Back in the early Nineties, the BBC did a five-part adaptation of Alan Plater’s fifth and final novel, Oliver’s Travels. I have long since regarded it as the most perfectly miscast series in broadcasting history. Absolutely everybody, down to the least walk-on part, was wrong. It was sort of a miracle in that respect.
Today, I’ve seen the first photos and information released about the forthcoming BBC America eight-part series, The Watch, ‘inspired’ by Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books.
I’m not used to this Netflix all-at-once bit yet (and yes, I do know this isn’t Netflix but Amazon Prime and the BBC, but it’s the same idea), and I don’t have another five lots of fifty minutes stretching out in front of me right now, but I have just watched the first episode of Good Omens, the TV series of the brilliant book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by Neil Gaiman, and I am here to tell you that it’s ok, you can watch it without thinking it’s vastly inferior to the book, and in fact you can enjoy it, and you can laugh at it. No, make that: you will laugh at it.
This was only to be expected, though I was going more along the linesof hoped for, because it’s adapted by Gaiman himself, wanting to do the very best by his friend, it has an all-star cast starting with David Tennant and Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, andit’s had enough money thrown at it to fill up a whole chain of gravel pits, but even so you have to wait and see for yourself.
Teennant is all wonderfully laid-back and with-it, but it’s Sheen who has the harder task because Aziraphale is supposed to be an angel, also somewhat unwordly, definitely unrealistic, and it’s so much easier to do bad because then you have positive traits to work with, whereas good is ethereal and altogether bland, especially when you’re tying to be funny with it, but Sheen is as good as can be, rather like Ryan Giggs running at a packed Arsenal defence.
As for the adaptation, given how much of the book’s humour is in its narration (and its footnotes), it’s awe-inspiring just how closely Gaiman manages to adhere to the exact plot, keeping scenes focused and brief without the sense of anything being rushed or pared down or letting you start to drift off and remember what’s been left out.
No, take it from me, this is one that works, at least up to End of Part 1, and I’m confident it won’t all fall apart, despite the lukewarm reviews that have appeared this week. And I speak as one of the ones who’s owned Good Omens since it came out, who’s read it a dozen times, who’s inordinately pleased that they left out that line about Manchester, and who can safely and defiantly say that for this series the Omens are decidedly Good.
Go on, read this one. It’s about Comic Fiction and whether it still exists. Read it all the way to the end. A whole essay about Comic Fiction and it gets to the last paragraph before it mentions Terry Pratchett, and then as a maybe and not even with the courtesy of his first name: Douglas Adams at least gets that.
Before he died, Terry Pratchett requested that all his unfinished work should be laid in the middle of a road and crushed out of existence by a streamroller. Last week, as several major outlets have confirmed, that very thing happened. We have seen pictures of the hard drive, before and after.
As a writer myself, albeit on a level from which Pratchett is barely visible, I understand, and approve completely, and I honour and celebrate the men and women of principle who were responsible to fulfill his wishes, and have honourably followed those wishes. As a reader who has loathed and despised Literary Necrophilia throughout his life, who believes passionately in the primacy of the author, the original author, and nobody else without his or her explicit approval and permission, I say again, all honour to those who have been faithful to the wishes of the only person with the right to decide.
But as a reader, and a fan of Terry Pratchett since almost the beginning, inside I weep, for those lines, those oh-so-Pratchett lines, those concepts and ideas, situations and insights into that vast array of friends I can never visit again. Not a word more of His Grace, the Earl of Ankh, Sam Vines, the Eternal Copper, to choose just a single favourite.
There is literally nothing left, nothing that can be produced from an archive, or a folder or a scrap of paper. Terry is finally gone in every possible sense, and I mourn again, just as much as I did over two years ago, for him and them and all of them, and the coldness and emptiness of the closed, barred and bolted door back into Didscworld.
I was going to write something about this BBC2 Drama Documentary that was trying to substitute for the autobiography that Terry Pratchett never got to finish writing but I can’t. I can’t because it’s all come back, and I’m just missing him too much, and everyone he introduced me to, and I’m like Neil Gaiman, except I wouldn’t let the camera keep running. I never knew him except by his books, and I’ve never mourned anyone so much that I wasn’t related to, and something has gone out of the world that will never come back, and this one is the one that’s too much.
