Dan Dare: Operation Darkstar


Thankfully, for the last of the quintet of short stories that Motton and Watson executed between 1962 and 1963, Operation Darkstar was both a change of pace and a significant improvement on what had gone immediately before.
This time, there is no threat to the world. Indeed, Dan Dare and Digby are allowed to leave the immediate environs of Planet Earth for the first time since Odhams were still masters, and not just the Earth but the Solar System.
The cause of this is the discovery of a ‘Dark Star’, i.e. a sun going through its dying phase, transmitting previously hard-to-detect radiation. Professor Julian Egon has discovered such a star, far nearer to Earth than any previously detected, with a single planet orbiting it. Dan is put in command of a two ship expedition to explore the planet and collect scientific date.
Dan’s ship, with Digby and his crew, will take off first, with the second ship following after a fourteen day interval. The commander of the second ship is Captain Egon, son of the star’s discoverer who, in that capacity, requests the honour of being the first man onto the planet. Dan’s perfectly willing to concede that honour (even though Egon’s main objective is glory), but command insists on seniority. This leaves Egon fuming, since he considers himself just as good as Dan Dare, so he engineers an accident which sees Dan laid up with a broken ankle, for fourteen days.
So commands are swapped. Egon takes Dan’s ship, with Digby, who spends the whole time on the wrong side of the arrogant Egon, Dan follows in Egon’s ship. He’s going to be needed to save the day, because when the ship commanded by Egon finds itself trying to land on a sea of oil, Egon’s panic crashes it into the mountains.
Dan’s temporary command includes spacemen Newcombe – an everyday, competent crewman – and Mumper who, as his name gives away, is a constant pessimist and complainer. This ship lands on the other side of the Oil ocean but in a crevasse, where it promptly suffers an avalanche. But on the Dark Star planet, the rocks are amazingly light and friable, there is no atmosphere above two thousand feet and water is at a premium, and has to be boiled down from the rocks.
Dan makes friends with the local natives, who agree to rescue the ship in return for half the water supplies. They also supply a kind of helicopter to take Dan and the crew across the ocean to find Digby, Egon and the others. They have fallen into the hands of another all-purpose dictator, Naz the Tyrant, who is working them like slaves. Egon, unlike Dan, hasn’t yet come up with an escape plan, possibly because he’s too busy eyeing up the waste-products of the water-bearing rock: gold, jewels, precious metals…
But Dan masterminds a rescue and is piloting everyone away, until one last warrior gets on board. His gun is trained on Dan, who calmly plots out for everyone to take advantage of his death to seize control and overpower the alien. This is too much for Egon who, awakened to decency and honour at the last, intercedes to sacrifice himself, dying in overcoming the warrior.
Everyone returns safely, with tons of precious gold etc, but on strict water-rationing all the way back, much to Digby’s consternation.
Operation Darkstar is a simple, straightforward story, with a slightly predictable cad-redeems-himself twist at the end. It’s got its flaws, mainly in the unexplained areas: where is the Dark Star, how far off, why are the two ships setting off at fortnightly intervals, and there’s a Hampson-shaped hole at the end the size of a Jumbo Jet in the way Dan flies back to Earth, leaving the planet’s inhabitants to go on eking out a vanishing water supply on a dying world whose atmosphere is shearing away, and instead of trying to assist, he runs off with the money.
But apart from that, it’s harmless, inoffensive and not actively stupid.
Watson had kept the faith. His commitment to Dan Dare had provided a rallying point for the strip’s readers. There was something worthwhile to keep coming back for, every week, so they kept coming back, and they kept demanding Dan be restored to the cover, be restored to colour. They were almost on the point of being rewarded.

