After four totally top Discworld books in a row, personally I find Soul Music a bit of a come down. There are a variety of reasons for this, some to do with the book itself, some that are purely personal reactions, which is hardly surprising if the subject is something so subjective as music.
Structurally, the book is another of those that present parallel strands that are primarily separate but which intersect on the way to a climax that draws both stories together. In the one half, we have the arrival on Discworld of the local equivalent of Rock’n’Roll, which involves Mustrum Ridcully and the Faculty, not to mention an unusually diverse band of musicians: human, dwarf and troll.
In the other, we have another of Death’s forays into existentialism, and the need for someone to sit in for him, this time introducing Susan, Duchess of Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabell, from Mort, and, in defiance of all known laws of genetics, Death’s grand-daughter (also to be his co-star for the other books of this sub-series, where she will be considerably more palatable than she is here).
But that’s one of the issues with Soul Music: too much of it is made out of pieces from previous Discworld novels. The Band with Rocks In is a re-mix of Moving Pictures, down to the enthusiastic exploitation by Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler and the presence of some overwhelming animistic force that smells very forcefully of the Dungeon Dimensions.
And Susan’s story is a re-run of Reaper Man, and Mort, this being the third time now that someone’s had to stand-in for Death and do a pretty poor job of it.
I’d also like to mention here that it’s not until I’ve chosen to re-read the Discworld series with a critical eye that I realised just how often Pratchett throws in the Faculty, from the moment Mustrum Ridcully debuts: they’re in every book since Moving Pictures, with the exception of Witches Abroad and Small Gods, and this hot streak hasn’t ended here. I had not previously appreciated just how much Pratchett enthused about them.
Turning to the stor(ies), let’s go first into The Band with Rocks In. This consists of the random assortment of Imp y Cellyn, of Llamedos, a small, rain-sodden analogue of Wales, harpist. dwarf horn-blower Glod Glodsson and troll rock hitter Lias Bluestone (who will take the impeccably trollish stage name of Cliff – cue obvious ‘joke’ about how someone named Cliff will never last in the music business).
Imp’s beautifully made harp gets accidentally smashed when Cliff sits on it so he gets a guitar from one of those shops, that have always been there, only not necessarily yesterday. It’s a place where musicians are forced to pawn their instruments and no-one seems to be too bothered by the fact that this guitar, rough and primitive that it is, has the number 1 chalked on it.
But there’s a spark as soon as Imp picks it up, only it’s that kind of unhealthy spark that signals that Imp isn’t playing the guitar, because it’s playing him. And so Music with Rocks In is born!
Indeed, shortly thereafter, Imp supposedly dies, except that he lives on, because he’s got the music in him. It’s just like something from the Dungeon Dimensions, an expectation that Pratchett plays with throughout the book (mainly through Ridcully), though in the end it turns out to be the heartbeat of the Universe: not so much the Big Bang as the Big Chord.
This side of the story plays with rock cliches such as Live Fast, Die Young, and the Faculty turning into teenagers, though not of a particularly modern or even contemporary kind. Which is where one of my personal problems with Soul Music rears its head.
It’s simply a matter of age. Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and grew up during the formative years of rock’n’roll, whereas I date from late 1955 and I’m post-Beatles Boom. Soul Music recapitulates the birth of Rock’n’Roll, and the reactions that surrounded it, something which creates no emotional resonance for me. Imp y Cellyn turns out to translate roughly into Bud of the Holly.
And of course there has to be the equivalent of a punk band in there, in the hapless quartet of Jimbo, Crash, Noddy and Scum, who have no musical ability nor see any need for any when the right look will do. It’s a condescending portrait at best, and it gets up my nose. Though you wouldn’t think it to look at me, now or even then, I was into punk, which was one of the most exciting and enthusing musical times of my life, and I’m one of those who isn’t ashamed of it, or revisionist in any way, and this portrayal offends me.
Which may well be why, ultimately, the Music with Rocks In half of the story doesn’t really gel for me. It never quite takes on a convincing shape, especially as even Pratchett admits it’s music that’s not meant for this Universe. Discworld is a pre-Industrial society, and Rock’n’Roll is a city music. It never feels at home, and it’s significant that it has to be banished without trace for the book to end.
To call something both an alien incursion and the rhythm of the Universe at the same time is a feat not even Terry Pratchett can pull off.
As for the other half of the series, Soul Music introduces Susan, who will go on to co-star with Death in the remainder of his sub-series. Properly, she’s Susan Sto Helit, Duchess of Sto Helit, though here she’s a skinny sixteen year old at a sensible private school. And she’s an orphan.
That’s because she’s the daughter of Mort and Ysabell, and her state of orphanhood (with, apparently, no other relatives, no guardian or, frankly, anybody) is due to Pratchett’s understanding of the conditions imposed by the end of Mort. When Death turned over Mort’s lifetimer, he didn’t grant him a life: that moment was, by cold logic, the exact midpoint of Mort’s life, and the time of his death was not merely fixed, as is everybody’s, but known to the Duke, unlike everyone else.
And that this has to happen, that Mort cannot live beyond a fixed point without becoming immortal and thus inhuman, is one of the underlying themes of this side of the book and, in the case of Mort’s choice – and Ysabell’s decision to share that moment – is one of the few really successful moments in it.
Susan is relevant because Death is going through an existentialist ‘What’s it all about, really?’ phase, immersing himself amongst humanity and trying to forget in all the old, classic ways. But if he’s not there to do The Duty, someone else has to and, in defiance of all notions of genetic heredity, and the lifelong efforts of Mort and Ysabell to make her entirely human, Susan has to take over for her ‘grandfather’.
And she’s going to be every bit as bad at it as her father was, only, instead of Mort’s essential ineptitude and generous nature, Susan is wielding the cold fury of her Common Sense.
Because Susan’s a sixteen year old girl, and she’s the worst kind of sixteen year old girl (Rhianna Pratchett would have been sixteen during the time this book was written, but I’m going to assume her father wasn’t drawing from life). She’s supercilious and self-centred, uncaring of anything that she isn’t personally interested in, treating everything else with the towering contempt girls that age spray. It’s stupid, and people are stupid. And Susan is only to willing to use the special abilities she’s already ‘inherited’ from Death to indulge herself in what I can only see as her ignorant prejudice.
(She gets better after this, but in this book, she’s a horror).
And as Susan Death, she’s going to make changes. Just letting things happen like that is so stupid. She’s going to see that the good people don’t die, just because it’s their turn. They’ll be left alone and it’ll be the bad guys who get it.
Being a sixteen year old girl, Susan takes a personal interest in Buddy, assisting the Music in keeping him from the harm intended by the Musician’s Guild, and generally making everything worse until the only way out is for Death to wake up to his responsibilities and play the empty chord, the one that will wind the Universe down unless the music gives Buddy/Imp back…
So Susan learns a lesson about the universe, and Imp comes back in a new role, though since it’s as someone working down the chip shop, it seems he’s progressed from Buddy to Elvis, only without the Music. A Happy Ever After ending is implied, though not committed to.
As for the rest of the book, this is where Pratchett introduces the Canting Crew, the quartet of Beggars consisting of Foul Ole Ron, Foul Ole Ron’s Smell, Coffin Henry, Arnold Sideways and The Duck Man, who will meander through a few books. It’s also the first appearance of Unseen University’s High Energy Magic building, complete with students and the first tubular construction of what will be named Hex, which will play a much more consistent role from hereon.
So, a blip, in my terms at least. But only a blip.