In Praise of Pratchett: Raising Steam

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.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld 4 – Judgement Day

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.

In Praise of Pratchett: Snuff

Knowing what I know now, Snuff cannot be anything but a sad book. Above all the other Discworld books, I have loved and still love the City Watch stories with the deepest satisfaction, and Sam Vimes, with his determined, dedicated, decency and honesty, won every day by his self-policing, is the character I have grown to care about the most. And this is the end. This is where we part. This is the point beyond which there is nothing more.
Oh, I know he appears again in Raising Steam, but that is only the external Sam, the shell of the man. It’s not his book, and that is only one aspect of him portrayed there. And though other members of the Watch do appear, they are no more than tokens. Snuff is not a City Watch book, it is a Sam Vimes book.
It’s also, for me, the last unequivocally good Discworld book, and I say that not because of it being a Sam Vimes solo book. It has a clear and precise theme, and employs Vimes at his most effective, as the archetypal copper, hot for justice for all, as a public duty, and not as a private convenience. In this book, the two principles combine.
It’s a solo because Vimes, at long last, is going on holiday. Despite all his hopes, prayers and despairing longing for a major crisis, the combined efforts of Lady Sybil and Havelock Vetinari have gotten Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork, for a whole fortnight (negotiated down from a month), in the country at Sybil’s ancestral country house. Leaving aside the presence of Sybil, and Young Sam – a bubbling, enthusiastic six-year old with a fascination for poo that might already shape his future career – it’s going to be hell.
But this is a classic example of the adage about you can take the man out of the copshop but you can’t take the copshop out of the man (not the original adage, of course, but an apt translation). Sam’s desperately out of place, out of his depth. All his antennae are tuned to the City. But that still leaves him attuned to human nature, so it’s easy to spot that something’s up.
All it takes is Vimes’ old enemy, Lord Rust, now ancient and wasted in a wheelchair, still arrogant and invincibly stupid though surprisingly warm towards Sam, to make an overly casual remark about there being no crime around here for Vimes to find, and the chase is on.
What there is going on is smuggling, of which the Patrician was well aware before his Watch Commander went for a holiday in the country. Except that this is not the ordinary run of smuggling, that Vetinari allows to encourage enterprise and invention, not to mention the safety-valve of small victories. This smuggling is by the local gentry: the landed, the rich, the lords, the local Magistrates, convinced that their superiority entitles them to ignore the Law, to operate their own law: privilege: private law.
If there was ever a man to bust up that kind of thinking, it’s Sam Vimes, but before he can do it he has to face a cheap frame for murder and the misguided goodwill of Feeny Upshott, the Law’s local representative, whom Vimes tutors rapidly even as he addresses him at all times, mostly sarcastically, as Chief Constable.
But there’s a bigger crime going on, an entirely bigger crime, both before and during the book, and it is this that forms the heart of Snuff, and it is again Redemption.
It’s a recurring theme through these final books, the novels written under the shadow. Once Pratchett learned that there was now a time limit, it is as if his mind concentrated upon the need to bring everyone into the fold, into the common wold of what, in Discworld has had to be a very broad definition of Humanity.
In Unseen Academicals it was Mr Nutt, the orc. In Snuff it is the Goblins. A race of people standing somewhere off to one side, universally despised as dirty, thieving, ugly, sub-subhuman. A race of people who don’t count, who are treated as vermin, who have been treated as such for so long that they have long since believed it themselves. In the bucolic, beautiful countryside they have been massacred and they have been enslaved to serve the smuggling business. And only a tiny, insignificant handful care, most of them not enough.
But the Goblins have beautiful, poetic, allegorical names for themselves. They create exquisite, incredibly fragile ceramics of intimate significance to their own, near-hidden religion. And they can make music that makes the heart weep, even that of Sam Vimes.
Much has to be done, before he can get to the end of this web of crimes, for killing Goblins and enslaving them has to become a crime in Sam Vimes’ world, even if the Law hasn’t caught up to that fact yet. There’ll be a hellride on a swollen river, guiding stolen barges full of Goblin slaves in the pitch dark, a sea-chase, the practical overturning of the entire Police force of Quirm, and one of Pratchett’s heedless psychopaths, intent on murdering Young Sam, and meeting his match at the hands of the world’s most street-wise Gentleman’s Gentleman (not a case for Jeeves, this one) before it comes out in the end.