In Praise of Pratchett: Small Gods


This book marked a sea-change in my Discworld collection.
Up to this point, I’d been buying Pratchett’s books in paperback, putting up with the six month delay from first appearance to when I could get hold of the next story when Corgi reprinted it. Until I did some work for a mate who, as a gesture of gratitude, bought me the latest Discworld book in hardback, that being Lords and Ladies.
Now, as I have mentioned from time to time, I am something of an anal retentive when it comes to collections. Mixing hardback and paperback was not really psychologically acceptable, nor was jumping about in a series that I had already been reading in chronological order for half a dozen years. Besides, the last one was still not out in paperback.
So I went out and bought the hardback of Small Gods. After that, there was no going back. Patience was one thing but the kind of wait this would mean for the fifteenth Discworld book in paperback? No way. I set about replacing the first dozen with hardback copies. I even joined a book club for the introductory free offer that could net me five Pratchett’s for a pittance (the fact that I could also get Tolkien’s Morgoth’s Ring for a fraction of what I would otherwise have had to pay meant I would come out ahead on the deal no matter what other crap I might be required to buy. Though I’d baulk at calling A Brief History of Time crap, not that I understood it).
Small Gods, like Pyramids before it, is one of those non-series books, its protagonist’s story complete in these pages. And indeed, despite a reference to the Century of the Fruitbat, Brutha’s life takes place many years and decades before the generally contemporary Now of all the rest of Discworld.
In the immediate aftermath of Terry’s death, a great many people pointed to this book as one of his most important, and most insightful, although I have never known the reasons behind this true claim be debated by anyone outside the circle of Pratchett fans. For the theme of this story is Religion, as well as Gods, and Pratchett makes it amply clear that the two are not merely very different, but that there is an unbridgeable disconnect between them.
Nor, in either aspect, does Pratchett offer any great inducement to believe in either. No, Small Gods is deeply irreligious, heavily (but not heavy-handedly) humanist, and excoriating in the anger that ripples through it from start to finish.
The actual story is relatively straightforward, though it is extremely difficult to relate it without launching into the issues Pratchett takes as structural to any discussion of God/religion. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to outline the plot as a precursor to making Pratchett’s points for him.
The story is primarily set in the country of Omnia, on the south side of the Circle Sea, a semi-desert country that is home to Omnianism, the worship of the Great God, Om. Though the choice of Om as the God’s name hints as cultures that incorporate meditation, Omnianism owes a lot to Catholicism, in having an Inquisition, the latter being headed by the Exquisitor, Deacon Vorbis, a man frequently described as having the mind of a steel ball, a man who will turn a tortoise on its back, wedged to prevent it from righting itself, just to see how long it will take to die.
Said tortoise is, in fact, the Great God Om, trapped unknowing this past three years in a tortoise’s body and only lately returned to consciousness of who he is after being dropped by an eagle onto the kitchen compost heap. More pertinently, he’s been dropped within the presence of the Novice Brutha.
Brutha, who has been terrified into worship of Om by his deeply religious grandmother, is an oddity. He can neither read nor write, has no abilities or purpose, is fit for nothing and is even physically awkward and a little unprepossessing. He has two things going for him: a perfect memory that Brutha doesn’t even know is perfect in every degree, and that he is the only one left in the whole of Omnia who still believes in the Great God Om.
A lot is happening. Omnianism is awaiting its Eighth Prophet. An heretical movement has formed claiming that the world is not a sphere but a disc carried on the backs of four elephants, themselves on the shell of a colossal turtle (which is true but far from the point). And War is brewing with Ephebe, over its martyring of an Omnian Missionary (which we will learn is completely untrue, but is even farther from the point).
When Vorbis learns of Brutha (who cannot get anyone to believe him when he says the God is speaking to him), he takes the rapidly promoted Sub-Deacon to Ephebe, to use Brutha’s eidetic memory to get out of the impassible Labyrinth and lead in an Omnian army, enabling Vorbis to take over Ephebe.
The disturbed Brutha finally rebels when Vorbis orders Ephebe’s legendary library be burned. Brutha memorises it, an incredible feat, with the intent of preserving it. Pursuit follows, until an intervention by the Queen of the Seas causes a shipwreck that leaves Brutha, Om and a catatonic Vorbis stranded in the desert. Brutha insists on getting Vorbis back to Omnia, where the truth can be both revealed and seen to be revealed, but fails to realise the depths of Vorbis’s insanity and his craving for power.
It is Vorbis who is to become the Eighth Prophet, his ‘truth’ that will move Omnianism forward, and Brutha who will be the first sacrifice of the new era. But a well fore-shadowed twist of fate ends Vorbis’s reign and restores the congregation’s belief in Om, just in time for Brutha to face a combination of armies whose shared purpose is to wipe Omnia off the map.
And thus Omnia is saved, Brutha becomes, rightly, the Eighth Prophet and, in himself, changes the course of both the religion and the history so that it doesn’t end up the way it was written in the books of the History Monks but, as in Mort, something a lot easier on people.
Even that deliberately simplified account of the story still ends up spilling too many of the beans, but now’s the time to be explicit about each of the deadly points that Pratchett enumerates.
The Great God Om is the God of a fantastically powerful religion, but three years before, indulging the urge to manifest himself as some kind of powerful, symbolic animal, a great horned bull, he found himself capable only of becoming a tortoise, and one that has no inkling that it is or was anything greater. Not until he is dropped near the one person left who believes in him, who believes in Om, the God.
Because Om, the God, has been replaced by Omnianism, the Religion. Day by day by month, year, century, the shell of the church, the structure of the buildings, the hierarchy of the officiants have been constructed, have grown around the God, drawing off belief, syphoning it off for the benefits of the Church, for the values of the minds that constitute it.
Until only one person, an overgrown, uncomprehending, useless boy remains who believes in the God, because he’s too dumb to know any better. Because that’s what religion does, it replaces the seeming source of its power with something self-sustaining that services the interests of its priests before it comes anywhere near considering the welfare of its adherents.
Pratchett doesn’t just show this, he says it, explaining it for us as if we are too dumb to understand, which, on the evidence of the last several millennia, is probably true.
But he doesn’t stop there. Vorbis is busy constructing a truth that he takes care to describe as fundamental, meaning that it’s a big, fat, stinking lie. It’s not just the persecution of those who speak only the literal truth about the Discworld’s structure, as long ago Galileo Galilei was persecuted for pointing out that the Earth went round the sun, it is demonstrated by Vorbis in a greater degree.
First, his own putting to death of the unsuccessful, indeed mocked missionary, Brother Murdock, is perverted into a cassus belli against Ephebe, a war already lost presented to Omnians as an ongoing campaign.
Then Vorbis steps in to steal Brutha’s crossing of the desert to launch himself as Prophet in order to yet further advance a truth that lies only in his own head.
Pratchett’s anatomisation of Religion is of a thing corrupt, on all levels, something that no person with any genuine sense of truth, decency or justice could have any truck with, and though this takes place in a fictional world subject to rules and conditions that are sketched out as a deliberate joke, on this occasion the mirror he is holding up to our world and our lives and our religions is not distorted, but plain and unblinking.
Nor do Gods do any better. For Om, the Great God, even at the height of his power, as Omnia discovers it believes in the God himself, is still utterly dependant upon human beings. Because Gods are created by men, who put a shape upon the merest atom of potential, the grit in the oyster upon which the nacre of the pearl, belief, is layered. Om is Great, but the whole point of the book is that he has one believer, ONE believer, and unless he is within a certain range of that last believer, Om does not exist.
Gods are not real, they don’t exist, they are creations of Man, things that are given shape in the insides of our ignorant heads. Om doesn’t love his worshippers, he doesn’t want to do anything for their benefit, he only thinks of himself. Gods take, not give.
It takes Brutha to change what seems to be inevitable, to divert the tide of history, and he does so by changing Om into a religion without a God, a religion without a Religion. Man creates his own Gods, and this unique individual orders his to do his will, not His.
It’s a stunning, powerful book. Those of a religious bent, who believe too much to accept or understand what Pratchett is saying, will have to work hard at not reading this properly to enjoy it. To me, and thousands others, it is an expression of thought that does the world a very great favour by being so open, so clear, so identifiable, and so funny.
One final, almost irrelevant point. I compared the book’s ending to that of Mort, where a pre-ordained, dictatorial future is displaced in favour of peace, harmony and the business of people going about their own business and not dying in hordes. Small Gods introduces the History Monks, and especially Lu-Tze (and his sweeping brush). Not, on the surface, as we will get to know him, but already subverting history to the benefit of the common man.
And not for the last time, even as Brutha’s long life ends with a final act of beyond the grave compassion fit for what religion should be about, if only you can get it away from Gods.