The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’ is rare.
The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?
That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.
Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.
Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.
Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.
This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.
Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).
The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.
Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.
I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.
Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.
Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.
That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.
No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).
We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.
I’ve just learned of a new, forthcoming proposal to adapt the classic Dan Dare stories from the Frank Hampson era in a series of six ‘audio adventures’, i.e., radio versions, details here.
As you can see, the planned adaptations consist of the first five of Dan’s original adventures in the Eagle, plus ‘Reign of the Robots’ but without first traveling to Cryptos/Phantos.
The series looks as if it’s stripping the cast down to a core quartet of Dan, Digby, Professor Peabody and the Anastasia, which, if it’s going to be the craft that takes our intrepid heroes to Venus, right at the start, is not going to be the personal craft we all know and love.
The blurbs also make it plain that, whereas the audio series follows the Eagle chronology, excepting ‘Reign of the Robots’, there are going to be substantial changes to plots and settings. The piece speaks of ‘a great team that has respect but not reverence for the original comics’ which, whilst objectively probably the best thing you could have, nevertheless fills me with dread. As you may have noticed, I like my Dan Dare to be Dan Dare, so any variation is automatically troubling.
Besides, whilst the only reference to romance is to the ‘romance of space’, the fact that Dan and Jocelyn (will she still even be Jocelyn, since that’s such an old-fashioned name now: five’ll get you ten that the ‘Mabel’ gets dropped extremely silently) are trailing around together is like a red flag.
There doesn’t, in these brief descriptions, appear to be room for the likes of Sir Hubert, Hank or Pierre, though Sondar is name-checked and Flamer Spry’s role exists, but what we’ll get will be quite different to what we know.
B7 Media have been around since 2007 and have an impressive record. They were behind the most recent Sky adaptation of Terry Pratchett, in 2010, and are currently rebooting Blake’s 7 for TV, having already done so for Radio. They’ve also adapted The Martian Chronicles in that form, both series of which having been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra, so Dan Dare is likely to come out on that medium.
The day this was published, there was a lunchtime event at the Manchester Waterstones, with a quiz and a reading from the last Discworld novel. I got 22 out of a possible 28 on the quiz, which wasn’t enough to win me a prize. Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett’s friend and assistant read the first part of chapter 2. It was about Granny Weatherwax, and it wasn’t hard to realise, from very early on, what this extract was going to be about. There were people wiping their eyes all round the Events Room, and I’ll admit to being one of them.
I’d toyed with the idea of postponing reading the book. I was in the throes of re-reading Monstrous Regiment and it seemed appropriate to complete reading the whole series, complete writing all these essays about the books and what they’re about and what they do and how I’ve responded. And it put off the evil hour before there were no more Discworld books at all.
But after that chapter – and this was chapter 2, so very early in the book – it wasn’t going to be possible to wait. I went home and I read it. And the longer I read it, the more my heart sank. It had been there in Rob Wilkins’ reading, a little nag of doubt. Granny Weatherwax talking for the last time to Death. Not bargaining or fighting or suggesting, but accepting. Her time was up, and Witches know: shall we go? We have already gone.
Only… it didn’t sound right. Even through the emotion of what we were listening to, there was something wrong. And it carries on through the book, from start to finish. The Shepherd’s Crown was being lauded from all sides, a final triumph, a fine ending. Everyone loved it. But I don’t. The triumph is in self-delusion, in wanting the book to be what we all wanted it to be, in telling ourselves that it is indeed wonderful, that it’s the send-off we dreamed of.
And it’s not. Not for me. It’s a shadow, a shadow of what Terry Pratchett was about as a writer. There were things I was uncertain about in Raising Steam, that I thought then were signs that the Alzheimers was starting to take effect, and The Shepherd’s Crown is far further gone. I don’t recognise anyone in this book. I know them by name, and I know them by place, but I don’t hear their voices, not once.