And it comes out in the end because of Lady Sybil, as implacable, as dedicated, as straight, decent, honest and unable not to do the right thing as her husband. Lady Sybil organises a concert, a thirty minute piece played on the harp by a goblin girl. And the world changes, and Goblins become people in a glorious uplift that makes us want to believe that Prejudice and Hatred really can be overcome so easily in making our world, the round one, an incalculably better place.
As I said, Redemption. The local gentry are brought down, their selfish greediness, their belief in their own superiority undermined by Vimes and the real Law, the only Law. But the stupid woman who stands as representative of them, Mrs Colonel, can be redeemed from a distance by the fact that the Colonel, a splendid, dry old stick, a veteran, still loves her after forty five years.
And even Lord Rust, the fool of aristocratic fools, is allowed redemption. It is his son and heir who is behind the whole scheme, but Rust does not plead for these misdemeanours to be overlooked. In dignified manner, he accepts them as a crime, as an unredeemable shame on the family’s name, requiring reparation. All he pleads for is the clemency of exile, for the disinherited heir to go to FourEcks and expiate his crimes.
And Rust commends Vimes as a decent, honourable man, who has acted honourably and in true accord with his duty.
A beautiful book, an expansive book, a crying shame. Vimes does appear again in Raising Steam, in fact plays almost as large a part as Moist von Lipwig, but as I will say, that’s not the true Sam, the interior Sam. His story ends here, with Sybil and Young Sam, and what they go on to be and do can only be found in our own imaginations. Which, over thirty years, were constantly proven to be vastly inferior to those of Sir Terrance David John Pratchett.

In Praise of Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

There was no Discworld book in 2008, Pratchett taking that year off to publish Nation. For those concerned as to the potential effect of his Alzheimer’s, this was a splendid rebuff, for Nation  was one of the finest books Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and if it had been the only book he had ever written, he would still be entitled to be regarded as a first-rank author.
We returned to Discworld the following year with Unseen Academicals, a story bringing together the Faculty, social growth and change and the sport of football. On a first reading, I thought this book was one of the all round funniest Discworld books in years, though part of that could be attributed to my desperate need for humour and lightness in a time of great upheaval and depression.
What’s certain about this book is that it’s a much smaller and more personal matter than any book for quite some time. Pratchett has been dealing, in one form or other, with great social themes for a very long time, and whilst that aspect isn’t entirely ignored herein, a book whose major concerns are the fashion industry, street football and the personal relationships of two young couples is something of a holiday.
Where Unseen Academicals does line up with Pratchett’s more ‘traditional’ concerns, it is in the small, seemingly helpless form of Mr Nutt, of who, or rather what he is, and upon his absorption into the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork.
Mr Nutt is, as we discover about two-thirds of the way through the story, an Orc. That, in itself, is a very specific borrowing from Tolkien, unusual in Pratchett’s work (when approached on a serious level): his interpretations of fantasy have otherwise always stuck to the traditional characters of oral storytelling history.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Orcs were an invented race, akin to the Goblins, a corruption of the Elves into nasty, brutish, violent, hateful and irredeemable creatures: they are damned as a race in a manner that we would nowadays equate with racial prejudice, except that they are specified as a race deliberately corrupted to be such things.
Such things don’t exist in Pratchett and Discworld. Nothing and no-one is beyond redemption, and the last years of his life and fiction revolved around the bringing of outcasts into the brilliant circle of reasonable and responsible life, as functioning citizens who are ‘just like us’, to put it very crudely. Orcs are hated and feared in Discworld as they are in Middle-Earth, and the consensus is that such few of them as are now discovered to have escaped extermination should be wiped out, finally.
But there is Mr Nutt. He is a candle dribbler, a quite specialised albeit ultra-lowly position at Unseen University. He is small, skinny, fearful, yet highly, almost excessively competent and intelligent, whilst being ignorant in most respects of ordinary life. There is a mystery about him from the start, known to only a few: he comes from Uberwald, where he was once chained to an anvil for seven years until freed by Pastor Oats (the Omnian priest of Carpe Jugulum), he is a ward of Lady Margolotta and in Ankh-Morpork only Lord Vetinari and Archchancellor Ridcully know what he really is.
Though the mystery intrigues, by the time we are let in on Nutt’s nature, we have seen enough for us to see him as Nutt, not a crazed, indefatigable, destructive killing machine. His frantic need to accumulate worth is gradually growing into an acceptance of having worth, he’s a deep thinker, quoting continually from all the best German philosophers, and he’s training the Unseen Academicals, the University’s revived football team, to take on a joint Ankh-Morpork side in a game that’s assumed the dimensions of a social test. But more of that later.