Girl Genius: The Cold Equation


                                                                                     Agatha

Back in April, I flagged up the Kickstarter for the latest Girl Genius collection from Phil and Kaya Foglio, and this has duly arrived today. Entitled The Beast of the Rails, this is the fourteenth volume of the series, and the first of Act 2. I’ve been enjoying starting to read this in collected form, as opposed to last year when I read it three days a week on the Girl Genius web-site, which can be found here.

Until that moment when I suddenly flashed what has to be termed The Cold Equation, after a very famous pre-World War 2 SF short-story.

Act 2, or, The Second Voyage of Agatha Heterodyne, is intended to be the middle act of the entire Girl Genius story. Though the Foglios have not committed to anything definitive, the impression has always been given that each of the three Acts will be of roughly similar lengths. Utilising the skills in basic arithmetic that once scored me a Grade 2 at O-level, round about the same time The Who were in the Top 10 with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (a classic, a true legend), I calculate that three Acts of 13 volumes adds up to 39 all told. Meaning that there are further 25 to follow.

The Foglios collect a volume every year. That makes it pretty easy to work out that the Girl Genius story will not be complete, i.e., won’t reach the ending, for another 25 years.

Phil Foglio, it transpires, is almost exactly six months younger than myself. Fortunately, there is a tradition among American comic book artists of living well into your late eighties and even your nineties, which is all very well since Mr Foglio will need to do so if he ever hopes to complete Girl Genius. But what about me?

As things stand, in order to read the end of this story, which I have already been following since its debut in 2001, I am going to have to live until the age of at least eighty-four. Now I’m not going to start going into details but I have strong reasons to suspect that I probably won’t get there. It’s not like I’m looking at any preset limits, and my paternal grandfather did live to the age of 88, but take it from me, the odds are tilted in the wrong direction.

I am therefore reading and collecting a story that, in all probability, I won’t get to finish. I’ve only just realised that tonight. Heh heh.

So, if the Professororae Foglio happen to be reading this, I hate to put pressure on you, but if there’s any chance you could speed up a little, sort of, double, maybe? I think I can hang on for that. If you don’t mind. I am really enjoying this…

 

The Infinite Jukebox: The Angelettes’ Don’t Let Him Touch You


The Infinite Jukebox is not just for great songs, classic performances or emotional favourites. In its banks of tracks are oddities, obscurities and the completely improbable. Such as ‘Don’t Let him Touch You’.

The Angelettes were, and forty plus years later still are, an all-girl band, a quartet of Manchester lasses or rather, assuming my memory is not being too partialised, four teenagers from Stockport in 1972, when this debut single was released.

In my memory, I always link this song to Jonathan King, and a glance at the disc on YouTube that it was written, produced and directed by him: it was the girls’ only release on Decca, after which they signed for King’s own label, UK (which already boasted another Stockport fourpiece that King named 10cc for reasons we shall not, in good taste go into). ‘Don’t Let him Touch You’ can’t be described as anything but a novelty record, in an era when King was already building up a head of steam as performer and producer of a mystifying array of tracks, such as the heavy metal version of ‘Sugar Sugar, attributed to Sakkharin.

The Angelettes were plainly decent singers, though this single goes a long way in not showcasing their abilities. It’s slow from the beginning, based on a cello as the leading instrument, and the song was constructed on a solo lead voice singing awkwardly structured verses to a background of only the cello, interspersed with the band in harmony singing the chorus in a slightly more uptempo manner, to a walking pace beat.

Improbably, the song started to pick up airplay on Radio 1, enough to start a slow increase in sales that saw the single break into the Top 50. But this was still the era of Top 30 radio, and the song was still short of that line when it climbed to no 35. This was enough to secure a Top of the Pops invitation, and an advantageous appearance in the second half of the programme, two slots from the Number One. A leap into the Thirty the following Tuesday was on the cards.

I was interested to see the group. I liked the song, and the knowledge that it was so local a product, and the girls being of my age, had me glued to the screen. There were two disappointments. 1971 had been the Summer of Hotpants and the prevailing fashion the following year was for maxi-dresses, as most frequently seen around the legs of Lyn Paul and Eve Graham of the New Seekers. And this quartet of schoolgirls were not just decked out in maxi-dresses, but in frilly, cabaret dresses horrible years out of fashion and completely wrong on girls that young, turning them all into frumps, proto-Beverleys in Abigail’s Party.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. About sixty seconds in, before the Angelettes had even finished their first chorus, the sound went out, a technical problem, and it stayed out for the rest of the song. It was a disaster. There was no sales bump, no Top 30 entry, just a slide back into going to school. No other Angelettes single was played on Radio 1, not in my hearing.

It’s very strange. A new band, an up and coming group of young women, and an accident happens and wipes out the sound for most of their track, and no other part of the show, nor any other Top of the Pops that I ever saw thereafter, and we are talking another twenty years plus. A promising career (maybe) wiped out. We live in an age where it’s too common to impute malice to what could simply be stupidity, see conspiracies in every shadow.

But ‘Don’t Let Him Touch You’ was a strange record. We had lived through the Sixties, through tremendous changes in everyday life and thinking. even now we were still in a place where Sixties memories were still fresh and green, and what were this girl group singing about? Yes, they were singing about sex, as rock and pop has done since time immemorial, but ‘Don’t Let Him Touch You’, as you may begin to guess from the title, came from a very different place.

In 1961, the Shirelles had sung ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, one of pop’s greatest songs about Sex and the woman’s age old question of whether to or not. It’s about wanting, about wanting to believe the promises that this is about more than bodies and orgasms, but about love and what happens when bodies draw back into two people and what then. A decade ago, the girls of the Shirelles had looked into their would-be lovers eyes, wanting to share everything with them, fearful of trust. It’s always been so with the great girl group pop of that time.