When Granny talks to Death, it doesn’t sound like either of them. Nor does Nanny Ogg sound like Nanny, nor Magrat like Magrat, nor Ridcully like Ridcully. Nor Tiffany Aching like Tiffany Aching. The most awful thing about this book is that it sounds like it was written in defiance of Rhianna Pratchett’s proclamation that no-one will take up the mantle. It reads like someone who has written a Discworld book but who can’t get under the skins of the characters, cannot make them sound like anything more than a much-dulled, homogenised version of themselves.
Believe me, I am not saying this lightly. I so do not want to be saying anything of this sort. Granny Weatherwax’s death begins the story with a powerful emotional charge, that carries the book for several chapters, although even then the idea that she would hand over her cottage to Tiffany Aching – so young, so not of the Ramtops – and that this would be accepted so immediately and with so little opposition rings false. But, as Granny’s influence fades so quickly away, the story flattens out and gets less and less life-like.
And even as we’re allowing the emotions to carry along, we cannot but help notice that people are not who they ought to be. Nanny Ogg in particular is a parody of herself, drinking to excess, continually telling Tiffany that they are witches and what witches are or do. It’s narrative as dialogue again, even more so, and the worst is the equivalent of the funeral.
In I Shall Wear Midnight, Nanny Ogg transforms the old Baron’s funeral into a celebration and an affirmation of life. We watch her do it, the effect is tremendous: sadness is absorbed into warmth, into Life. She does the same here, or rather we’re told she does. We don’t see it for ourselves, and I at least didn’t feel it.
The problem with all of this is that without the right voices, not least from Pratchett himself, the rest of the book struggles to coalesce into reality. Discworld was a thing of improbabilities, a fantasia of impossibilities, but Pratchett made it believable without effort. Not so here: The Shepherd’s Crown requires a leap of conviction where ordinarily only the tiniest shuffle was necessary.
I’ve heard people query whether Granny’s death was really necessary, but that’s easily answered. It’s key to the plot, which is the final attempt by the Elves to break back into Discworld and take it for their pleasure again: the removal of Granny weakens the boundaries and allows the Elves back in.
But it’s also essential on psychological grounds. Granny Weatherwax has always been the leader witches don’t have, the best and most formidable of them, the last bulwark. Tiffany Aching became Terry Pratchett’s favourite character, and for her to become the best witch, the ultimate bulwark, she either has to beat Granny, or Granny must otherwise be removed. Nobody’s going to buy Granny Weatherwax being outdone, not for a second.
So Tiffany becomes the bulwark, at her young age. We’re not told how old that is, but seventeen isn’t a bad estimate: seventeen, and the chief and most powerful witch, responsible for casting out the Queen of the Elves as she once did when only nine.
Except that the Queen is no longer as powerful as she was. That defeat has damaged her glamour, reduced her status, diminished her. She is overthrown by Lord Peaseblossom, an arrogant, ignorant son of a bitch, elf to his fingertips and stupid with it. The railway is here, weaving webs of iron across the Discworld, swarf is in the very air, the Elves haven’t got a chance, but the crass bully can’t believe in any limits to Elvish power. The Queen is not just overthrown but beaten, mutilated, her wings torn off and she is cast out into Discworld.
Under the nose of Tiffany, of course. Who takes her in, takes her over, and starts to convert her towards humanity.
Redemption, of course. Not for races, this time, but a single individual (two, in fact: Mrs Earwig, the snooty witch, will turn out to be totally proof against Elvish glamour, and top notch in a fight). The Queen learns to become human, to think of and help others, to shed arrogance and glamour. It’s a glorious notion, and one that ends in tragedy when she is slaughtered out of hand by Peaseblossom, but the biggest problem is that I don’t believe a word of it. Tell, not Show. It’s too quick, too perfunctory, too flimsy for me to accept, and the death scene is too short to have the impact that is wanted.
Still, Tiffany marshals her witchy forces and Discworld wins a final victory. Tiffany proves herself not only to be the chief witch, but also the ultimate shepherd, surpassing even Granny Aching, or at least so we’re told.