What bemuses me somewhat is that, whilst the idea is great and glorious, it’s also a curiously narrow and private idea. We’ve gotten used, down the years, to Discworld being a funhouse mirror, in which the distorted reflections of our own society create far more revealing and fundamental portraits of what is wrong about the way we live.
We’ve seen dwarves, trolls, even vampires find a place in a society that reflects our own, inner need for things to stay the same and be recognisable, and to learn from those who are different in order that we continue to grow. The redemption of the Orcs via Mr Nutt is a metaphor for tolerance and understanding, but it’s entirely too personal. The Orcs are just too extreme a race to reflect ourselves: we don’t recognise in them aspects of ourselves that we need to learn to deal with. And they are too much a private conception, they belong to Tolkien in exactly the way that everybody else belongs to Humanity’s collective consciousness. It’s not long enough since The Lord of the Rings was first published for them to have disassociated themselves into the collective mythology.
I’m not decrying the story, but I don’t think it has the universality that Pratchett wanted for it.
Nor am I wholly convinced by the story’s upfront theme. So far, Discworld has never seriously subscribed to the idea of sport, at least not as something for the unwashed masses to become involved in. The nobs, the movers and shakers, that’s a bit different. So you can say that in introducing football, Pratchett is for once operating on a very democratic level.
In essence, the story is this: Ponder Stibbins, in his new role as Master of the Traditions, discovers that it is imperative that the Wizards play a football match within a very short space of time or lose a bequest that funds 87% of their food bills. Facing the threat of a cheeseboard with, at most, three choices, the Wizards decide to play.
At the same time, the Patrician has decided that it’s time to absorb football officially into the life of the city, despite his personal aversion to it. It’s supposed to be banned, but as long as it keeps to the side streets, a blind eye (though not an uninformed one) is turned.
But this is not football as we know it. It’s a street game for indefinite numbers, a pushing, shoving, clogging business that’s closer to fighting than football, in which the ball is rarely seen by anyone, least of all the spectators, and which Trev Lively’s late Dad, Dave (who was kicked to death in a game) is an imperishable hero for his unheard of lifetime achievement: Dave Lively scored four goals.
What football is about is The Shove, the packing of the street by the masses, crammed in, surging to-and-fro, hither-and-yon, come together in a mass mind, if mind it be called. It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty brutal, but the point is made, more than once by one of the book’s three main viewpoint characters, the Night Kitchen cook Glenda Sugarbean, that it’s by and for and of the people: it’s their own thing, created without influence or order from those above who believe the common people to be incapable of running their own lives.
Because Vetinari is about taming football, domesticating it, turning into something resembling the early days of Nineteenth Century football: a better game, a better spectacle, but defanged: better for the lower classes. It’s an unusual viewpoint for Pratchett to allow, and it’s one for which he has no answer, save for the practical one that the Patrician is a Tyrant (and besides, some kind of football Goddess also has a vested interest in this).
Between this unanswerable point, and the inexorable adaptation of Vetinari’s new Football, there’s a curious dichotomy that undercuts the book. It’s compounded for me by the fact that, though he can write with understanding about allegiances and their competing natures, I don’t get the feeling that Pratchett likes Football or, deep down, understands it as we fans understand it. He feels much more at home with Vetinari’s caustic denunciation of all physical activity, early in the book, than with the game itself.
All of the above deals primarily with the abstract themes in the story, and yet the book remains more a story of private concerns, which is down to the four, seemingly insignificant people at its heart, who bridge both strands and keep them related.
I’ve already mentioned Mr Nutt, Trev Likely and Gloria Sugarbean, and the fourth of these is Juliet Stollop, aka both Jools and Jewels. Nutt we know about. Trev is his workmate and, technically, superior, but he’s a lazy sod, a likely lad, and street-wise kid, but without any evil in him, not like his fellow fan, Andy Shank.
Gloria knows Trev well. She’s a cook, a very gifted cook, as she needs to be because she’s also very fat: not Agnes Nitt fat but enough to make her sexless, as in who’d-want-to-do-it-with-her? She’s very common-sensical, very practical, and she’s also a crab bucket, though at first she doesn’t know it, then doesn’t understand it, but when she gets her head around what it means, she’s smart enough to change.
