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.

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