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.

In Praise of Pratchett: Thief of Time


With Thief of Time an era came to an end, for this would be the last Discworld book to sport a cover painted and drawn by Josh Kirby, whose art had defined the image of Discworld for us all from the beginning. Such a shame that there would be no more.
At least Kirby went out on a high, for Thief of Time was another monster of a story, with Pratchett in complete control of the various threads that he wrapped into one powerful threat from the very first sentence.
I always think of this as another Death and Susan book, the last, in fact, but it’s that in no more than half. The Auditors of Reality are on the attack again, this time cloaking themselves in flesh in order to manipulate the somewhat unhinged Clockmakers Guild foundling, Jeremy, into building a Glass Clock that will stop Time for ever. Death is aware of this and, once more, the Rules prevent him taking a hand in opposition, so once more his mostly human granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is required to act as his trigger finger.
And Susan accepts her role with far less resistance than in any of her previous appearances, despite her fervent desire to be only human, only normal. She’s progressed from Governess to teacher now, and a very effective teacher of course. But once the Death of Rats shows up, with Quoth the Raven in tow, Susan’s resistance is primarily token. She’s getting used to her ‘powers’, to being what she is and not what she wants to be. And she’s quicker to realise that there’s a very big threat out there that can’t wait for her to go through the usual unavailing protests.
Normally, that would be enough, but Thief of Time has another, almost more important dimension. We’ve already had a cameo from Lu-Tze, the Sweeper, back in Small Gods, but this book is as much his as it is Susan’s: more so because we now are introduced to the History Monks, their monastery at Oi Dong, and of course, Rule One.
Actually Lu-Tze is, like Death and Susan, part of a double act, paralleling our already familiar pair. Instead of Grandfather and Granddaughter, we have Master and Apprentice, with Lu-Tze taking responsibility for the most naturally-gifted, untrained and untrainable novice you could imagine, Lobsang Ludd. Oddly enough, Ludd’s just as much a foundling as is the obsessive Jeremy, but whilst Pratchett makes nothing of that, it’s going to be a matter of critical concern.
So: the Auditors, in the awkwardly human form of Lady Myria LeJean, are leading Jeremy to the construction of the Clock that will finally bring unlimited order to the Universe, and Susan on the one hand, and Lu-Tze and Lobsang on the other, are the parallel forces trying to prevent this outcome.
Pratchett adopts a dramatic model that’s rather unusual for him. There’s but a single story, though the piecemeal approach of the early part of the book delays this realisation. Pratchett starts several threads with no apparent connection to one another, but all of which soon start to coalesce, not into the same direction but for the same destination from opposite ends.
As soon as we understand the significance of the Glass Clock, we understand that it is going to be made, and that this will have to be dealt with. But with a single event to prepare for, Pratchett can stretch the story over a longer period than we’re used to, and without any sub-stages of significance to provide us with peaks and troughs.
It’s all a slow accumulation of tension, the better to emphasise that, when the Clock is set in motion, we have reached The End, and that only very special talents, operating in a sphere far beyond the knowledge of anyone else, can take any actions that might lead to the winding down of the clock and the restoration of any kind of observable reality.
The stakes are consequently higher, not to mention more remote, than in any other book in this series. A fact  emphasised by the slightest of devices, as Pratchett separates every section of his story with the italicised word tick, which collapses in on itself, leaving the whole of what will or won’t be salvation to take place between ti- and the perhaps never found -ck.
Though Pratchett has a down-to-Earth side to his story, Thief of Time is another of those books that operate deeply in the fantastic. It’s not a fantasy story as such, being based on a decidedly science fiction concept, that of stopping time, and its solution depends on the fact that the two foundlings, Jeremy and Lobsang, are connected: they are not twins but rather the same person, born twice in different split-seconds, and due to be rejoined as one being.
Creator of the menace, resolver of the menace, what was Jeremy/Lobsang becomes Time himself, inheriting his role from his Mother, who proves to be less permanent an anthropomorphic personification than Death, who is never going to take up pipe and slippers and leave it all to Susan to take over (then again, unlike Time, Death is not ‘married’).
Indeed, more strongly than he’s previously hinted, Pratchett leads us to believe that Lobsang and Susan, being two of a kind, will go on to forge a relationship as only they – literally – can. Perhaps that’s why Susan never returned in any later stories: reader, she married him (or at least snogged him in the stationery cupboard).
But Pratchett does still have a serious element to bring to the fore, which is what it is to be human. Throughout Thief of Time, with each of its mythopoeic characters – Death, War, Famine, Pollution, Time – Pratchett touches on the idea that, although none of them are human, they are human in shape, put into that shape by the beliefs of the humans on whom they act.
And being human creates an abyss into which everything must fall. Susan is more aware of this than others, though Death has seen too much of life not to have gathered an understanding of by just how much their expectations of him have influenced how he appears, talks, acts and thinks.
But Pratchett is at his most explicit in the form of Lady Lejean, the Auditor turned some form of flesh, who undergoes the full effect of becoming human and everything that means. She begins as Myria, a simple reflection of Myriad, but accepts Susan re-naming her as Unity. Through her, we see something of what it means to have the world cease to be one thing and become two: yourself… and everything else.
It’s what Pratchett brings to this book that we take away, the other side of the coin of mirth. For we can laugh, and gasp in excitement, and chew our nails over impossible threats, whilst knowing as readers that there is a solution, there will be a way out. And we can close the book on Time, and Susan, and Lu-Tze, and even giggle at his Fifth Surprise.
But we can’t close our eyes to the gap between ourselves with our eyes shut, and the rest of everything.