She’s best friends with Juliet, who also works in the Night Kitchen. Juliet, in complete contrast, is a gorgeous, tall, slim, long-legged, blonde-haired knock-out. She’s also pretty dumb with it, her head filled with the Discworld equivalent of Hello and OK. Juliet is a natural model, a role that she discovers by chance when she’s picked out by the Disc’s first great fashion designer, Pepe. He’s the one who calls Glenda a crab bucket, not directly as such, but rather as being the product of a crab bucket.
And slowly, Glenda realises what that means, and how she is one, and that whilst Juliet is never going to become an intellectual, the main reason she’s as hopeless as she is is that whenever she struggled at anything, Glenda didn’t act like a friend and show her how to do it, she acted like a mother and took it off her and did it for her.
But Juliet’s found her niche, and Trev’s in love and wants to live up to her, and Glenda’s insistence on being helpful has done much for Nutt’s worthiness, so much that four friends become two couples (though without anything more raunchy than hand-holding for Glenda, which may be just as well, given that Nutt is, after all, an Orc, but Glenda’s still a fat girl. Only the normal sized Trev and Juliet get to kiss. Sex just isn’t a thing in Discworld, it’s somewhere locked, barred and bolted away, only allowed for those who are physically normal).
So there are three things in one in Unseen Academicals, even if a couple of them don’t quite add up. And Pratchett does get in one shot that is firmly on his best form: Tolkien’s Orcs were corrupted from his Elves, but Pratchett’s are corrupted from Men: no other species could have that viciousness and imaginative cruelty inherent in them to begin with.
One final point, one thing that, for me, stuck out and worried me as to the possibility Pratchett’s Alzheimers was already affecting him. I mentioned Andy Shank. He’s another in Pratchett’s seemingly unending line of bastards, cruel, bullying, tormenting bastards, vicious and violent and unhinged. Andy’s a psychopath, one of those who prods and pushes and taunts and drives others into snapping,  but who is always innocent. There is no reasoning with him, no lever with which to divert him. Like others in the series, he can only be stopped by being put down, and this is made explicit, several times.
But all Pratchett does, in a sequence of false endings in homage to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s most famous line, is send a harder man after him to blind him. The unstoppable Andy lives, and that’s so not Pratchett, so not Discworld at all. It’s a soft ending in a series never afraid of hard endings. It was a palpable doubt.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Truth

A lot of fuss was made about The Truth being the twenty-fifth Discworld, to the extent that it’s emblazoned on the cover of the book via a silver banner. Actually, though the whole thing is a little on the crass side, and introduces a wholly inappropriate never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width element to things, there are grounds to boast.
As I have observed before, had you told me in 1986 that any writer would start a series of very funny books and that, after twenty-five volumes at a general rate of two a year, they would not only still be good but would be getting even better as they went along, I would have treated your claim as a bigger laugh than anything Terry Pratchett could ever come up with.
We know now that there was a glorious exception to the Law of Diminishing Returns.
The Truth is something of an oddity. My instinct is always to treat it as a non-series book, although it is all but half a City Watch volume, and the plot turns on another plot to oust the Patrician, for the good of the City, or at least for the good of that exceedingly tiny section of the City that consists of self-entitled, aristocratic bastards.
But whilst William de Worde, estranged heir to Lord de Worde, letter-writer to the politically interested, and chip off the old block is the centre of this book, I find it noticeable that the institution he founds within these pages lives on and thrives and grows, but Pratchett rarely brings William onscreen in any other book.
Partly, that’s because in writing The Truth, Pratchett got so thoroughly under de Worde’s skin that he left nothing new to say, and partly because there isn’t all that much to William de Worde, because he’s essentially a vehicle for the true heart of this story: the Press, the Fourth Estate, the Truth, in both abstract and concrete form.
When we first meet William, he’s a man without purpose, an outcast from family and class (though not cast so far that, when the occasion demands it, he can’t revert entirely to their type to a degree that’s frightening, especially in the hero). He gets by by writing newsletters for various personages, such as Lady Margolotta in Uberwald and King Verence in Lancre.
It’s a going nowhere life that could go on forever, but William finds himself struck by an Idea whose time has come: literally – he is run down by a dwarf-constructed printing press. Yes, despite the tradition of opposition, Print is on the up and up, and this time Lord Vetinari is minded to allow the experiment. It’s all a part of what will become a tremendous surge by Ankh-Morpork towards an era more closely resembling our own – as witness the off-stage invention of clacks towers in The Fifth Elephant, simulating e-mail in a more corporeal form. And besides, if things go wahoonie-shaped, William de Worde will find himself responsible for everything.
