If too much of Soul Music was the re-use of previous ideas, Interesting Times shows instead how to build upon the existing structure of Discworld in a way that doesn’t merely repeat the same format, with different jokes.
Erudite readers would have taken one look at the title and surmised that, in the same way that Pyramids was Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fell off, Pratchett’s seventeenth Discworld novel would be about tuning Ancient China up until you had to go hunting for the knobs under the nearest furniture. And they would be right, for the Ancient Chinese had a curse which invited people to live in interesting times, these being the periods that the historians like to write about: you know, wars, rebellions, upheavals, disasters…
In itself the concept, and the wealth of possibilities that were inherent in it would have made a superb book but, for a second novel in a row, Pratchett was aware of his own creation’s history, and of inevitable things…
Interesting Times is another Rincewind book, the first since Eric, giving Pratchett yet another excuse – beyond his unbounding enthusiasm – to use Ridcully and the Faculty. A message has come from the Agatean Empire, the Counterweight Continent, demanding a visit from the Great Wizzard, an epithet no-one can decipher until somebody finally twigs the spelling, and the Great Irony.
So, by magical means that involve shunting people around the Disc, Rincewind is firstly dragged back from his desert island, which has just been invaded by a nation of nubile women seeking someone to repopulate their civilisation (which only arouses in Rincewind an urge for potatoes), and secondly despatches him to the Agatean Empire in exchange for some strange kind of mechanical object with a string on fire…
For the Agatean Empire is our analogue for Ancient China, though given the continuity of life in China throughout centuries, it’s a China that carries with it some modern echoes, such as a Red Army, and a wall to keep everybody in that foreshadows China’s Internet Firewall of this century.
But this Red Army are still the rebels, the not-Communists long before the Long March: innocents, idealists and adolescents who try to combine revolution with their innate respect for tradition, but who are unaware until someone as cynical as Rincewind comes along that they are no more than a complex game being played by the Grand Vizier of the Empire, Lord Hong.
For Lord Hong proposes to overthrow the ancient, senile yet still smilingly psychopathic Emperor with the Red Army as stooges. It’s all part of a game to cement his role as pre-eminent between the five major families, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Sungs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs. Very old, established family, the McSweeneys.
And then there’s his long term ambition, to visit Ankh-Morpork.
But Lord Hong’s plans are affected by the presence of another force seeking to overthrow the Emperor. This is the Silver Horde, and their leader is Cohen the Barbarian. Like Cohen, they’re all barbarians, unused to the mores and expectations of civilisation. Like Cohen, they’re all incredibly old (except for Boy Wullie, who’s only 79). They’re the least probable invading force there ever has been or could be, even with the advice of Mr Ronald Saveloy, aka Teach, a former schoolmaster, who’s trying to educate them on the civilised way of taking over Empires, which to the Horde’s immense disappointment and puzzlement, doesn’t involve fighting, looting or killing.
The thing is, though, the Silver Horde have got where they are by not having been killed. Given what their profession consists of, the ability to not be killed by an enemy for over 80 years argues for considerable expertise when it comes to fighting.
Ask yourself which one you expect to come out top? Especially, or should that be even with Rincewind on their side.
But this isn’t just a book of jokes about Ancient China, and fledgling rebels. If it were, Interesting Times would be good, but it wouldn’t be Pratchett. In his portrayal of the Empire, of the sheer rigidity of its society, of the gulf between those who rule and those who merely survive, as cannon-fodder for every second of existence, Pratchett draws a picture of a slave society held in place not by whips and brutality and torture, but by something easier for those on top: by whips in the soul.
Like too many ordinary people, both in this fiction and in our world, the chains of slavery exist in people’s heads, in too much of an acceptance of the strata of society, of the concept that there are those who are better than you, innately so because they start on top, and your life is only fit to be ordered and ruled upon by them. The Agatean Empire and its peasants are an extreme example of this, but too much of China and its satellite nations is the same thing.
Nor do the rebels get any better shrift. Pratchett is even more dismissive of them, disposing of their pretention to be on the side of the people, to be for better conditions for them, but for the moment intent on telling them what that better life is going to be.
The best bit for me is how much this book is founded upon the reappearance, in unexpected form, of the other of Pratchett’s earliest two characters, Twoflower.
Yes, the little man with the round face and the glasses, the Discworld’s first tourist, and the most naïve, unworldlywise and optimistic person you could ever meet. Twoflower passed through the first two books in total ignorance of everything around him, causing disaster wherever he went (usually for Rincewind, to whom he looked up as the Great Wizzard).
As with the eventual fates of Mort and Ysabell in Soul Music, Pratchett understands the logic of Discworld. Twoflower went to see the world. Admittedly, what he saw was mainly in his own head, but enough of the reality that underlay it penetrated as an unbelievable contrast to the life of the Agatean Empire for Twoflower to inadvertently turn himself into a pebble.
Of course he’s going to want to tell everybody about his holiday when he gets back. How could he not? And equally, to a closed in society like China, ‘What I Saw On My Holidays’ is a magnificent provocation, and an eye-opener.
But Twoflower is still, when he first appears on the page, the same old cartoon of those early, unworked out books, impossible to think of as real. That is, until the girls of the Red Army cadre ‘led’ by Rincewind turn out to be Twoflower’s daughters. There’s a reference, dismissive, offhand, shied away from, to a former Mrs Twoflower. Imperceptibly, the little man begins to grow real, to put roots down into a life.
Wisely, Pratchett doesn’t make much of this, or even involve Twoflower onstage. Until that moment which, for me, is the very heart of this book, when Pratchett sets Twoflower fully up on this earth, when – the least qualified person to do so – he faces the shrieking, defiant, still lethal Lord Hong.
Twoflower’s reasons are a mystery to Lord Hong, for whom the little man is beneath everything. But Lord Hong killed Twoflower’s wife. Not by his own hands, but by his soldiers, without thought, without intention, without meaning. And Twoflower’s well aware that he hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell, but he acts from the heart, and he says the words that matter most, that maybe be possessed of a romanticism that this book, that Pratchett’s works eschew, but which are nevertheless utterly true.
“The important thing is that someone should stand up to you. Whatever happens to them afterwards.”
He doesn’t die. He doesn’t kill, either, trust Rincewind and the Faculty for that, as comeuppances are distributed with casual accidence. And Rincewind is propelled somewhere else that we recognise as a ripe place for tuning up until those knobs fall off again, somewhere down the line.
A great book. The run is back on.