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.

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