The subject is an obvious one for former journalist Pratchett, and his enthusiasm shows through all the newspaper elements. There’s no practical opposition to the idea of the Press, despite the feelings of the Wizards, the Priests and the Guild of Engravers, and the only attempt to stop a newspaper gaining ground is the introduction of a rival, which clearly represents the tabloids, because it doesn’t contain a scrap of truth – its only journalist is C.M.O.T Dibbler, need anyone say more?
What seems to upset people most, and this goes all the way as far as Sam Vimes, is that de Worde and the Ankh-Morpork Times is beholden to no-one and nothing except this concept of the Truth. That’s very much the journalist’s idealisation of himself and his profession, and it’s a good idealisation, much unpracticed in our fallen world, but Pratchett is canny enough to allow Vimes a comment that subtly harks back to Baldwin’s attacks on Rothermere and Beaverbrook in the Thirties.
And Vimes is right. Just who is de Worde answerable to in his pursuit of the Truth? The answer is, of course, no-one. Just as no-one permits or allows or tells him what to put in his newspaper, which is exactly as it should be, no-one exists to stop him, or to demand an account of him. For the thing about the Truth is that, in this book, it’s William de Worde’s definition of the Truth that counts.
And as long as he’s pursuing pure facts, if ever facts can be said to be pure, that’s as well as may be. But one person’s Truth is another person’s prejudice, to put it bluntly, and we see by the end that William is a true scion of the forces that gather in this book to order Ankh-Morpork to their liking. I’m not sure I totally trust him after that, and if Sam Vimes had seen the scene between William and his father, he sure as hell wouldn’t either.
In order to give The Truth a dramatic spine, Pratchett falls back on the by now familiar trope of trying to overthrow the Patrician. Anyone with half an eye can see from the outset that the plot is a frame-up, but instead of watching the Watch stumble towards the exposure of the plot, they are shifted out of the centre of the story to enable de Worde and his small band dig out the truth (can’t escape that word) of what happened.
The plot turns on the somewhat cliched production of a double for Lord Vetinari. Everything around it is deliberately dodgy and doubtful, but those who intend to take advantage are very happy to turn a blind eye to the illogicality of the ‘facts’ and once a new Patrician is elected, the Watch will be neutered by the very Authority that gives it authority. Hence the need for a Free Press.
Overall, The Truth is yet another fine book, and another angry one. Pratchett’s hatred of the aristocracy is tempered and directed and he’s never guilty of reaching for the broadsword when he has so many finely-tipped stilettos, and from here onwards, Ankh-Morpork will modernise in great leaps and bounds.
But there’s a certain hollowness to the book, which comes from it being too much about an Idea and not enough about a person. William de Worde is ultimately too designed to Pratchett’s theme to have proper life in him. It’s significant that in later books, the Times will primarily be represented on the page by William’s chief reporter and deputy editor Saccharissa Cripslock (who retains her maiden name professionally) and the vampire photographer, Otto Chriek, painter viz light.
One further thing to mention, and that’s the hands-on villains, the New Firm, alias Mr Pin and Mr Tulip. Much as I like their vivid portrayal, I cannot read them without thinking of Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and in particular the splendid performances in the TV version, by Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell. Both pairs of villains are fantastic creations.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Fifth Elephant

To be honest, the title’s a bit naff. The Fifth Elephant is a pun on the then-current and popular film, The Fifth Element, and is enough of a gimme in Discworld terms as to be irresistible, but Pratchett is then left with the necessity of inserting something in the story that justifies the title, and whilst he comes up with something, it’s too much of an obvious contrivance to ever settle in place, and it’s rather too much of a MacGuffin to ever feel natural.
The Fifth Elephant sees us back to the City Watch, only not so much as before. Though the book makes plenty of room for the rest of the Watch to strut their stuff, and Sam Vimes is still only primus inter pares, this is where the subtle shift in the City Watch books starts. The next book will be Sam Vimes alone, more or less, and the sub-series becomes ever more focussed upon its Commander, His Grace, His Excellency, Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh.
Having brought Uberwald to Lancre, Pratchett now takes his crew to the dark land itself. On the surface, which is where Vimes prefers to stand, it’s nothing more than sending a Diplomatic Representative of Ankh-Morpork to the Coronation of the Low King, the King of the Dwarves. Why it should be Vimes is a mystery to the Duke, whose brush with diplomacy in Jingo has left him convinced he wants nothing of it.
But Lady Sybil believes in him, not to mention the idea of getting Sam out of Ankh-Morpork for some time, and you and I know that if the Patrician considers Vimes to be the right person for the job, then there’s something pretty nasty going on somewhere.