One point should be made here, as it is in Rob Wilkins’ afterword to the book, which he also read out at that Waterstones event: The Shepherd’s Crown, though complete, is unfinished. It was Pratchett’s practice to polish and polish, to re-write and re-work each novel up to virtually the printer’s door, adding, changing, improving even as he was deep into the next book. This book was orphaned before it could have all that attention, and it is not what it would have been if the extra time could somehow have been begged, borrowed or bartered.
Even on a second reading, not overcome by shock at how unlike Pratchett all this is, I seriously doubt that enough could have been done to remove the most serious flaws in this book. It fails to come alive because the characters fail to stand on the page. Take Geoffrey, the boy who wants to become a witch, and who Tiffany dubs a calm-weaver. He’s an entirely new creation, along with his intelligent goat, Mephistopholes, so the only voice he has is the one in this book, but the voice is never alive. Geoffrey doesn’t have a word of dialogue that sounds as if it’s being spoken by a human being, let alone a teenage boy. Furthermore, between first and second reading of The Shepherd’s Crown, I’d completely forgotten him, so big an impact does he create.
What is he for? What’s Mephistopholes about, especially with that name? (And why, in a non-Christian setting, is that name significant anyway?)
Anyway, Geoffrey is responsible for a new advancement in Discworld, which is the creation of men’s sheds. Even the bored and disinterested King of the Elves gets one, though I can’t say that the concept ever totally convinces. Like the Railway, it’s less a funhouse mirror image turned into a Discworld creation than a straight adoption of something that exists in our world.
Pratchett does better by introducing Railway Arches, though that’s something that will probably be lost on an audience much younger than me: I can’t help but be taken back to the likes of Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track.
Is there anything more to say? This is a book that falls short of the high standards that Terry Pratchett set for himself and maintained far longer than any writer so prolific had a right to maintain. It fails against those standards, despite the high qualities that the book’s conception embodies. It may well be a better book than many others of that ilk, but I cannot judge it against any other standards than those that have satisfied me for almost half my lifetime.
During that time, Pratchett was a writer of great breadth and depth, of humour and anger, and with the ability to bring the two forces together, time and again. He was a clever and subtle writer, a gifted plotter, with the ability to evoke emotion and insight. My pet hate in writing is the writer who uses the words: As you know… They are an abomination to me, the tactic of a writer who has no better idea of how to convey information to his readers than to have his characters sit around and tell themselves what they already know. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, they’re thin. Hell’s bells, no-one in real life ever says ‘As you know’: any writer worth reading can find a way to say them that a living, breathing person might use.
Terry Pratchett never used the words ‘As you know’ in any form in any of his Discworld books. Until The Shepherd’s Crown. And they’re everywhere. That is what his condition took from him.
I wish I could say better things, but the only thing you can give a writer is honesty in how you respond to their words. And this is honestly not a good book.
I’ve already written about this book once, an ‘Uncollected Thoughts’ an immediate response to completing reading it for the first time, which you can read elsewhere on this blog. Now, after the marathon of re-reading and commenting upon all Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, it’s time for a reappraisal.
With Judgement Day before it, and The Shepherd’s Crown to follow, I was really fearful about approaching Raising Steam again. But in truth, for all its flaws, it is an oasis of sanity, of clarity, of the authentic Pratchett voice.
In the classic manner, Raising Steam is divided into two stories, that merge in the latter half of the book, and it continues, on an impressive level, the theme of Redemption that has been Pratchett’s main concern since he began the sequence of books written in the knowledge that each may be the last.
The front story, as it were, is the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Discworld, in the form of Engineer Dick Simnal – a Lancastrian to the tips of his railwayman’s boots – and his locomotive, Iron Girder. And it’s the most massive, and uncharacteristic change Pratchett could have made to Discworld. It might only be the Railway, which spreads like wildfire, but already every associated industry is spreading with it, and with the Steam Engine harnessed, the full scope of the Revolution will follow.
It’s a change that cannot help but alter Discworld irrevocably, because it brings in Science, with the capital S. The change has been coming for years, as invention succeeded invention, each subtly shaping the Discworld closer to the norms we associate with Roundworld, with our Earth, but this is the one that changes the very ground upon which Discworld stands.
