In Praise of Pratchett: Night Watch

And now we’re back to Night Watch.
I’ve already reviewed this book once, shortly after the news that Terry Pratchett had gone broke upon us. Though it was less a review that an expression of pain and grief and loss: not merely at losing an author with whom we all felt ourselves to be friends, but at the simultaneous loss of so many other friends: to take this book alone, Sam Vimes, Lady Sybil, Fred Colon, Nobby Nobbs, Carrot, Angua, Detritus, Cheery, not to mention the Patrician.
My occasional commentator, G, asked if I was going to blog subsequent Pratchett books, which was the acorn from which the present series of posts grew: blame him, if you wish!
What have I to say now that I didn’t say then? What I wrote then was written out of passion: the serial posts have been analytical. This is an effect I’ve seen many times since I took up blogging seriously. It’s difficult to read things without simultaneously looking for what I would say about them. Reading just for the fun of it is very difficult.
There were already signs in The Fifth Element that the City Watch series was evolving into a Sam Vimes series, and in Night Watch that becomes complete in one mighty bound. Pratchett dallies only a short time over the latest Vimes vs. the Assassins Guild scene, and deliberately denudes it of drama by revealing that the Commander of the City Watch has so risen in status that, like the Patrician, he is off the list of targets for whom the Guild will accept contracts. All he is now is a training exercise.
Add to this the fact that Lady Sybil is about to come to term, and that despite her family history in the way of successful births, there are some doubts about the confinement, and Pratchett has done all he wants or needs to establish the deep background of what follows. What a first time reader might make of this is difficult to imagine as Pratchett can afford to leave out masses of information, secure that his readership doesn’t need the dots connecting.
Because he’s out to throw us for a loop that will keep us off-balance for the rest of the book, as Vimes is hastily catapulted into a thirty years old past, into Ankh-Morpork as was. It’s a disturbing experience for us all, not least Vimes, who finds himself mentoring his younger self in an environment that is no longer familiar.
Vimes has to adjust, and the skill with which he adjusts is yet another measure of the man. He’s an enemy to deal with, the psychopathic Carcer, who has also gone back with him, and who has killed the man Vimes is currently impersonating. Carcer knows the future as much as Vimes does, but shows no more concern for it than he does for any ordinary person’s life. Vimes needs to get his man, before he changes the future.
And Vimes has desperately got to get back to his future, which will require the assistance of our dear friend, Lu-Tze, whose first task is to hold Vimes steady enough to believe that there is a future for him to return to.
I spoke, in The First Elephant of just how bad a husband Vimes had become to Lady Sybil. It’s a pity it took pregnancy to make Vimes see what he ideally should have seen with his own eyes long before, but now it is Sybil and their son who motivate him. He wants to get back, he has to get back, for them. Yet, when the choice is forced upon him in the most stark of fashions, he chooses the course that means foregoing that future.
If he’s prepared to abandon Sybil and young Sam, what then has changed? The difference though is obvious. Sam is faced with the impossible choice. Not long ago, he’d have automatically have rushed headlong into danger and detection, because he put these things first. He’s learnt better, or maybe he’s finally accepted, after all the years otherwise, that he can have something other than loneliness and Duty.
If Sam put himself first, he would be back to the present, without a doubt. But Sam can’t do that. He is, by virtue of his future, by virtue of who he is, a Leader, and a Leader must think both for and of his men. Men he used to know, men he knows again, are going to die. The reason Sam is so very good at his job is, like Granny Weatherwax, because he could so very easily have gone the other way. Sam watches Sam all the time, to make sure that anger, fear, fatigue, all the ills that humans are prey to, do not drag him down.
In the face of everything he wants, Sam abandons that for the chance of saving lives. In the end, it doesn’t make a change, and yes, he gets home and all is well. But Sam has done what he had to do, not what he wanted to do: what he wanted to do is what distinguishes him from the selfish, neglectful, unheeding husband he has, until so recently been.
What makes Night Watch so great is, for me, the fact that Pratchett suddenly throws everything into reverse. With the exception of Small Gods, which was set well away from any other Discworld territory, the books have always moved forward, each new book being new in every sense. Night Watch takes us back, back to an Ankh-Morpork that we don’t recognise.
The is the pre-Vetinari Ankh-Morpork, and it is a nasty place. Forget the Ankh-Morpork of The Colour of Magic, that was just a cardboard cut-out fantasy fiction city, pasted onto the wall like the blandest of nursery paper and having nothing in common with any kind of functional city.
And functional is the word we associate with Ankh-Morpork and with Vetinari’s rule. It’s the single most common descriptor of the City: it works. And it works precisely because of Lord Vetinari, and for no other reason (except, increasingly, Sam Vimes and the City Watch).
The thing is that, once you give a moment’s thought to Ankh-Morpork, you realise that it doesn’t work. It can’t work. It’s a not especially benevolent dictatorship that exists as a mass of opposing interests and forces that are held in stasis by the Patrician and the fear of what may happen if he’s removed from the equation.
In Discworld, it can work, because Terry Pratchett tells us it can, because we want to believe that it can, because we none of us for a second have to live under those circumstances. And Pratchett was too intelligent a person not to know that. Which is why Night Watch is so important, because it enables him to show Ankh-Morpork without Lord Vetinari, without having to remove him as a character.
Instead, we’re shown a snapshot of what it was like, a snapshot at night, when the Night Watch have jurisdiction, to demonstrate just how much better Lord Vetinari’s reign is, by every stretch of the imagination.
Sam the loving husband, and why Havelock Vetinari really is a good thing for Ankh-Morpork. These are what Night Watch is about.
But it’s about all the other things I wrote about first time as well, and it is that which I take from Night Watch whenever I read it: sacrifice, for something more important than yourself. Sacrifice, and survival.


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