Which there is. Not to put too fine a point on it, Uberwald is dominated by a tripartite arrangement between the Dwarves, the Vampires and the Werewolves (the humans don’t count). It’s not so much an alliance as an armed neutrality where for long decades (centuries?) no side has been prepared to upset the applecart. Only, with Vimes on his way, it’s easy to guess that somebody has reached that point.
All is not well below ground. The wrong, or at any rate unexpected dwarf has been elected Low King, Rhys Rhysson of Llamedos, instead of the traditionalist Albrecht Albrechtson, who represents the powerful but backward-looking faction that fears the influence of Ankh-Morpork and the changes it has wrought on the dwarves that live there. Though it’s being kept quiet (though not quiet enough for Vimes’s perceptions), the Scone of Stone – upon which the Low King must be seated to be crowned, to have true legitimacy – has been stolen.
In time, we find out that this is all part of a plot between the Deepdown faction of the dwarves and the Werewolves, not the Baron himself but his son, Wolfgang, an incredibly strong, charismatic and heedless werewolf, who sees and recognises no rules. Oh, and he’s also Sergeant Angua’s brother.
Which brings us to another thing.
Pratchett cleverly divides his story into three strands. The first is Vimes, on his mission to the town of Bonk (pronounced Beryonk) in Uberwald, accompanied by Cheery Littlebottom, Detritus and Lady Sybil, plus an overly innocuous clerk sent by Lord Vetinari, one Inigo Skimmer, who will prove to be both a spy and an Assassin. Vimes investigates the crimes, is framed for at attempt on Rhys Rhysson’s life, fights for his life.
But at the same time, there’s Carrot, and Angua. News of what is going on back home is brought to Angua by a wolf who goes by the name of Gavin, and who is implied to be a rival for Angua’s attention. The news causes Angua to head home: she, of all her family, can best Wolfgang, and it’s pretty clear that she’s going to need to. Her message of departure causes Carrot to resign from the Watch (though the Patrician elects to regard this as extended leave) to follow her. As guide, and translator, he takes Gaspode the Wonder Dog.
This is a very interesting section of the story. Though Carrot starts as Carrot, the hyper-efficient, preternaturally nice and polite not-King we know him as, this only lasts until he is well within the snows of Uberwald, and in need of the assistance of Angua, Gavin and the wolf pack that the latter dominates. From this point on, Carrot appears to be uncomprehending and slow. It is Angua who is in her element, in exactly the way Carrot is in Ankh-Morpork, and he is the stranger in the city.
And when it comes to the inevitable fight with Wolfgang, it is Carrot who is beaten, ridiculously quickly and destructively, totally out of his depth. And Gavin the wolf who proves better suited to dealing with Wolfgang the werewolf, sacrificing himself to neutralise Wolfgang’s present danger.
But he still sacrifices himself, removing any possibility of choice from the equation (not that, at that point, the choice was there, or rather that it had already been made, a point Pratchett does not make even the least overt gesture towards, leaving it to the readers to work it out for themselves).
And once Gavin is gone, out of the way, Carrot suddenly masters everything and everyone in Uberwald, including the wolf pack itself, restoring his unconscious position at the top of every heap going.
What’s fascinating to observe is how Pratchett alters his distancing technique in this strand. We still only and ever see Carrot from outside, having him interpreted for us by other characters. But this time, Angua’s not there to do it. Gaspode isn’t just required as a translator, not to mention as a glorious comic creation in himself, he stands as our external interpreter for Carrot. And Pratchett is brilliant for then extending Gaspode’s function to Angua, once she comes back into the story.
We do not see inside her head as we normally do. This is an external portrayal, of Carrot and Angua, and by pitching it at Gaspode’s eye level, Pratchett enables himself to say an awful lot without ever overtly saying a thing.
The third strand is the purely comic one. It’s essentially irrelevant to the plot but it’s a rigorously essential development of it. With Vimes in Uberwald and Carrot resigned, the Watch needs a senior officer to run it, and when it comes to seniority, there’s nobody to beat Fred Colon. Who has about as much ability to cope with officering as a snowflake has in coping with a blowtorch.
The speed, precipitousness and inevitability with which things go downhill is hilarious. It’s also a backhand compliment to both Vimes and Carrot in showing how important both are to the ever-growing City Watch.