A decade later, here were the Angelettes, sixteen year olds prematurely cynical. In voices that rang with their mothers’ stifling advice, here were girls singing about the nervousness of youth, and first boyfriends, who seem nice, who walk you home, kiss you on the doorstep, and only after that are they emboldened to hold your hand, and then in tones of flat, deadweight cynicism, these teenagers tell you for themselves that he’s only out for sex, nothing more, one-time sex that will ruin your life and if you let him ‘have’ you, you’ll never see him again because he’s got what he wanted.

My mother expressed similar opinions to me about my sister’s boyfriend after she learned that they hadn’t ‘waited’. I thought that awfully cynical then, a dismissal of men having feelings that I instinctively hated, and given that my sister and her husband celebrated their twenty-eighth Anniversary this year, I think I was right.

But that attitude runs through ‘Don’t Let It Touch You’ like the Seine through Paris. There is no relief from it. He talks to you, listens to you, supports you emotionally, shows he cares for you. And back comes that chorus, with its implacable insistence that if you let him touch you, then touching will lead straight to his having you and then he’ll be off, before you’ve even finished quivering, because everything he does, every little gesture of faith, honesty and love he makes comes from nothing but the most cynical lust.

He is trying to see how much you will let him have, and if he has you, he will leave you.

It’s an unbelievably twisted song, especially in the mouths of sixteen year old girls, who should be singing about rather more cheering things or at least should be expressing such sentiments, if they feel them, in their own words instead of those of a grown-up who sounds to have had a particularly bitter experience, to say the least.

I do remember reading, with a certain degree of cynical amusement that was alien to me at that young stage of my life, an affronted letter in the Manchester Evening News from a sixteen year old boy begging radio stations not to play this record as it was making it even more difficult for him to get anything from girls!

And this most unromantic of ditties was the one whose sound, and lyrics, had been cut out of the Angelettes’ Top of the Pops debut. In these days when we all know about Jimmy Saville, it is hard not to wonder about a connection.

Still, the record plays every now and then in the Infinite Jukebox, repository of songs with significance. If you don’t remember it, if you were too young to ever hear it, if the whole thing sounds unbelievable to you, there is a link below. The picture above is of the group in their stage clothing: there is a 1972 photo of the band looking like real teenagers on their website.

The Seventies was a strange time and place. More of its forgotten songs are finding their way onto the Jukebox.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZMadIrYxBU

Dan Dare: The Web of Fear


Keith Watson at home

Take away the continuingly excellent crisp, clean, black, white and grey art from Keith Watson, and The Web of Fear is a mess. In fact, with Watson’s art it’s still a mess, quite possibly the nadir of the Dan Dare series, but at least offers some great visuals. But it’s still a mess, whose only saving grace is that it is so short, a mere ten weeks and it is over.
Once again, Earth is subject to a world-threatening threat. That makes the fourth already this year, and that’s not counting the situation on New Year’s Day, when the planet was still half under water, subject to virulent plague and everybody had over-anticipated Jonathan King and gone to Mars. At this point, the Law of Diminishing Returns has not only set in, but is building a bungalow on an acre plot of land.
And it’s not as if it’s in any way a good, or even remotely convincing story either, full of holes and unexplained things that undermine the plot’s already minimal credibility.
Dan Dare is mentoring Cadet Peter Young, the son of old friends, on his test flight to qualify as a Pilot. Unfortunately, young Young crashes and seems to have blown his chances, but Dan stubbornly refuses to accept his judgement may be wrong.
Whilst he’s debating this, Earth finds itself subject to strange, white drifting webs appearing in the atmosphere, which prove to be lethally corrosive, He and Dig are sent to investigate the Moon, and he takes Young, despite the fact that the cadet has started prophesying doom and destruction over the webs, even though he isn’t aware of it.
Once on the Moon, Young goes into a trance and uncovers a cave full of spiders, which forces the Moon to be evacuated. The spiders stow away on the ships and are carried to Earth, where the threat builds. It gets even worse when Dixon’s Comet arrives and hordes of the things are found nesting in it.
Young isn’t the only Spacefleet personnel to be unconsciously and unexplainedly helping the spiders, just the only one we get to see, but Dan trusts him throughout and is, of course, proved to be right when Young saves him and Dig from being blown up on the Comet by Earth when they’re burning out all the nests. End of story, and good riddance.
This really is an awful story. Motton does nothing to establish his spiders, relying solely on the idea that spiders are inherently creepy, and great big ones from space – think Tarantula, think Black Widow, think Shelob for later generations – are creepy enough for us not to care how they’ve gotten onto the Moon in so many numbers without anyone noticing, from a Comet that hasn’t been around for 500 years.
And there is nothing about how the spiders can dominate the will of people like Peter Young to make them into slaves, especially if the hold can be broken in an instant, when it’s convenient to the story, without anything actually being done.
And there’s this business of Dan’s childhood friends, the Young’s from Little Fletchworth, who come and deservedly go in this story with no other mention. The back story is completely invisible, the only hints being that Little Fletchworth reminds Dan of endless happy days in his childhood. Except that, as we proud Mancunians will point out at every opportunity, Dan was born and brought up in Manchester and I can assure you that there is a complete absence of villages called anything like Little Fletchworth. Not even with high-rise apartment blocks.
In his splendid The Report of the Cryptos Commission New Zealand fan Denis Steeper tries to bring the entire Dan Dare story together into a comprehensible chronology. To do so, he leaves out only three stories, one of which was The Earth-Stealers. The second is this, and he’s absolutely right to do so.