So fundamental is the level on which this changes everything, that Pratchett could only introduce it now, so late. Had there been stories to follow this, had we been guaranteed another decade, another dozen books, those stories would have been changed beyond all recognition. Like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, like 9/11, the world turns over and we are in a time with new rules.
The understory is the determined resistance to change of the grags, the Dwarf ‘Priesthood’ set on reversing history, of taking it back to where it once was, at the behest and for the benefit of a tiny group that are unable to accept the passage of time, who insist on darkness, ignorance and the gathering into their hands alone of anything that represents freedom.
It’s an apt juxtaposition of ideas: the onset of history versus the clinging past, the expansion of knowledge and freedom versus its contraction, and in both sides of the story the future wins hands down, as it was bound to do.
Which is the great flaw of Raising Steam. As I observed on a first reading, and which remains true in re-reading, there is simply no credible opposition in either part of the story. The Railway arrives whole and entire and everything falls into place for it. The Patrician makes the early point that he can stop everything in its tracks by bumping Dick Simnal off, but there’s no sense that he ever seriously intends to.
Instead, he puts Moist von Lipwig in charge of it, but the truth is that it’s a waste of Moist’s considerable confidence-man abilities when all he has to do is negotiate contracts with supposedly slippery land-owners. Moist’s not up against anyone with a serious interest in stopping the railway. Hell, he isn’t even needed to sell the sizzle because there’s just too damn much sausage to go round.
It’s a procession, and Moist is mainly a passenger on the footplate, watching the new world spring up around him, selling to itself without needing him to supply more than the occasional nudge in direction.
As for the grags, not even they are sturdy opposition. They begin by attacking clacks towers, putting themselves on the wrong side of everybody else immediately. They attack a wedding reception and kill the bride, which is like calling themselves Sir Jasper and twirling their moustaches. And even though they supposedly depose Rhys Rhysson, the Low King, when he’s a fortnight’s coach ride away, they are losers from the very moment they appear.
Because what they are is Racial Prejudice, naked and insupportable, the Ku Klux Klan, the National Front, locked into the confines of their own heads, a tiny, stupid fraction of ourselves that history will roll over, leaving not even a tidemark on the beach. There’s isn’t a moment’s doubt, not a second of tension over whether or not the bad guys can do it.
The biggest obstacle in the whole story is a bridge over a chasm, and ever since Making Money, Moist von Lipwig has the deus ex machina to end all deus ex machinas: the golden Golems.
It’s best to be honest. In so many ways, Raising Steam falls short of what we expect from Terry Pratchett. For a number of years, we’d been led to believe that Moist von Lipwig’s next appearance was to be in Raising Taxes, but I think that that had become a book beyond the capability of someone with Pratchett’s condition. Instead, we got the subject of a little boy’s dreams, Steam Engines, an altogether more adolescent and engagingly simpler subject.
But still we smile, and enjoy the book for what it continues to gets right. Best and biggest of all is that other irreversible step that comes at the end of the book, as Rhys Rhysson redeems the Dwarves by openly stating that he is not he but she: Rhys is female, she is Queen, not King, and she is with child. What was begun by Cheery Littlebottom as far back as Feet of Clay, is turned at the last by Terry Pratchett into a tide no more stoppable than the Railway. At a stroke, by dividing Dwarfdom into two visible genders, Rhys Rhysson unites it more powerfully as a single race than it has ever been before.
The Goblins, too, come into their own, after their moment on the stage in Snuff. They became of age and acceptance through music, beauty and art, but between books they have proved themselves naturals to the clacks industry, and the same goes for the Railways. The Goblins have not merely been emancipated, they have discovered their niche, and whilst we may allow ourselves a moment’s wincing at their apparent destiny as the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, they have succeeded in a glorious ascent from nowhere.
But what makes Raising Steam the book we will still welcome, despite its weaknesses, despite its over-reliance on Tell, and not Show, especially between Moist von Lipwig and the Patrician, is that it is still, mostly, written in the voice of Terry Pratchett. We hear Moist von Lipwig and we believe we are listening to Moist von Lipwig. We hear Havelock Vetinari, and we believe we are listening to Havelock Vetinari. The same goes for Sam Vimes and, to a lesser extent, the less familiar Harry King.