But the greatest element of The Fifth Elephant comes in watching the further growth of Sam Vimes, who takes to diplomacy like a duck takes to orange sauce, providing his own special flavour to the mix. I can’t remember, exactly, when I decided that the Discworld series, if it ended, should end with Vimes succeeding to the Patricianship, but if it wasn’t before The Fifth Elephant, it certainly was now.
There is one further thing I want to mention, that comes over in this book. When it comes to the Watch, Sam Vimes and Carrot Ironfoundersson are the two principals, the ideals (to a given quantity of ideal) that we look up to. Pratchett, deliberately or otherwise, gives both a hard time in this book on the same ground, their relationship with their ladies.
Carrot’s is the lesser of the two, necessarily because we not only never see into his head but also because here we never see into Angua’s head. Carrot has many idealised qualities, and Pratchett is pretty clear, to his readers, that Carrot knows exactly what he is doing and that he’s working on a very much deeper level than he appears to be. He loves Angua, and the moment he learns she’s left, he goes after her, abandoning the City that, at heart, he probably loves more.
And he gets his way. She comes back with him, without any overt manipulation. But in his sometimes deliberate seeming obtuseness, about who she is, about what she does and needs, he sometimes comes over as unconcerned as to her needs. There are echoes of it in The Fifth Element, never clear enough for us to accuse him of manipulation, but Pratchett does still point out that Carrot always gets what he personally wants, to the full extent that a manipulator would be seeking.
But Pratchett does include one moment that demonstrates the depth of Carrot’s feelings to Angua in a way that means more to her than any declaration. Angua knows what it means to be a werewolf like no other person can, certainly beyond Carrot’s sensibilities. Ultimately, she is what she is and she can only live that way because of self-control. Faced with her brother’s example, she demands from Carrot, and gets, the ultimate promise: that if she ever falls, like Wolfgang, it will be he who ends it.
It’s a moment that simultaneously chills and warms.
That aside, Carrot’s deficiencies seems more alive to me in this book rather than others because I am already aware, from the early part of the book, that Sam Vimes is a bad husband.
It’s all over the first half of the book. Vimes may love Sybil in his way but, just like Carrot, he loves Ankh-Morpork more. The Policeman in his soul doesn’t leave enough room for love for a woman. At every turn, Sam will ignore and neglect Sybil in favour of what he calls his duties, but which are really an excuse to be Copper. This is exemplified by the fact that Sybil takes practically the whole book to tell Sam that she is pregnant, because he never listens, and is off on things more exciting at a moment’s notice.
Hell’s bells, Pratchett even comes out and says it explicitly, in a short but truly painful scene where Sybil, alone of course, folds clothes and muses to herself, in that altogether human way of making light of things that are too deep to be borne, about how lucky she is, compared to other wives in her extensive family tree.
Yet, though it’s done the hard way, Vimes learns for himself how badly he has performed. His love for Sybil is unstated but strong, and his fears when imprisoned are for her rather than him, but it is the news that they are to be parents that resets the balance, and begins the time when Sam Vimes becomes a true husband to his wife. We will see this more than ever in the next City Watch book, the incomparable Night Watch, but without The Fifth Elephant, that book could not have been what it is, and we would be so much poorer for that.

In Praise of Pratchett: Jingo

The bigger the subject, the bigger the book. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett dealt with Gods and Religion: in Jingo, as I knew from the moment I heard the title long in advance, his subject was War, and his chosen vehicle in which to approach it was Sam Vimes and the City Watch.
I don’t know how familiar people are, nowadays, with the word Jingoism. It’s been in currency for over a century and a half, but I get the feeling that it’s now becoming obsolete – the word, that is, not the sentiment is expresses. It came out of the bellicose attitude of the British public towards war with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula, which represented itself in a popular Music Hall song: We don’t want to fight but, by jingo, if we do/we’ve got the men, we’ve got the arms, we’ve got the money too.
Jingoism: the overwhelming enthusiasm of people to get stuck into a war in which other people will be the ones being shot at.
In Jingo, the cassus belli is the island of Leshp, suddenly re-emerging in the middle of the Circle Sea (with appropriately Lovecraftian designs all over its seaweed shrouded buildings) and of immense strategic importance to both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch (a suitably Arabian/Muslim kind of desert-based empire).
Once Leshp re-appears, even though it’s worth bugger all in practical terms, war is in the air, especially among the ordinary people of Ankh-Morpork and the aristocracy, as represented by Lord Rust, who are naturally the ones who will conduct this violent clash on a basis of outdated assumptions, open racial prejudice and innate, deep-lying utter stupidity.