In Praise of Pratchett: Witches Abroad


Just as in the first Three Witches – and given the importance of Nanny Ogg and even Magrat Garlick in these stories, I refuse to call them Granny Weatherwax books – there’s a moment of roar-out-loud laughter, early on, that bespeaks Terry Pratchett at his most hysterically pure.
Let’s not get into why at the moment, but our favourite coven is traveling by water underground, through caverns that have never known the light of the sun, when they discover that someone is following them. A small, grey, vaguely frog-like creature, with pale, glowing eyes paddles a log up to them, grabbing the side of the boat in its long, clammy fingers. “’Ullo,” it hisses, “it’sss my birthday.”
Of course, this is one slightly more for Pratchett’s native audience, but in the wake of a certain film trilogy, there’s probably no-one under the sun who, at that moment, isn’t mentally rearranging his or her map of the known Fictive Universe to attach the Discworld to the edge of Middle-Earth. Though, whilst I am in no position to criticise the man’s sense of humour, I do think Pratchett missed a trick by not having someone say, “Mark my words, yon slimy bugger’s going to cause someone an awful lot of trouble, one of these days.” That’s how I always remember it, even if that’s nothing more than a ‘Play It Again, Sam’.
So why are Granny, Nanny (with her ‘just-an-old-softy’ cat, Greebo) and Magrat on this underground river. Well, yes, there’s a story behind that. In fact, there’s nothing but stories behind that, stories imposing their views upon the world, aided and abetted by someone who is far away in terms of Discworld geography yet far too close to home.
Witches Abroad is the first book in which Pratchett explicitly identifies the force of stories, and how strongly they influence not just the Discworld but also the larger world, in which we read, and dream and act under the influence of patterns of behaviour whose universality dictates our responses. Homo Narrans: Storytelling Man.
Stories, or more precisely, happy endings are the wellspring for this book. Fairly Godmother Lilith de Tempscire rules the distant city of Genua (think New Orleans, turned up until.. you got it) under an iron grip. Its old king is dead, to within a given value of Dead, its new king sleeps in a pond at night (until he gets kissed) and the King’s daughter works in a kitchen whilst her two sisters live in luxury, and her name is Emberella.
Yes, this is a book bound in fairytales, all jammed in together and overflowing, instantly recognisable even when seem from somewhere three-quarters of the way round the back in the Pratchett style.
However, everybody gets two Fairy Godmothers, and Emberella’s good one is Desiderata Hollow, a Lancre Witch who’s been travelling. Or rather, was, because Desiderata is waiting for her last visitor, tall fellow, grins a lot, talks LIKE THIS. Desiderata has never been strong enough to defeat Lilith, but she knows only one person who might be, and who might have a reason to be. The problem is getting Granny Weatherwax to do something she doesn’t want to.
The solution is to leave her Magic Wand to Magrat Garlick, send her on a Quest to Genua (because she’ll certainly go) and order her to forbid Granny and Nanny not to go with her, because that’ll certainly determine them to take a journey that crosses virtually the entire main Discworld continent. Especially when Granny catches a glimpse, in a mirror, of who she’ll be up against.
So that’s why the witches float down an underground river. It’s also why they fly broomsticks for long periods, keep touching down in villages where the two elder witches display the worst habits of English tourists in foreign places (well, not the wanton sex, though you wouldn’t put it past Nanny at times), whilst Pratchett keeps teasing us with what’s happening in Genua, where the voodoo of Mrs Gogol and her zombie servant, Saturday, are awaiting their arrival.
Normally, I’d be critical of such an extended journey, as so often they’re used to spin things out, pad a story to a greater length by delaying getting to grips with the real events, and given that the Three Witches take nothing from their journey that actually gets used in the climactic events, this would seem to fit that criterion.
But I can’t do that here, because the stops in the journey are all part of the book’s theme, yet more examples of fairy-tale settings that the Witches move through and explode, unconsciously a psychological apprenticeship for what Granny at least knows they will consciously have to do when they finally reach Genua. And because they’re all so buoyant and hilarious and so beautifully exploded by the solid reality of the Three Witches, a catastrophe curve in motion, and for the sake of lines like, “Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.”
Once in Genua, the theme becomes even more explicit than before. Lilith wraps the city even deeper in webs of happy endings. Granny, Nanny and Magrat try to disrupt the tale by destroying its basic pillars, but it’s not as if Lilith hadn’t foreseen this, nor had the power to redo it: after all, she knows what to do with a magic wand whilst Magrat can’t get hers to produce anything except pumpkins.
However, if Lilith can alter a frog’s morphogenetic field to get it to convince itself it’s a human, Granny and Nanny can do the same for a cat, and a right piratical human Greebo becomes. Add in the world’s greatest lover, Casanunda (a dwarf with his own step-ladder, as you might guess) trying  to get it on with Nanny Ogg and the whole thing roils in confusion until Granny comes face to face with Lilith.
Or, to give her her proper name, Lily. Weatherwax. As in Granny’s elder sister.
You may call it a cliché, or recognise instead that it is pure Story: the siblings, one good, one evil. And evil seems greater but will be defeated by good. But not for the reason you might expect, that good is good and so it wins but because Pratchett has throughout Witches Abroad been lovingly shaping story and equally lovingly blowing it apart, Granny is the stronger because she is the good sister, and she is the good sister because she was forced to be.
Because Lily stole away being the bad sister. Because Granny had in her heart and her head every bit as much understanding of evil, and power, and self-indulgence, enough to have been as bad as, if not badder than her sibling, but who because of Lily, had to be the Good One, which she has forever resented with the force that makes her stronger than her sister.
So there’s a happy ending after all, but it’s not the ending planned by Lilith de Tempscire, nor that proposed by Mrs Gogol and Baron Saturday, the voodoo woman and the dead king that Emberella doesn’t recognise as her parents. It’s the only happy ending worth the price, and it’s the only happy ending Granny Weatherwax will ever hand out, the one where you get to do it yourself. Without influence, without magic leaning on your shoulder, its very presence turning all good intentions bad. You get your life to lead: how much happier can it get?
So, their foreign holiday ended, the Three Witches head for home, laden down with the usual cheap souvenirs and presents without which it can hardly be said to have been a holiday. But they go the long way round, and see the elephant.

A Literary Quest(ion): Do you remember?


I wonder if any of you can help me.

Throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, my Droylsden-based grandparents were devotees of a long-defunct British weekly tabloid newspaper called Reveille. It had been started up in 1940 as a Serviceman’s paper but it was brought into the Daily Mirror stable after the War, and thrived for a long time as a lightweight, pro-Royal Family, entertainment. By the time I became familiar with it in the Sixties, it was in a well-oiled groove, and both my parents and myself would have a read through it during a Saturday afternoon.

I remember few details about Reveille‘s contents, though it did play a part in awakening my nascent sexuality, or at least feelings that were decidedly strange and not entirely comfortable, not at my age. Each week, the paper would print a short story, frequently to do with murders and affairs. I said this was a tabloid paper.

