13 February, 2017

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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