lao. Great novels, but some explanation might help a potential reader get into them. This is a serious reader’s book, not a casual reader’s book. At the end of the day, the books that are both popular and respected by academics are the ones that will be remembered. I don't think that this book, this meditation on death, will be popular enough, though I think it will be respected enough.

20 July, 2017

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett


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.

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.
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.


—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

06 June, 2017

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett


1. This novel deals with Holy Wood, or the creation of the movie industry on discworld. Obviously, Holy Wood is an analogy of Hollywood, and the references do not end there. The topic covered is the beginning, with silent movies and big studios and stars, and doesn’t progress much past that point. And that’s maybe some of where Pratchett potentially loses readers: nobody watches Nosferatu or Metropolis anymore. General knowledge of the silent film era is low. But I think Pratchett links it to all other popular art forms in the early days: poetry, plays, novels, opera, etc. It’s all heady potential and learning as you go. And this theme applies to all sorts of stages in life—new job, new house, new friends, new relationship, new interest. Pratchett strips down this topic people don’t know or care about from our own world to the point where it’s applicable to everybody, and that’s a real strength in a satirist. For instance, I don’t know much about symbolic medieval theology in the Catholic Church, but I sure enjoy reading The Divine Comedy.
The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it's as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no-one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.

2. But the real theme here is the dangers inherent in this potential, in getting carried away and forgetting about consequences. It’s a hot topic today, how violence in media does or does not encourage violence outside of media. And Pratchett dives in with all his attendant humor, excellent character creation, and descriptive wit. It’s not that potential is bad, inherently, it’s that people focusing on it can get so carried away and taken advantage of. One must pay attention to requirements of reality, otherwise you could lose everything—here made explicit by the fabric of reality unraveling, a check on the pro-column of setting this on discworld. It’s a warning tale, as things get away from the characters and take them to places they didn’t expect, and can’t handle.
It was dawning on the wizards that they were outside the University, at night and without permission, for the first time in decades. A certain suppressed excitement crackled from man to man. Any watch trained in reading body language would have been prepared to bet that, after the click, someone was going to suggest that they might as well go somewhere and have a few drinks, and then someone else would fancy a meal, and then there was always room for a few more drinks, and then it would be 5 a.m. and the city guards would be respectfully knocking on the University gates and asking if the Archchancellor would care to step down to the cells to identify some alleged wizards who were singing an obscene song in six-part harmony, and perhaps he would also care to bring some money to pay for all the damage. Because inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

3. In the same way, it feels like the story gets away from Pratchett a bit at the end, like he doesn’t know quite how to close the curtain and run the credits. Maybe this is intentional, in order to draw the reader into similar states of mind as the characters. Maybe it’s a critique on what cinema has become. But it’s still a niggling disappointment that this wonderful beginning devolves into a bit of a mess, and I feel the story could’ve written the ending better. Particularly because other endings are so strong: like Guards! Guards! and Eric.
This is space. It's sometimes called the final frontier. (Except that of course you can't have a final frontier, because there'd be nothing for it to be a frontier to, but as frontiers go, it's pretty penultimate.)

4. In all, this is the first time Pratchett explicitly deals with something from earth in discworld. And I’m looking forward to his treatment of Rock and Roll in Soul Music, and his treatment of News Media in The Truth. I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, but as a cinema nerd who’s spent time exploring the era in history and cinema, I’m in love with this book. It’s not the greatest Pratchett I’ve read, but it’s one I’ll return to again, and suggest to other film buffs as a starting place for them.
The Necrotelicomnicon was written by a Klatchian necromancer known to the world as Achmed the Mad, although he preferred to be called Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches. It is said that the book was written in one day after Achmed drank too much of the strange thick Klatchian coffee which doesn't just sober you up, but takes you through sobriety and out the other side, so that you glimpse the real universe beyond the clouds of warm self-delusion that sapient life usually generates around itself to stop it turning into a nutcake. Little is known about his life prior to this event, because the page headed 'About The Author' spontaneously combusted shortly after his death. However, a section headed 'Other Books By the Same Author' indicates that his previous published work was Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches's Book of Humorous Cat Stories, which might explain a lot.
Being trampled almost to death by a preoccupied troll is almost the ideal cure for a person confused about what is real and what isn’t. Reality is something walking heavily up your spine.

29 May, 2017

Faust Eric by Terry Pratchett


1. This book returns to the format of the first two in the series: four interconnected short stories. It’s better as a novel than those early ones—Pratchett has learned a lot about telling a good story since then—but it’s still underwhelming. That’s not to say I did not like the book—some moments are extremely memorable. But it’s not one I’ll return to often.
Just erotic. Nothing kinky. It's the difference between using a feather and using a chicken.

2. My biggest problem is still with the format. These four stories explore different themes and situations.
—The first wish is to rule the world, and the story takes place in an age of exploration, South American analogy. Quetzalcoatl and Ponce de Leon are parodied. It’s about the nature of gods and belief.
—The second wish is the most beautiful woman in all of history. This story takes place during the discworld equivalent of the Trojan war. Homer is parodied—Helen as an aging mother with a mustache, a Trojan Horse when the men come out of the anus of the animal, etc. This is about believing history and artistic license.
—The third is to live forever, and the story takes place in the discworld’s pre-history. This is mostly an extended joke on the literal meaning of living forever and was a short section. The point being that new experiences are denied the immortal.
—The fourth story is in hell, which is a giant bureaucracy with some distinct, Dantean levels. This portion parodies Faust most directly by acting as a sort of behind the scenes peek at the whole story. The backstory of Faust.
—Again, we have a character on a journey with little else in the way of continuity between these four stories. Rincewind simply snaps his fingers and they teleport through time and space. That’s not much of continuity, I think. And this lack of continuity means that the story should probably be read in four sittings, rather than all at once. Maybe it would be better that way.
“But I read where she was the most beautiful—”

“Ah, well,” said the sergeant. “If you’re going to go around reading—”

“The thing is,” said Rincewind quickly, “it’s what they call dramatic necessity. No one’s going to be interested in a war fought over a, a quite pleasant lady, moderately attractive in a good light. Are they?”

Eric was nearly in tears. “But it said her face launched a thousand ships—”

“That’s what you call metaphor,” said Rincewind.

“Lying,” the sergeant explained, kindly.

3. But the real positive from this book is the theme: this parody of history and metaphysics from our world, played up by simply looking at it all from a slightly different angle. This is where the humor of this book sits. Yes, the characters and situations and descriptions and dialogue and worldbuilding are all funny. But the humor in Pratchett’s speculations about these historical and metaphysical things is really the highlight. For instance, hell isn’t a pit of fire or other people here, it’s a bureaucracy. The way this idea plays out is hilarious.
Rincewind trudged back up the beach. “The trouble is,” he said, “is that things never get better, they just stay the same, only more so.”

4. So that’s Faust Eric, a parody of Faust that’s not actually about Faust. It’s disjointed but it shows an emphasis on parodying our own world that is endearing. This was my first time reading it and I’m not sure I’ll go back to it again. I might, as I study the periods and topics discussed, re-read portions of it, but the structure really lets it down.

The consensus seemed to be that if really large numbers of men were sent to storm the mountain, then enough might survive the rocks to take the citadel. This is essentially the basis of all military thinking.
No enemies had ever taken Ankh-Morpork. Well technically they had, quite often; the city welcomed free-spending barbarian invaders, but somehow the puzzled raiders found, after a few days, that they didn't own their horses any more, and within a couple of months they were just another minority group with its own graffiti and food shops.

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.