One such story featured a woman’s nude body being found in an apartment shared with the narrator, who was being set up for her death. I have no other recollection of the story, but I can still see the drawing done to illustrate it, of the woman, lying on her back, nude. Not blatantly so, not full-frontal or anything like that, or even especially revealing, but still nude, and despite the arty shading, clearly nude. If you think I’m overdoing the nude-word, please bear in mind that, for a lad like myself who, at best, was just hitting the cusp of teenagerdom, this was territory that I was not equipped for yet. I did contrive, privately, to remove and retain that page from the copy before it went off to whatever happened to cheap newsprint in those days before recycling.

And given that Reveille went in for cheesecake pictures of bright, sunny girls in bright, sunny bikinis, every now and then, in conditions of imperative secrecy, other pages escaped the bin.

But that’s not why I’m writing. Though I remember this story for its illustration, there was another short story in Reveille that had a profound effect on me, independently of any pictures created to break up the columns of type.

I haven’t a clue as to the writer of the story, its title or even the year of publication, which is where I hope to enlist the aid of somebody who might read this blog and recognise what I am speaking about.

I remember very little of the story itself, save its main set-up. It was narrated by a male protagonist who hates and resents discourtesy. He is continually frustrated by bad behaviour: selfishness, obstructiveness, unnecessary anger, snide uses of power, offensiveness, rudeness: every form of grit in the wheels of trying to live a smooth life, everyone who, by their thoughtlessness or provocation, sets out to make the passing day pass for the worse for everyone they encounter.

So he kills one.

It’s over something that might seem trivial in itself, but in which the victim has set out to be mean when he didn’t need to; for the fun of it, because he could. That sort of soul-tarnishing experience that”s only got ever more prevalent in the decades since. But our narrator has had enough, and he kills the guy. There are no witnesses, no trail that identifies him, he gets away with it, scot free, and he even leaves a note explaining why the victim brought it on himself.

Yes, it’s a monstrous, shocking notion. But as the story progresses, the killer finds himself killing others for similar reasons. He’s never caught. In fact, he gets a newspaper name, The Politeness Killer, or something like that. He becomes a subject of conversation at dinner parties, his motives are debated publicly, factions support and celebrate him.

The story ends with the narrator witnessing a scene where an elderly lady commits some kind of minor traffic infraction. She’s all apologetic, indeed trembling, but the traffic cop who’s pulled her up is a nasty brute, who keeps going on at her, relishing his power, humiliating her. Until she takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him. Seeing the narrator watching her, she enlists his sympathy, only half-apologetically saying that her victim deserved it. Then she leaves a Politeness Killer-type note and drives off unconcerned, leading the narrator refllecting on how he seems now to be heading a crusade.

It’s so very long since I read that story that I’d hardly be surprised to learn that I’d got loads of details in that account wrong, that my memory had constructed a shell-format to tie together the tiny, correct elements into something that makes sense. Because that’s the point of writing this.

The central notion of the story, the proposition that the killing of people who erode and destroy the experience of life without justification, for no other reason than their ineradicable shittiness, has stuck with me ever since, a powerful thought that I would never act upon, but which at times comes to me as I look at people who would certainly take a central role in any updating of this story.

Was there really such a story as this? Am I displacing a dark urge, putting it into the hands ad the responsibility of someone distant and strange, who maybe never existed, to avoid responsibility for having these thoughts? Or did some short-story writer of the Sixties really conceive of the Politeness Killer and his controversial attitude to good manners? That’s why I’m asking you: do this story, this notion ring a bell? Is it real? Can you lead me to the writer, the story? Because I really would like to read this story again, to match my recollections with the product of someone’s imagination, that lit a dark torch in my head that burns, dimly, even now.

Give a Dog a good name


I’ve already related how I came to discover Pavlov’s Dog via an enthusiastic NME review of an import copy of their first album, Pampered Menial by Max Bell that, for the first time, convinced me without hearing a note that I would love this music. But this was 1976, and I knew of nowhere where I could hear the album, or even buy it.
A second album and review followed, in the Autumn: At the Sound of the Bell. Same circumstances, same reviewer, same enthusiasm for a different sound, same conviction that if only I could get to hear this band, I would hear something of tremendous value.
Then in, appropriately, late November, I chanced upon a second hand copy of Pampered Menial and chanced the last £2 of my birthday money on it. Time for a single play before rushing off to Chester for the afternoon, to Law College, enough to bemuse but oddly intrigue, and I spent the evening getting familiar with an album that bore out my instinctive response to Bell’s panegyrics.
And, a couple of weeks later, I used the first of my Xmas money to buy  At the Sound of the Bell. I gave it the usual immediate spin, listening for scratches and scuffs, clicks, sticks and crackle, the standard paraphernalia of buying a vinyl album that I haven’t had to worry about since going CD in 1987. And it did sound different, worryingly so, and I fretted a little until Xmas Day and I could start to get to know it, and to love it too.
Two reviews, two albums, all in the same calendar year. Then nothing. No more reviews, no more releases. No news of anything in the NME, not even by Max Bell. I became resigned to the fact that Pavlov’s Dog were to be no more than the thickness of two single LPs, a tiny fraction in the rack of my collection, eighteen songs and that’s it, finito benito.


It was years later, another decade, before I thought I knew more. I was listening  to Radio One, just about, and a song came on, and I turned to the radio in shock and surprise for surely that was David Surkamp’s voice! But it wasn’t Pavlov’s Dog, not with music like that it couldn’t be. So the band had definitely broke up, and there definitively was to be nothing more.
I was both wrong and right: this wasn’t David Surkamp, but rather Geddy Lee, and Rush, a voice all but identical to Surkamp, but the Dog had split by then, though not without a greater legacy than I knew. Suddenly, an album appeared in another Stockport record shop that I patronised because they were good on stuff like Joy Division, and I fancied the blonde behind the counter: Hi-Fi Demonstration Record it said, on a cover mocked up like those old stereo demonstration records Dad had bought to test out the stereo on the new radiogram. Ian Matthews and David Surkamp, it said. The blonde said that it was something they were considering whether to stock or not, but I suppose I must have been a lone vote because, despite my assuring her I’d buy it, the shop decided against.


