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.

In Praise of Pratchett: Hogfather

As with Soul Music, my initial reaction to Hogfather was mild disappointment, and perhaps from the same reason. Pratchett once again uses a plot he has previously employed: Death foregoes his role as the Grim Reaper, and that forces his granddaughter, Susan Sto-Helit, into his sphere.
There’s considerably more to it than that, however, since Death does not actually abandon the role of Death as take on another, more urgent anthropomorphic personification, any more than Susan actually uses the scythe for real. And, a couple of years on from Soul Music, she’s a far more sympathetic character than her sixteen-year-old self.
But Susan Sto-Helit still cuts across the grain of Discworld, with her furious determination to be resolutely normal, her heels-dug-in resistance to being put in a position to use the ‘powers’ she has inherited from her grandfather, notwithstanding her eminently practical attitude to childhood fears and fancies. Which usually boils down to using the poker.
In due course, it will kill the villain, as is only right and proper.
As with Reaper Man, the adversaries are again the Auditors of Reality, still determined on eradicating humanity and unpredictability from the Universe. Their vehicle, on this occasion, is the Hogfather, the Discworld’s Father Christmas, or rather it’s NOT the Hogfather, since the first thing they do is to have the guy killed.
Or, as this is commissioned through the Assassin’s Guild and their most seriously over-the-edge member, Mr Jonathan Teatime (pronounced Te-at-tim-eh), we had better say inhumed. For Mr Teatime has worked out how to kill all the Discworld’s major figures and it doesn’t take long before the reader realises that he is rather eager to turn his hypotheses into facts.
So: Mr Teatime ‘kills’ the Hogfather on Hogswatch Eve (by what manner, Pratchett doesn’t let on, reasoning correctly that this is one of those things best left to the reader’s imagination rather than be spelled out and be found inadequate or impossible to believe): Death, in order to prevent belief in the Hogfather from dying out, steps into his shoes to distribute Hogswatch presents with the maximum amount of evidence the fat guy has been around: the spare Belief psychically released by the Hogfather’s absence manifests itself by creating all sorts of unexpected but logical Anthropomorphic Personifications, like the Verruca Gnome, the Cheerful Fairy and the Oh God of Hangovers, especially around Mustrum Ridcully and Unseen University: and Death specifically forbids Susan to investigate why her grandfather is running around in a red robe with a false beard and a cushion tied around his waist.
Pratchett builds his story around four inter-locking strands, two comic, two serious. The Wizards are the purely comic element: from the uncovering of the determinedly-hidden B. S. Johnson bathroom and its inevitable short-comings, through the array of improbable creations introduced with an ominous glingleglingleglingle, they provide the bulk of the laughs, with little connection to the serious element of the story.
Similarly, Death’s progress as the psuedo-Hogfather is primarily played for laughs, a combination of the basic incongruity of the role and his continuing inability to fathom out the necessary rituals of the role, which also feeds into Death’s own increasing interest in humanity and why it is. It’s far more firmly attached to the story, and Death does indeed come into its conclusion in wholly dramatic terms, but its main gravity is in the chance it gives Pratchett to paint a picture of Christmas – and children – under the skin.
Susan is always going to be a serious element by her very nature. Pratchett gets over the implied matching of her to Imp y Cellyn by simply ignoring that ending to Soul Music, though this tactic is less successful when applied to the thought of why Susan, as Duchess of Sto-Helit, a Duchy that her father and mother governed well and influentially, has become a nobody of a Governess.
Of course, being Susan, she’s not exactly a nobody, but when Pratchett jokes about the difference between Susan’s social status and that of her middle-class employers, he does draw attention to the discrepancy. And though Susan is determined to surround herself with normality, that doesn’t prevent her from being able to see the imaginary childhood fears, like bogeymen and the bears that wait to gobble up children who step on the cracks, and indeed the illusion of childhood itself.
So she’s halfway into the world of the Death of Rats and the talking raven with an eyeball fetish even before Death’s specific instructions not to look into things further press her into an investigatory role that will take her to the place where somebody absolutely, urgently needs to go, which is the one place Death can’t go.
Which leads us full circle to Mr Teatime, an outwardly cheerful young man who seems to be permanently on the up-curve of manic depression but who is completely and utterly a psychopath. Not only has he inhumed the Hogfather, but he has also gotten himself and his band of top notch Ankh-Morpork street thugs into a strange kind of castle in a strange kind of world, the land of the Tooth Fairy.
This is where the book starts, for me, to lose track of what it is about. Teatime has been hired to inhume the Hogfather, and it is precisely he who the Auditors want rid of, and whose ability to preserve himself (with Susan’s help) ensures that the sun will rise in the morning. Teatime commences this process by attracting the attentions of the Tooth Fairy (well, one of them at any rate), and using her delivery service to slip out of reality as we and the Discworld knows it.
But Pratchett never establishes, or even hints at a connection between the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy. Indeed, the former has his own ice castle, which crumbles into nothingness ear;y on, whilst the Tooth Fairy’s base – a child’s drawing made three dimensional in superbly creepy manner – continues to exist.
And Teatime, after collecting all the teeth, a surprisingly horrifying image, and making them available to control ALL the children by magic, is after the wizened being who lies behind the Tooth Fairy operation, which is NOT the Hogfather, and is in fact THE Bogeyman, who has been collecting the teeth to protect them from being used, and who fades out of existence, leaving an obvious void.
What confuses further is that Pratchett’s etiology for the Hogfather leads back to similar roots, with the two figures perhaps as balancing images: The Bogeyman is the old dark, the Hogfather the turn of the seasons, the restoration of the sun from its darkest period to the light. The path from there to the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas has no clear route in either case.
It’s a confusing ending, and one where I really do not see what Pratchett was trying to say, which is one of the reasons where, despite the tremendous humour, I really can’t place Hogfather amongst the front rank of Discworld novels.

In Praise of Pratchett: Soul Music

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.