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.

No comments:

Post a Comment