The ‘album’ was actually a live 5 track 12” EP of the kind becoming very popular as limited recording cost first releases by hopeful bands (like R.E.M. and Chronic Town), but, unknown to me for many years, Hi-Fi went on to record a full-scale LP before splitting.
But the biggest news was a question for Fred Dellar, who wrote the NME‘s question page, still in 1981, revealing that the Dog had split up but that, the most cruel news of all, before doing so, they had recorded a third LP… that CBS had refused to release because neither of the first two had sold.
This was crushing news, to know that a third album existed, a third set of songs, that I would never get to hear. Remember that this was 1981, and that despite the indie-label era inaugurated by punk, the majors still had absolute control over releases. A third album…


It became a legendary goal for me, an unattainable grail, until, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Liverpool, at the end of the decade, I attained it. A limited edition bootleg LP, The St. Louis ‘Hounds’, pressed up after the theft of the mastertapes. Its existence was known by then, but I’d stopped reading the NME years before and missed a revelation that would have only made me miserable in trying to locate this treasure.
So, after thirteen years, I had the third album, and it was good. By then, I’d converted the first two albums to CD, a clunky, chunky, double-CD pack taking up a lot of unnecessary space, given that the combined length of the two LPs would have still left space on a single compact disc.
So that was the end of the story, save for getting hold of Hi-Fi’s Demonstration Record which, to be honest, had long since gone out of my head. I don’t know what prompted my memories of it, but something did, and I managed to get hold of a copy, and learn of the hitherto unknown studio album, Moods for Mallards. Wandering around record fairs, asking sellers, I learned a lesson: Pavlov’s Dog were a cult band, but Hi-Fi were a genuine obscurity. Despite including ex-Fairport Convention Ian Matthews as well as Surkamp, ever record dealers had never heard of them.
They weren’t even typical of the Pavlov’s Dog sound that, so improbably, I still loved, being more of a rock-oriented outfit. But as long as it had Surkamp’s voice…
There was a minor diversion sometime in the Eighties or Nineties, I can’t now remember, when I’d gotten onto the mailing list of a rarities specialist, probably because I was still in pursuit of Joy Division obscurities (that were affordable). On one list, something came up under the name of Pavlov’s Dog 2000.
I raced to buy it but on receipt, it proved to be a five track EP, very badly produced, that proved to be a project put together by Mike Safron, the band’s original drummer, who’d only played on Pampered Menial. It had no Surkamp, no relation to the band’s sound and it was crap, and I successfully argued to send it back and get a refund, because the whole thing was a misrepresentation.
However, if you wait long enough, stories never end. On Cup Final day, 1996, I got into London for 9.00am to give myself time for a shopping spree down Oxford Street way. In the big HMV, on a whim, I wandered over to the P’s, to look up Pavlov’s Dog. It was an absurd notion, to think that maybe the third album had been put on CD, and to think of it being in the HMV shop if it had. And it wasn’t, though a CD version would turn up, titled Third, with a revised track-listing, not all that long after, from a German label.
But there was something else: Lost in America. A fourth album, a contemporary album, recorded by a reformed band with a new line-up, but a line-up which included both David Surkamp and original member Doug Rayburn. It’s a disappointment in comparison to the earlier trio of albums, the band having adopted a more conventional Adult Oriented Rock approach but, hey, that’s Surkamp’s voice and there’s one real killer track on there in You and I.


I was still looking for Moods for Mallards  and still drawing blanks, but in the late Nineties, that quest came to an end in the most unlikely circumstances.
I was working for my most hated employers and every Friday would see me head home via Manchester, spending an hour among the life-restoring atmosphere of books, in Waterstones, to be followed by a Buy-One-Get-One-Half-Price deal on medium pizzas that saw me through Friday and Saturday tea.
For some reason, in early December, I was in Town on a midweek night, and browsing in the big HMV Store on Market Street. There was still a tiny vinyl section at that time and I was in the Hs, looking for the recently released Half Man, Half Biscuit album. For some reason, call it an affectation if you wish, after they had reformed I was still collecting albums as LPs, not CDs. And I was thumbing through the albums when I caught sight of a garish, yellow on blue title bar reading Moods for Mallards.
A smile was already crossing my face, amusement at the thought that someone else had used the exact same title, before I looked at the left hand end of the said bar, to a little black circle in which it said, in white lettering, Hi-Fi.
This was utterly unbelievable. A rare album by a band so obscure, not even specialist record-dealers had heard of them and, over a decade after its release I find it shrink-wrapped in the big HMV Store in Manchester? I still cannot think of any explanation that makes sense. Yet the proof was in my hand, and I was paying for it at the till.
As this was December, I decided to make the album into a Xmas present for myself, and left it in its shrink wrap. It was the evening by the time I got to Moods for Mallards, carefully unwrapping it, laying it reverentially on the turntable and pressing play before returning to my chair and my wine. Before hearing a scraping, screeching sound with only slivers of music.
I raced back to the hi-fi, lifted the needle and spun the record off the deck to look at it. It was not so much warped as corrugated, almost a third of its circumference bent into a succession of waves by the record having been left too close to a heat source at some point. It was, literally, unplayable. I took it back and got a refund.


It was not until the Twenty-First Century, and the internet that I finally got a playable copy, with little difficulty. And, with the perversity that so often stalks me when it comes to music, having bought the record for its connection with the Dog and David Surkamp, my favourite track turned out to be one written and sung by Ian Matthews, Throw a Line.
In the end, a year or so back, a CD collection of the complete Hi-Fi, with a couple of rarities was released, and after all that chasing, I replaced both records.
The revived band, having recorded Lost in America as far back as 1990, seemed to have been very much a one-off thing, and as I was paying no attention to any kind of music press, I wasn’t hearing anything, except in occasional dribs and drabs. There was a Surkamp solo single that I nabbed via eBay, a strange, slow, draggy version of Louie Louie that I really wasn’t sure about, and then a solo album, Dancing on the Edge of a Teacup that I held off sampling, because this was now when money was tight and eBay auctions or seriously reduced second hand prices on Amazon was the order of the day.


