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.

16 March, 2017

Mort by Terry Pratchett

1. This post marks my 100th post about literature. It's fitting that this 100th post is about Mort, which may be the first Discworld novel I can fully get behind as a novel. This is a fantastic place to start in on his books. But these notes help me explore and catalogue my thoughts on books, and as I think through one idea, another comes up until I reach the end. So, let me see what comes up here.
“Albert grunted. "Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?"
Mort thought for a moment.
"No," he said eventually, "what?"
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, "Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve 'em right.”

2. Mort is the first in this series that doesn’t put the jokes in charge. The plot and characters clearly drive this novel because they are consistent throughout, because the characters go through interesting changes that realistically result from the worldbuilding and plot, and because the themes are portrayed and explained through the plot and characters. The first two books were collections of loosely related short stories, the third was driven by its theme. This is an actual novel, with a story to tell and everything—and it reads better because of it.
—Partly because it’s what we expect from a novel, sure. But we expect that from a novel because it works. In other words, a contract with the reader is laid out in the opening pages, and the author lives up to that contract throughout the rest of the book, allowing the reader to really dig into the themes and characters without being distracted by switching gears between stories, or having to suspend more disbelief in the middle of the thing. This is one reason why novels are so effective and popular as a format.
Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.

3. Now, that’s not to say this novel isn’t funny. It’s to say that this novel has found the ordinate place for its humor: to satirise culture and discern situations. And this isn’t just my personal preference: the way Pratchett writes the succeeding novels seems to put humor in the same place, showing his preference or his realization about this strategy’s effectiveness. This was my observation and belief as a reader, and then I found this 2004 interview of Pratchett saying the same thing:
Discworld began as an antidote to fantasy. In fact, it was interesting to find out, at the first ever Discworld convention—which was about eight or ten years ago, I don’t know—ninety percent of the people who attended did not think of themselves as fantasy readers, although they read Discworld. In the early 1980s there was a lot of fantasy which in many respects was a copy of Tolkien. And I thought, ‘There were certainly cliches here: so much fun could be had.’ Discworld was, I suppose, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for fantasy. I take my life in my hands by saying that, but that’s probably as good a way as I could put it. Discworld is written by a better writer now. I’ve been doing it for twenty-one years and Mort is actually the first Discworld book that I’m quite pleased about. But if I wrote it now, I’d write it better.
So there you have it: one of his readers who is always thinking about writing thinks that the jokes here are properly placed in the construction of the novel, and Pratchett himself thinks the same thing. Jokes are fantastic, that’s a part of why I read Pratchett. But the best jokes reflect culture in order to impact it—to show us the ridiculous that we take for granted. They last longer when they are the catalyst to make us think about things. And by putting the plot first, then building the jokes off of it, building the jokes to support it, the plot gives a context to the jokes that helps their purpose. For instance:
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever," he said. "Have you thought of going into teaching?”
I’m all for teachers and think they hold one of the most important positions in our society, but this is a solid joke. And without the context of the whole novel, the plot and characters and other jokes, it’s just a solid joke—little more effective and memorable than a knock-knock or chicken crossing the road. Within the context, this adds another wrinkle to his larger discussion of jobs and employment, the main theme of this novel. This joke shows one more way in which the world views professions and personal marketability. Yes, it’s played for laughs. But it also informs. And with the context of the plot, this informativeness surfaces more easily for the reader.
4. The theme of this novel is clearly employment. Before you say, “ugh,” and wander off, hear me out. Pratchett takes a stab at explaining how jobs and humans interact. Namely, he posits that jobs change us as people, but we also influence them simultaneously. It’s funny and sad when Mort can’t find an employer, and all the advice he gets from his father keeps prospective employers away. We can relate to that. And by taking the only offer he gets, he bites off way more than he anticipates. We can relate to that too. And by having his own personality and ideas, he chafes with management. We can relate to that too. But by placing this whole theme in a fantasy context with a job that doesn’t relate to us at all—harvesting souls—the whole theme manages to miss what makes our day-to-day experience so mundane. This exemplifies why speculative fiction can be so useful. Tell me I’m to read a book about a man at a job, and unless the job is something crazy exciting I’m not going to read the book, even if it’s as satirical and funny as Pratchett is. But put it outside of our experience while still lampooning and rephrasing that experience, and this novel really works. This is why I read science fiction and fantasy—for the ideas and reflections of our cultural norms. Speculative fiction makes it easier to digest a theme this close to home.
"And what's that?"

5. However, the pacing is a little odd in places. There are times when it feels like the novel moves too fast for the import of the moment, and times when moments drag on for unapparent reasons. The timing that feels most correct is the opening and the ending—Mort’s first experiences as Death’s apprentice, and their fight at the end. Otherwise, some of the middle portions seem to run long—like when Mort visits the tavern—or short—like when Albert returns to the Unseen University. At the tavern, the drink Mort quaffs doesn’t add much to the story, it reinforces his arc of assuming the aspect of death, but doesn't really add anything new to it. And Albert’s return is set up in the worldbuilding to be more important and influential than it turns out to be. The former feels like an idea where Pratchett ran out of steam; the latter like Pratchett was just getting going when he stopped—a whole Discworld novel could’ve been written about Albert’s return, instead we get a short vignette. That said, I fully admit that this is niggling. Nine times out of ten, the scene fits perfectly.
But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

6. So there we have it: the first Discworld book that fully embraces being a novel. Everything supports the plot and themes, with well developed characters, and interesting insight into an applicable theme. Of course, it’s still fantasy and funny, but that humor and satire is why I often suggest reading Pratchett to a wide variety of people. I would suggest you start here, in a book dealing with the familiar themes of death and love, but focused on the overarching theme of work. This is the highest placed Pratchett novel on The Big Read, and it’s easy to see that it should be highly placed in that particular popularity contest.