It is not so in Adora Belle Dearheart, who only in a few places is Spike.
But it is there often enough, and long enough, for us to hear and see, as it wasn’t in Judgement Day. As it isn’t, painfully so, in Terry Pratchett’s very last book.
After a gap of eight years, Terry Pratchett ventured one final time into popular science alongside Professors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, writing one final novella. And it’s just like the very first Science of Discworld book: too much science, far too little Discworld. The proportions are vastly out of balance to the dissatisfaction of all except those who buy the book for the Science.
I had trouble remembering whether I’d even re-read this book since buying it whilst staying with a mate in Shropshire. And yes, this was only my second reading of the Judgement Day novella, which is, frankly, dreadful.
For one thing, the actual story is terribly sketchy. Unseen University sets out to equip itself with a Great Big Thing and accidentally transfers Senior Librarian Marjorie Daw from England, Earth, Roundworld onto Discworld. Despite being a seriously sensible person, except for her Jimmy Choo shoes, she takes it completely in her stride, believing everything Ridcully tells her with the barest minimum of boggle.
Coincidentally, a backward-looking sect of the Church of Om that still believes Discworld is a Sphere, sues for ownership of Roundworld. Despite having nothing but their belief as evidence, the matter comes to ‘court’ in only two days, with the Patrician (behaving with improbable silliness) as the Judge. The Omnians have no evidence to produce, elevate their beliefs over facts and even refuse to listen when they’re directly contradicted by Om, and when judgement goes against them, they try to kidnap both Vetinari and Roundworld.
Marjorie goes running after the one with Roundworld, and is saved from decapitation by two naked women, which is what Captain Angua (in werewolf form) and Captain Sally (in horde of bats form) are presented as being in a deus ex machina moment that lacks any kind of inspiration (and which is a terribly sad final appearance from these characters). Then she’s sent back.
And that’s it. Save for the bit where the former Dean and Rincewind go for a trip to contemporary Roundworld to chat about it in extended chunks of narration, that’s the be-all and end-all of the story, but the worst of it comes in the realisation that nobody sounds right. Ridcully and Vetinari sound themselves in inconsistent flashes, but that’s about it. The chapter with Rincewind and the Dean is an extreme example of it: they don’t even sound as if they’re speaking human dialogue. It’s the sparky, witty, sharp-edged stuff Pratchett usually places between what the characters say to each other. It doesn’t sound real in what’s supposed to be a conversation, and it’s nowhere near sparky, witty or sharp-edged enough either.
As for Marjorie Daw herself, her every word is stiff and stilted and doesn’t sound like any sentences a human being would speak. She’s unreal from start to finish. And the bit I’ve already mentioned, with Angua and Sally, is not only perfunctory but contradictory of the pair’s relationship and background, not to mention coming over as cheap and demeaning.
What this story is about is religion, and about thought, belief and faith, the kind of faith indulged in by fanatics who will refute every bit of irrefutable evidence that they are wrong. In a sense, it’s a sequel to Small Gods, yet it’s hard to believe that this is by the same writer who wrote so brilliant a condemnation. Small Gods was a masterpiece of Show not Tell. Judgement Day is all Tell, and not even Tell but Editorialise.
People talk in Leader Columns and nobody has ever talked like that. They just don’t talk like people.
First time round, I read this and thought it just wasn’t good enough. Judgement Day followed the non-Discworld book, Dodger, which was prime Pratchett, surely evidence that he was being very successful in keeping his condition at bay. It was more Judgement Day‘s thinness that bothered me.
But I’ve spent months reading the Discworld series, one after another, reading them with a critical eye to what they are about, how they are framed, how Pratchett developed from one to the next. Reading a book in order to write about it is a vastly different experience from reading it solely for the pleasure it gives you.
Which is why the contrast – more than contrast, it’s a comprehensive fall – is so great, and so noticeable.
I enjoyed, but expressed concerns about Raising Steam when it appeared. I’m almost dreading re-reading it as the penultimate book.