I did download a superb track off YouTube, a majestic, powerful song credited to Pavlov’s Dog, Life in Imperfect Times, a true throwback to their classic sound, though I eventually learned it was from Surkamp’s solo (which is sub-titled ‘The Pavlov’s Dog Trinity Sessions’).


And there was another new album by the Dog, in 2010, Echo and Boo, and assorted Small Tails, which was another victim of economic straitenedness, until last Xmas when, flush with eBay sales, I treated myself to a double splash, and found both albums to be worthy additions to the canon.
By then, however, that third album had finally been released officially, under its original planned title, Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried? (a reference to the band’s violinist, Richard Nadler, who went under the name of Sigfried Carver). And with no less than ten bonus tracks. Sigfried restored the original running order from The St. Louis ‘Hounds’, and included sleeve notes from Surkamp that made it plain how much he’d hated the record, but here it was, with demo tracks, live recordings and some never-released songs.


I fell upon it with glee, and even ended up replacing that clunky double-CD of the first two albums as these two were also re-issued with bonus tracks. Lost in America got the same treatment, though I’ve yet to upgrade to that, nor acquire the Live and Unleashed CD, featuring the current version of the band on stage.
But it’s thirty-nine years since Max Bell’s two enthusiastic reviews, and it’s still not done. All this reminiscing has been sparked by the chance discovery via Amazon, and the deliberate acquisition of another Pavlov’s Dog album, The Pekin Tapes. No, not another new album, the very opposite of it. The Tapes are Pavlov’s Dog’s original first album, recorded in 1974 when the band was in its infancy, and then Steve Scorfina and David Hamilton also shared lead vocals on songs written by them.


Five of the tracks survived onto Pampered Menial, where they got polished into the hurricane-loud and dramatic versions I’ve been familiar with so long, under the production of Sandy Pearlman and  Murray Krugman, the Blue Oyster Cult producers (Scorfina was an ex-Cult guitarist). Another, Carver’s Preludin and Exordium in E. Minor, runs to its full eight minutes instead of being cut down to about ninety seconds for Pampered Menial, whilst the ‘new’ tracks are simply nothing at all like the band I’ve long known.
As a bonus, there’s an even earlier set of four tracks from 1973, the very earliest demos known.
And that’s not all. Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried? has been re-mastered and re-issued with the original planned running order and different bonus tracks. The re-mastering is reputedly superb, having been made from the original master-tapes which have re-surfaced. The only comment on Amazon recommends buying it to keep alongside the original release.

And then there’s Of Once and Future Kings, another new CD, another live performance, but of the classic band, mastered from tapes of a live radio broadcast, which is an absolute must for me, being as close to time travel as I’m likely to see in my lifetime.

Once upon a time, and a very long time it was, it was two albums in a rack, a tiny slice of space. All That There Was and All That There Would Be. After all, this was a cult band, and cults aren’t meant to be wide and expansive. But it isn’t like that any more. Someday Soon I’m going to have a CD collection that runs almost into double figures and takes up considerably more room on a shelf than I’d ever have imagined. All for a cult band. I shake my head in wonder at the vastness of it all.

 

Dan Dare: Operation Fireball


Motton and Watson’s third story ran for a comparatively expansive twelve weeks. It was back to the world-menacing disaster formula of Operation Earth-saver, though this time the menace was not world-wide but confined to the Atlantic Ocean, and consisted of an unquenchable fireball the size (and heat) of a small sun, floating on the water and bringing heat-related catastrophe firstly to Florida and the Caribbean, and then spinning on its tail and beetling off in the direction of the English Channel.
Dan and Digby are there for the start of things, pulling routine freighter escort duty on a Mars freighter which bursts into the eponymous fireball almost as soon as they set eyes on it, but spend most of the story in space, on Mars, at the Parelli Cobalt Mine, digging into just what the miners have been digging out of the Red Planet that is so volatile.
The story may be set in space but, in what has already become a formula, Motton keeps cutting back to Earth for the latest update on the Fireball, and who and how it is threatening. And he also has an odder, more lightweight excuse to flick back to the mother planet, because he’s started his story with a class of schoolboys (led by a pretty class mistress) getting Digby’s autograph and constantly asking for the news the spaceman had promised to give them.
The culprit in all this is Mr Cragg, the Parelli Mine Manager. He’s not evil as such, not in the positive sense of von Malus, he’s just a greedy, self-centred bastard who’s discovered a source of incredibly profuse gold and diamonds that he’s intent on converting into unlimited personal wealth.
Excuse me, but this is Mars, isn’t it? Red planet, population extinct, wiped out by the Red Moon, we’ve been here before. Suddenly, it now houses a secret underground population of midget Martians, looking nothing at all like Dortan-uth-Algar’s people, who use some kind of strange solution siphoned off the sap of an underground fungus which is incredibly corrosive and dissolves rock into the aforementioned gold and diamonds.
At least, that’s what I think it does. I’m not certain, because Motton gets lost in the middle of his story. The cargo that’s blossomed into the fireball is Cragg’s secret stash for himself, which is presumably gold and diamonds, not things noted as being particularly flammable, and he seems to be discovering the sap-solution along with Dan and Digby, so he can’t have sent any Earth-side before now, but it’s the sap-solution that is both volatile enough to explode into another fireball, and yet at the same time be exactly what’s needed to put the fireball out.
This I don’t understand.
Either way, Cragg gets his comeuppance in the shape of his own mini-fireball, which is what serves to alert Dan and Digby as to just how bloody dangerous this sap-solution is to move around. The second half of the story is of them flying it, incredibly gently, back to bomb the Fireball, put it out and save the day.
The story ends with the class arriving for a full debrief from a fagged-out Digby, Dan gently ribbing him about the price of fame and then discovering they’re all after him: they all got Digby’s autograph in episode 1!
As for the miniature Martians, you can forget about them. After all, Motton, Watson and Longacre did, immediately, as you’d imagine. Apart from recording that Keith Watson’s art is again sensational in its use of black line and grey wash, that’s about it for this one.

In Praise of Pratchett: Reaper Man


Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.