The whole thing worries and frustrates Sir Samuel Vimes, Watch Commander and reluctant Gentleman, especially when he starts getting dragged into diplomatic meetings with Prince Khufurah and his right-hand man, 71-Hour Ahmed. Vimes decides not to be diplomatic, since he suspects that it’s all a front by extremely clever adversaries to deliberately play along with assumptions and under-estimations, and Vimesy is dead right to think this way. Right up until a nearly-successful assassination attempt on the Prince, which precipitates the conflict everyone’s been anticipating and wanting.
Military Law under Rust displaces the Patrician, not that Lord Vetinari has any intention of letting that cramp his style, heading off to Klatch in a submarine with its designer, Leonard of Quirm, and two specially selected impressed assistants, Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs.
Meanwhile, Vimes resigns when the watch is superceded, only to return at the head of his own private Army, composed of the City’s Watchmen. Indeed, when Angua is taken, in wolf-form, by 71-Hour Ahmed, Vimes gives way to his inmost instincts and sets off in pursuit, precipitating the Ankh-Morpork invasion of Klatch.
But there are wheels, and wheels, and yet more wheels, as the various forces go to a very unusual War, which only seems to end when Vimes reaches the apotheosis of his career and arrests both Armies, and their Commanders, for Breach of the Peace!
Needless to say, the true victor in this turns out to be the Patrician, who calmly outmanoeuvres everyone to bring Ankh-Morpork out on top, with the minimum of bloodshed.
There is so much to admire and relish in this book. Pratchett introduces the Trousers of Time to illustrate the two, competing futures that could apply to this stramash.
To be perfectly honest, whilst I appreciate the concept, and whilst Pratchett manipulates it to great effect in this book, culminating with a steady, and steadily intensifying list of deaths of Watchmen – up to and ending with Captain Carrot – that is utterly horrifying and claustrophobic, I do not and never have accepted the name. At the time Jingo was published, I was still avidly collecting Robert Rankin with the same fervour as Pratchett, and all my instincts tell me that the Trousers of Time are a Robert Rankin concept: the words just do not feel right for Discworld.
Be that as it may, there is so much in Jingo to admire, to amuse and to enthuse over that, to properly look at all of it would require a review at least as long as the book, and considerably less interesting. Just go and read it, which I expect the vast majority of you already have.
I’d simply like to turn back to Vimes, at this stage. He’d always been the centre of the City Watch books, but in Jingo he shows the first signs of breaking away from the pack, as it were, and coming to dominate the series individually, a process that would be almost made formal by the next City Watch story. Here, he is quite plainly Pratchett’s voice, confronting the idea of War, the idea of deliberately planning to slaughter great numbers of men with that mix of anger and incredulity that is Vimes’ own and which he takes directly from his maker.
Though he’s a nominal gentleman, by Lord Vetinari’s creation, Vimes simply does not understand the mentality of gentlemen surrounding him, least of all the supercilious, condescending Lord Rust. And yet, though he cannot comprehend them from the inside, he understands them only too well from the outside. And, being Vimes, he is only too wily and too happy to subvert their mores by following the rules, a walking reductio ad absurdum.
But, as I’ve said, Vimes’ notion of War remains that of the Policeman. He is, from his very core, a Thief-taker, and thief-takers are and must be civilians. For the people, but most of all of the people.
In other aspects of this book, Angua’s ambivalence over her relationship with Carrot is still in evidence, though she is much more settled, perhaps resigned, to her love for him. Pratchett takes the opportunity to reinforce our external impressions of Carrot by separating the pair at an early stage in the narrative, leaving the role of commentator to Vimes himself.
It’s something I haven’t had an opportunity to make much of in these reviews, but Carrot is an extraordinary creation, and his performance – and especially his ability to so rapidly become intimately a part of any environment, however alien, whilst simultaneously rising above it – is in full flow here, especially in the desert sequences, where Pratchett’s Holy Innocent practically becomes a D’Reg overnight. It’s a subtle reminder that Carrot is the perfect King, and by implication an example of the danger he himself stated in an earlier book, the absolute danger of a Good King.
Elsewhere, I’ve nominated Night Watch as the best Discworld book, and that’s an opinion I will never vary from, and which I will expand upon once we get to that point. It’s number 1 in a Top One, but I’d be on much less confident grounds trying to formulate a Top Five.
For what they say that is beyond the simplicity of humour, Jingo would have to join Small Gods in any such list. Especially if you accept Carrot’s maxim that Personal is not the same as important.